Warning: this review contains spoilers for “Mulan.”
I will never forget watching the animated Disney movie “Mulan” in the theater when it was first released in 1998, and the sense of elation I felt walking out of the auditorium, the Stevie Wonder/98 Degrees tune “True to Your Heart” blaring over the end credits. It’s still one of my favorite movies. My first viewing of Disney’s live-action remake of “Mulan,” however, was significantly less memorable.
Perhaps a tiny fraction of that has to do with the fact that I had to watch this new version of a story I love at home as opposed to in the movie theater, as, after countless delays in its release date due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Disney ultimately decided to release the movie on their streaming service Disney Plus for an additional “premier access” fee. But the majority of that has to do with my emotional reaction to the film—or lack thereof—which looks and sounds epic, but frequently doesn’t feel that way.
The remake follows the same big story beats as the 1998 version, which is based on the Chinese folktale “The Ballad of Mulan.” Hua Mulan (played by Liu Yifei) is the oldest of two daughters. When the Imperial Army, trying to defend the Southern regions from Northern invaders led by the Rouran Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and Xian Lang (Gong Li), a powerful sorcerer, demands one man from every family enlist, Mulan’s ailing father and war veteran Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma), has to join because he doesn’t have any sons. Knowing that her father won’t return from the war alive, Mulan decides to disguise herself as a man to take his place. She joins a group of warriors led by Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) and trains with them for the coming battle; ultimately, as you likely already know, Mulan is the one who saves the Emperor (played by Jet Li) and all of China.
This version of the story doesn’t necessarily skew any closer to the original tale than the animated movie, although notably one portion of dialogue early in the film incorporates a variation of the metaphor that ends the ballad: “Most people tell the gender of a rabbit by its movement: the male runs quickly, while the female often keeps her eyes shut. But when the two rabbits run side by side, can you really discern whether I am a he or a she?” Director Niki Caro and two writing teams who helmed the screenplay—Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver and Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin—do dare to make their film quite different from its animated predecessor, something a number of these Disney live-action remakes have failed to accomplish. Omitting music numbers, cutting out old characters and adding new ones—including the more fantastical ones like Mulan’s dragon ancestor/comic relief Mushu—this “Mulan” seems to be much more grounded in reality, as befits its setting and tone. More real, that is, with the exception of one major new element.
The new “Mulan” introduces the concept of qi to the story. In traditional Chinese culture, qi is a life force or energy flow that is a part of every living organism, and it serves a particularly large role in Chinese medicine and martial arts. In the film, the opening narration from Hua Zhou explains that everyone does have qi, but only men are allowed to harness it. This qi grants those who are particularly strong in it almost supernatural abilities; from an early age, Mulan exhibits extraordinary reflexes and martial arts skills because of it, but she is taught to suppress it because it isn’t considered a woman’s place to participate in such behavior. This immediately takes away a lot of Mulan’s agency, attributing her skills not to her own determination, but to a power she just happened to be born with. Her time training in the army camp becomes not about finding her own strength, but concealing the powers she already has; and why she even feels the need to do that in the first place is questionable, as it’s been made clear already that it is acceptable for men to wield qi, and she is masquerading as a man. We see her spend more time in camp trying to conceal the fact that she’s a woman from the others than dedicating herself to her training.
But that lends itself to the Mulan’s strength of character, another element the film explores that somewhat counters the qi narrative. Mulan wields her father’s sword, which is inscribed by the characters “loyal,” “brave,” and “true,” but we see her become increasingly plagued by her failing to adhere to the last principle, to the point where she nearly fesses up to Commander Tung, while at the same time, being a woman in the army would result in her expulsion and bring great dishonor on her family. A big battle that brings the Imperial Army up against Bori Khan’s forces results in Mulan facing Xian Lang, who draws the similarities between them. While Xian Lang is demonized for her powers, she does encourage Mulan to the point where, rather than being outed by others, Mulan decides to fulfill her potential and reveal her true identity on her own terms. There is something to be said for that aspect of the narrative, and the idea that these women were both able to realize their strength despite the masculine-dominated world’s attempt to repress them. But with her qi lending Mulan abilities more akin to a Marvel superhero than an ancient Chinese warrior, the question of whether she is ultimately accepted by the men—none of whom exhibit powers anywhere near either Mulan or Gong Li’s level—because of her insane powers as opposed to her strength of character lingers. They may finally make her an equal, but the feeling is that she is the exception rather than the new rule, and a new ending implies that, rather than permanently returning home to her family, Mulan joins the Emperor’s guard, effectively becoming a member of the system that kept her oppressed.
