What a waste of $30. For those living under a rock Disney has finally released their live action version of “Mulan”, based on the 1998 animated classic itself inspired by the character from Chinese folklore. Once again telling the tale of the titular woman’s attempt to pass off as a man in order to take her father’s place during a military conflict, the live action “Mulan” has had a somewhat troubled production not necessarily of its own making. First, star Liu Yifei came under fire in late 2019 after appearing to support police violence against protesters in Hong Kong leading to the #BoycottMulan movement that threatened the film’s success. Then COVID-19 happened forcing Disney to prolong the release before finally deciding to make it available for $30 to Disney+ subscribers this weekend. After a string of misses with its live action adaptations, Disney had a lot riding on “Mulan” and it looked like they were on the right track promising to focus more heavily on Chinese culture and putting a director with a proven track record with female led stories, Niki Caro, at the helm. Sadly while “Mulan” may not be as bad as many of Disney’s other live action retreads, it’s yet another sad reminder of just how soulless and pandering these Disney remakes tend to be.
It’s no secret that over the past few years I’ve found myself frustrated with the result of Disney’s live-action remakes. In 2019 alone “The Lion King” became the bane of my existence, the “Aladdin” adaptation was subpar at best and the “Maleficent” sequel was forgettable. However, the “Mulan” remake had me intrigued. The original animated film is a classic of the 90s, even if I don’t consider it one of my personal favorites, and this new film promised to at least attempt to be different while telling a similar story. The live action “Mulan” doesn’t take the same exact approach as the animated film, putting its own spin on the tale, but the basic premise is the same. Liu Yifei plays the titular heroine who in this version is already a talented fighter in touch with her chi. When an evil warlord named Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and a powerful witch named Xian Lang (Gong Li) set their sights on the Chinese empire and its emperor, households are told to put forth one man to serve in the army against the invaders. Mulan’s aging father (Tzi Ma) is the only male in the family so in order to protect him and her family’s honor Mulan pretends to be a male and joins the army where she fulfills her destiny of becoming a hero. Even with its own tone, personality, and a different enough approach to the idea, the live action “Mulan” once again destroys a Disney classic that never needed to be redone.
First off, I’ll say this isn’t an unwatchable film. There are some redeeming elements. Visually, it’s awesome. Director Niki Caro, who also led other female-driven narratives like “Whale Rider” and “The Zookeeper’s Wife”, was a good choice to helm the film as it’s right up her alley. She brings some great energy to the action sequences with some fun camera tricks and epic battle sequences and set pieces. In fact this movie could have actually benefited from a little more of this action as it really is the most entertaining element of the remake. The film can also be commended for succeeding in incorporating Chinese culture, at least to the best of my understanding considering my American ignorance, and embracing an all-Asian cast allowing for some underrated actors and actresses to shine on the screen. But outside of these qualities the rest of this film is just so inconsistent, watered down, cliche, and, frankly, boring. Despite a promising cast and director, the performances are dry and often emotionless and Caro feels constrained, likely by the studio itself, to stick to a story that offers much less character growth or sincerity when compared to its predecessor which is sad because it often feels like Caro wants to take the story in a deeper, more epic direction but it never reaches that level of intensity.
As much as I want to hold this film on its own merits alone, it’s impossible not to compare “Mulan” to its predecessor when critiquing it because it is a purposeful remake of a Disney classic, not another studio’s attempt to tell the same story. And with that said the animated movie is much better. It has more charm, more energy, and even treats its characters and audience with more respect. One of my biggest problems with this new Mulan is that she’s already a perfect fighter when we see her at a young age. She’s simply forced to hide that part of herself because of a sexist society. That could have been a neat way to explore toxic masculinity, but the movie does nothing with it watering down her journey and revelations of self-worth in a way that teaches viewers, especially young women, that you don’t have to work or take risks to be perfect, you just are. The previous Mulan wasn’t a good fighter. She was a charming screw up who wanted to do right by her family and in taking her father’s place she had to learn how to fight, learn how to overcome that sexism, learn how to find her place in the world. This Mulan doesn’t. She’s already a perfect fighter, her transformation into a hero is quick and painless and the emotionless acting and poorly written screenplay do nothing to show any true growth in her at all. The Mulan we see at the start is the same Mulan we see when the credits roll. It’s unbearably dry and boring to watch especially when the story and character have already been done so effectively in the past. The original Mulan from the 90s was a role model, a woman with no real talent who risked her life, learned, grew and developed into a hero. This Mulan is already a hero and it doesn’t take much for the world to concede and see that, which just doesn’t happen especially in today’s reality.
This all adds up to what is essentially a pandering mess that doesn’t really teach us anything, doesn’t do much to add to its story, and feels lifeless compared to the superior animated effort it was inspired by. It shows you want you want and NOT what you need like the previous iteration at least tried to do.This move looks at its audience and shows them all you have to do is be who you are and the world will kneel for you, but that’s not how the world works. The old Mulan had to earn respect. She had to develop her skills and challenge herself to be better all in the face of a society working against her and even when those people realized how much of an asset she was she still had to work to earn their acceptance. This Mulan doesn’t. There’s not one moment where you fear that her sacrifice or risk will result in her death or dishonor. Never once in this movie did I feel like I was watching something more mature or thought provoking, which is what these live action remakes are supposed to do after all, and by the time I got to the halfway point I was completely disinterested in the rest of the film as the new elements added nothing truly engaging and the repeated elements were inferior when compared to the lively animation and personality of the animated film. It’s just a huge mess.
The live action “Mulan” once again proves why Disney’s live action remakes are a waste of time. To date the only movies I like in this collection are “Beauty and the Beast” (and even with that one I’m in a minority) and “The Jungle Book” which for me personally is the only remake that actually IMPROVES on its predecessor. Otherwise they’ve all been inferior, forgettable knockoffs and “Mulan” is no exception. Lifeless acting, a boring screenplay, watered down themes and a lack of interesting characters whether they be heroes or villains sadly overshadow the fun action and atmosphere the movie does offer. What should have and could have been one of Disney’s most promising and entertaining retreads is simply just another cash grab attempting to prove that as long as the House of Mouse puts its name on it you’ll eat it up. My opinion: don’t make the mistake I made. Save your $30. If you want to give this movie a chance, Disney+ will offer it for free in December. Even then though I feel like this movie would be a waste of time when the superior, more thought provoking, fun and inspiring animated version is already available on the service.