The anticipation surrounding Disney’s new Mulan seemed to paint a more encouraging picture than what audiences have come to expect from the studio’s live-action remakes of its animated family classics. With an all-Asian cast of Chinese megastars and Hollywood regulars and with director Niki Caro, the first woman filmmaker to helm one of the live-action remakes, leading the charge, Mulan isn’t a beat-for-beat recreation like last year’s The Lion King, but aspires instead to be a slightly more serious action-adventure saga, throwing out the talking dragons and catchy musical numbers. Yet this Mulan makes its adjustments while still aiming to be as widely palatable as possible, and in the process, forgets about those pesky elements of character and emotional heft. Rather than lean into the more mature elements that make it stand out, the movie does both little with its “upgrades,” but also far from succeeds in breathing any kind of fresh dramatic life into this oft-told tale.
Many novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers have already tackled the ancient folk legend of Hua Mulan, a warrior who famously disguised herself as a man and fought valiantly in the Chinese army. In addition to drawing inspiration from the epic poem The Ballad of Mulan, this Mulan, with all its perceived “improvements,” could probably use some more talking dragons: The stiffly earnest and formulaically flat script could have used a little more pizazz. It also doesn’t help that the film, for some reason, makes its protagonist a naturally gifted warrior instead of gradually learning her skills through training — a narrative choice that deflates some of the thematic weight. When we meet her as a child, she’s already swinging a sword and leaping over the rooftops, to the chagrin of her parents, who wish she would be a more traditionally subservient daughter and focus on finding a husband.
But the titular Mulan (Liu Yifei), discovers her true purpose when China comes under attack by nomadic Rouran forces. Every family is ordered to send one man to fight in the Imperial Army. To spare her aging father (Tzi Ma), Mulan steals his sword and armor and takes his place, passing herself off as a man named Hua Jun. At the army camp, she meets and immediately impresses Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) and her fellow soldiers, including Chen Honghui (Yoson An), and eventually the Chinese emperor (Jet Li). And the most meaningful alteration to this remake comes with who there antagonist is; as the film introduces a shape-shifting witch, Xian Lang (Gong Li), who’s enlisted by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), the leader of the Rourans. Xian Lang, a practitioner of black magic and the Rouran’s most valuable weapon, has something to gain from Khan’s revolution: acceptance and the ability to live among others in peace. While, at the same time, she could be Mulan’s evil twin or perhaps a stealth ally: another woman fighting for her place in a man’s army. It’s very much only her character than brings any new dimensionality to this new version.
Caro has made previous movies about defying the patriarchy, such as Whale Rider and North Country, and Mulan, clearly, continues in the same vein. Despite being the most gifted solider in her regiment, Mulan must keep her identity a secret. Some gentle comedy ensues: Her ability to bathe with the other soldiers is an attempted (and often wooden) running gag. But the movie is also serious about the consequences of her deception. Hiding the truth about who you are, it suggests, will ultimately limit your potential. That’s a valuable lesson. The trouble is that the movie sometimes seems to be nothing but overbearingly earnest lessons, and once Mulan absorbs each one, circumstances tend to shift too swiftly and conveniently in her favor.
Despite its PG-13 rating, a rarity for a Disney release, Mulan feels like a more thin, watered-down version of a potentially captivating story. (It’s worth stating that Caro’s action is passable at its best.) It’s also pretty disappointing to see how the film treats fairly intuitive cultural ideas — such as familial honor — as if they were some difficult foreign concepts that needed to be repeatedly explained to the viewer, instead of knowing how pretty universal they are. Spinning a Chinese legend into family-friendly entertainment with worldwide appeal is admittedly a tricky business these days, especially when a story about the distant past collides with present-day politics. Meanwhile, here in the U.S., the movie is being sold as a triumph of Asian representation, which does make its absence from theaters all the more disappointing. But, I also wish it were a whole lot better. Shallow and stiffly earnest, 2020’s Mulan not only does frustratingly little with its noteworthy alterations on the original, but uses its possibly more sophisticated elements as surface-level window-dressing.
Mulan is available to stream through Disney+