Qi-related complications aside, “Mulan” is a visually lavish. The sets and costumes are elaborate, and Caro is adept at staging the action sequences. But it often feels like empty spectacle because the story rushes through some of the more emotional sequences. Somehow, those action scenes feel like they are set on a smaller scale, and are less thrilling as a result, such as when Mulan and company enter the city to save the Emperor and there’s virtually no one there. It lowers the stakes. There isn’t any emotional buildup in the scenes where Mulan prepares to run away from home to go to war, when the soldiers walk through the devastation of a battleground, or sense of betrayal when she reveals herself as a woman to her fellow soldiers—and they are all too quick to accept her again. The scene where Mulan chooses to resign her male persona would be great if we got to really see her come to the conclusion that that is what she needed to do, as opposed to being told that by the voiceover narration. It doesn’t help that Yifei’s performance often feels too restrained; the spunkiness we see in the scenes of Mulan as a child isn’t present in Mulan as an adult. The film doesn’t spend enough time on the relationships that Mulan forms with her fellow soldiers for them to resonate. Ling (Jimmy Wong), Yao (Chen Tang), and Chien-Po (Doua Moua)—that fun trio from the animated version—are there, although I’m fairly sure only Yao gets called by name in the movie, if that’s any indication as to how important to the story they are. There are also a couple new characters: Cricket (Jun Yu), who was inspired by Mulan’s cricket companion Cri-kee from the animated film, and Chen Honghui (Yoson An). Chen and Commander Tung are distilled from the Li Shang character from the original, but by splitting one character into two, we only have time to get to know either of them on a surface level—although Yoson An is charming and shares a couple nice scenes with Yifei. Tzi Ma’s performance as Mulan’s father is the one that really gets at the heart of the story. But heart is something that “Mulan” just doesn’t have a lot of, and, for those familiar with it, the callbacks to the animated film are often the most stirring ones. Scenes like Mulan standing on top of a mountain as the strains of the song “Reflection” play, of even one of the more light-hearted scenes where the group are talking about women, and Chien-Po delivers a line from the music number in the original movie, and a very special cameo that comes up at the end, are nice ways to pay tribute to the original without winking too hard at the audience, although the bulk of the feeling we derive from them is associated not so much with the film itself, but with our nostalgia for what we already know.
Finally, “Mulan”—intended to be a more “authentic” adaptation of the folk story while containing elements to please both Chinese and American audiences—takes both steps forward and backward in terms of diversity in Hollywood. The international cast is filled with many actors that American audiences won’t be familiar with, and even in 2020, it’s exceedingly rare to see an all-Asian cast on screen. And while the production did take pains to put women in key roles behind-the-scenes of this story (“Mulan” is the most expensive movie to ever be directed by a woman), only one glance at the credits will tell you that none of them are Asian. The director, composer, producers, costume designer—all of them are white, but perhaps the most egregious sin is not having any Asian writers. As opposed to having Chinese creators tell their own story, “Mulan” is told by outsiders looking in, and any Western view of this story is not going to be 100% authentic. I’m no expert in Chinese culture and history and am not even going to pretend that I know what I’m talking about on that front, but it doesn’t take long to poke around on Twitter and see that this film has upset a good deal of Asian viewers. It’s a missed opportunity that highlights not just the importance of having a diverse cast onscreen, but behind the scenes as well. The evidence that this film was primarily tailored to American audiences is perhaps best summed up by the fact that Jet Li’s voice is obviously dubbed—and I can think of no other reason why that would have been done except out of fear that viewers wouldn’t be able to understand his accent.
“Mulan” is now streaming on Disney Plus with premier access for $29.99, and will be available to all subscribers at no additional charge in December. Runtime: 115 minutes. Rated PG-13. 2.5 out of 5 stars.