Disney’s latest live action remake continues its trend of disappointing rehashes
By Diana Beechener
Since she was a little girl, Mulan (Yifei Liu: Hanson and the Beast) has felt the pull of the blade. Gifted with an abundance of qi, or energy which flows through our bodies and the earth, as a child Mulan is able to perform gravity-defying feats and whip-quick staff moves. She bounces from statues and rooftops, flipping around as she chases chickens to help her family.
But her natural gifts make her a pariah in her small village. Women are not supposed to be warriors, they’re supposed to be wives. Though her father recognizes her gift, he encourages Mulan to hide her abilities and embrace the role of wife and mother. Forcing herself into a role that doesn’t feel natural and denying her intrinsic power leads to disaster and Mulan is thought to bring dishonor to her family by not exceling at the feminine arts.
Mulan’s disgrace is short-lived, however, when nomadic Rouran tribes invade China and threaten the empire. The tribes have a terrifying sorceress (Li Gong: Leap) on their side: a woman who mastered qi and was reviled by her people for her abilities. Now she and the Rourans seek to destroy those who harmed them. Terrified for his people, the Emperor (Jet Li: League of Gods) orders the formation of a massive army, drafting a male from each family in the land. Mulan’s father, a wounded veteran of the previous war, must serve for his family, as he has only daughters.
…Or so he thought.
Refusing to allow her weakened father to die, Mulan takes his place, masquerading as a son and joining the army in his name. Though she’s finally doing what she has always wanted, something is holding her back. Lying about her identity is affecting her ability to harness her qi, but if Mulan reveals her gender to her fellow soldiers, she will be executed and her family dishonored.
Can Mulan be true to herself? Or is she a victim of a patriarchal society that would quash a woman’s gifts?
Beautifully shot, loaded with excellent actors, and featuring a sweeping score, Mulan is a beautiful, frustrating film. Director Niki Caro (The Zookeeper’s Wife) admirably wanted to move away from a direct remake of the Disney animated film. Caro wanted her version of the film to be based upon the traditional legend, but it uses the Disney animated movie as a crutch. Caro changes the tone of the film, aiming for a more serious, contemplative girl power drama, but she can’t resist referencing the Disney animation. It’s a terrible tonal decision that finds jokes from the ‘90s movie shoehorned into dramatic scenes. There’s even a character named Cricket, who serves as a good luck charm to the troop; it’s frankly distracting to be reminded of the original so often in a movie that seems to want to make its own way.
It’s a shame, because cinematographer Mandy Walker (The Mountain Between Us) crafts some truly stunning images. She manages to reference Hong Kong action film tropes as well as the sweeping landscapes used in epic dramas. The CGI is spotty at times, but Walker’s camera work is reliably brilliant throughout the film.
The movie also boasts a phenomenal cast, including Jet Li, Li Gong, Donnie Yen and Rosalind Chao, but fails to allow them to live up to their potential. The movie is so concerned with its earnest message, it doesn’t give its characters room to breathe. Instead of feeling like people, everyone surrounding Mulan feels like Non-Playable Characters in a video game – they only exist to move Mulan along her quest.
But the real problem in Mulan lies in her hero’s journey. By giving Mulan the power of qi, which renders her basically a superhero, the film doesn’t give her much to struggle against. She doesn’t need to learn how to fight. She doesn’t need to learn to work with her fellow soldiers to accomplish a goal. She just needs to stop concealing her power and embrace it. This makes the film less a live-action retelling of the Mulan and more like a live-action retelling of Frozen.
The base message of embracing yourself is an excellent lesson, but it’s muddled by turning Mulan into a superhero origin story. It’s beautifully shot, and Liu is a great find with plenty of charisma, but ultimately Disney once again fails to capture the magic of their animated tales in a live action remake.
The film is available for $30 from Disney+, which is a bargain if you’re still socially distancing and need to entertain a family for the night. But if you’re not desperate for entertainment, wait until December to screen Mulan when it becomes available for free to all Disney+ subscribers. The film will be more enjoyable without shelling out movie theater prices.
Fair Drama * PG-13 * 115 mins.