One of Disney’s greatest decades in animation was the 1990’s with classics like The Lion King (1994), Aladdin (1992), and Beauty and the Beast (1991). For me, one of my favorite films during this time was 1998’s Mulan, and now, Mulan has taken its place as the most recent of the 90’s Disney lineup to receive a live-action treatment. Despite the controversies, it not being a musical, and having no Mushu, this film is fantastic remake that takes upon the original film, the original Chinese folktales of Hua Mulan, and new material to blends them to create a beautiful wuxia film.
The 2020 retelling of Mulan is that as the Rouran (in the 1998 animated, this is changed to the Huns, but in most all original sources, it was the Rouran) army attacks the Northern region, the Emperor (played by Jet Li) calls for every family to provide one male to join his army and fight the invading force. Being the only male in the family, Mulan’s aging and battleworn father (played by Tzi Ma) is bound to take up his place. After bringing dishonor upon her family during a meeting with the matchmaker, Mulan (played by Yifei Liu) takes her father’s place in the night, disguised as a man, to both save her father and restore her family’s honor.
The set design, costuming, cinematography, and action are all incredible and expertly handled. The long sweeping shots of environments and cities are absolutely stunning. There are a few moments when they look a little off, but I’m willing to bet that it is because it is on a television screen and not a larger projection as that normally causes a dip in quality. The action sequences are all fantastically shot and handled. Some will complain about the running up walls, floatiness of characters when in the air, and the overall fantasy elements. However, wireworking and overall lite-fantasy in swordplay and martial arts are staples to the wuxia genre of Chinese cinema (I’ll touch on this more shortly).
There are many changes to the original 1998 film which has caused issues for many fans of that film, some are justified, most are not. I personally feel like taking out Mushu was smart as this film has been reconfigured to be more of a war epic than an action-comedy which the story of Hua Mulan needs to be. Also, the ancestor role has been vastly shortened to being a presence that only Mulan can see in times where she actually needs protection or she is becoming one with her chi (another change that I will talk on later), and this is because the filmmakers wanted to make sure that the focus was on Mulan’s smarts and intrinsic power and strength.
Another big change comes in its villains, Böri Khan (played by Jason Scott Lee), who takes the place of the animated Shan Yu, and the newly added witch Xian Lang (played by Li Gong). I personally really like the new witch character as she makes for a nice dichotomy to Mulan and she offers an interesting insight to the villains perspective as well. However, I also think her conflicts are resolved way too quickly and overall was wasted potential. I think that if the filmmakers spent another five minutes on the character and her relationship to both Mulan and Khan, she could have been really special. The conflicts with the witch are not the only things that get resolved way too quick. Her friends in the army and her commander’s acceptance of her after being discovered as a women happened way too quickly and it made that conflict feel subpar and wasted.
What was not wasted, however, was the relationships and performances in the film. Mulan’s comrades Yao (Chen Tang), Ling (Jimmy Wong), and Po (Doua Moua) are from the original animated but are given a lesser importance, but the time on screen they did have was so well done and their interaction with Mulan are great. They are joined by a human iteration of Cricket (played by Jun Yu), a nice nod to the animated character, and he is the heart the military scenes and never failed to put a smile on my face. The animated character Shang has been split into two characters, one being Commander Tung (played by Donnie Yen) who is her military leader and somewhat of a father figure while she is away from her actual father. The second is Honghui (played by Yoson An) who is her, very subtle, love interest and is her equal in terms of rank in the military. Every performance by the actors above are incredible and their chemistry with Yifei Liu’s Hua Mulan is so well done. The performances of Rosalind Chao as Mulan’s mother and Tzi Ma are fantastic and their relationship with Mulan hits all the marks. I do not think there is a single performance I did not enjoy.
There is a lot of people complaining about it not being a musical, but I personally believe this particular film in the way it is told, had it been a musical the film would have suffered. However, the original music is in the film as amazing renditions in the score by Harry Gregson-Williams. Honestly, this may be one of the best underlying scores in a Disney live-action remake (score does not equal soundtrack).
This film is surrounded by a lot of unfair controversy and it would be unfair to review this film and not address the controversies that cause people to dismiss the film as “racist” and ergo bad. The Yifei Liu Hong Kong comments are irrelevant as they have nothing to do with the quality of the film so I will not be discussing them. However, the inclusion of chi, ancestors, and arranged marriage has caused people to complain about how it is stereotypical of Chinese people and “racist” (two of which are in the original Disney version that these same people are okay with). All of these things are important part of a genre of Chinese fantasy storytelling called wuxia, chi in particular. Wuxia is Chinese fantasy stories about war heroes that treat them as folklore legends that could perform feats that normal people could not. Mulan is a folktale about a female war hero so it makes perfect sense to make the remake a wuxia telling of the Disney version of the story. If anything the inclusion of the idea of chi to explain the fantastical action, is an appreciation for and implementation of an aspect of Chinese storytelling. Disney’s Mulan takes inspiration from the original folk song “The Ballad of Mulan” and the 16th-century historical fiction Romance of Sui and Tang. The latter has arranged marriage as an important part of Mulan’s story. Using these ideas as excuses to call the film racist is absolutely idiotic and could not be farther from the truth.
Overall, Mulan is a great remake of a classic animated film that brings in a lot of new while paying homage to its source. People wanting a one-to-one translation are asking to be disappointed because when films get remade, they need to offer something new and a new dimension to the storytelling, and this film does it. The performances are incredible, the action incredible, and the cinematography and score are incredible. The only shortcoming for me is how quickly conflicts get resolved as it makes the conflicts seem somewhat meaningless. Overall, I really wish we were able to see the vast Chinese landscapes and action scenes on the big screen, but I am happy that the wait is finally over as I really enjoyed the film. I personally would spend the $30 again, but I understand why people wouldn’t and feel upset because it was clearly meant to be on a giant screen.
Mulan is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence.