I was a huge fan of the Disney animated film Mulan when it came out and was easily drawn into the story that was based on an ancient Chinese folktale. When Disney began making plans for a live action remake of the animated film, it did not take long for strong opinions to emerge. An average sampling of reactions are that it had to not only contain the songs but Mushu the miniature dragon as well. I had been hoping for a more serious take on Mulan. This was one Disney film that could be remade as a grand epic action movie. I was also under the delusion that their live action Beauty and the Beast would not be a scene by scene remake of the cartoon, and I was wrong. The same went with Lion King and Aladdin (which I actually liked). I was all sorts of wrong there.
Chinese and by extension, all Asians, have long been under-represented in Hollywood. And for much of that Hollywood history, Chinese had been relegated to demeaning stereotypes or characters that were humbly subservient to Western male leads. Even as ahead of time and groundbreaking Bruce Lee was, his most famous role in American television was that of Kato, literally the Green Hornet’s valet.
When Mulan came out it was groundbreaking in many aspects. It was a Disney cartoon that featured the heroine being heroic and able to fight as well if not better than her male counterparts. It was through her actions that the day was saved and not that of the male lead. And the romance was not a major goal or theme in the movie. In fact, it could have done away with it without any harm to the narrative.
China made a large scale epic version of their own in 2009. It was a grittier, more grounded version. Though it was entertaining and had a particularly standout performance by star Zhao We, it was uneven and hampered by some clunky pacing. Unfortunately it was not received well at the time.
Mulan and the Curse of 2020
Along comes 2020, and it seems every movie that was supposed to be released for the year suffered the curse of Covid-19. Disney’s live action Mulan was supposed to come out in March. Then a global pandemic forced theatres around the world to shut down. It was delayed until July. Theatres were still shut down. Disney in a move that faced immediate backlash not only decided to finally release the film streaming, but to offer it only on their new Disney Plus service, at a premium cost of $29.99. But if you wanted to wait, it will be freely included for ALL Disney Plus subscribers in December. It would be inline with mass release digitally and physical for all platforms.
But that is the least of Mulan’s controversies. Liu Yifei, the lead actress received pushback for her support of the Chinese government during Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations. On top of that, the film was partially filmed at the Xinjiang region of China and thanked in the credits. It is region in China that is documented for it’s repression of its Uyghur Muslim minority, including “re-education” camps.
The least of Mulan’s problem is that it’s a remake of a well loved cartoon from the 90s Disney renaissance. So of course no matter how they approached doing a live action remake, it was going to be criticised for either being just a beat for beat, shot for shot remake, or changing too much. The decision was made to not include musical numbers or have animal mascots like Mushu. Things like this divided fans.
But is the movie any good?
So as it’s own entity, ignore the movies that came before it and it’s political baggage, is the movie any good on its own? It’s complicated.
We are introduced to a young Mulan who practices martial arts in a field, watched over by her father, played by the forever Chinese father figure of Tzi Ma. But Mulan is now of an age where she must give up her wild nature and be the dutiful and honorable daughter. That is marry a good husband and bring honor to the family. In order to do do that, she must give off showing how powerful her chi is.
Meanwhile, on the borders of China, Rouran invaders are attacking, led by Bhori Khan with a shapeshifting witch as his ally.
Meanwhile, on the borders of China, Rouran invaders are attacking, led by Bhori Khan with a shapeshifting witch as an ally. The call goes forth to draftone male from every household to join in the war against the invaders. When it comes to Mulan’s family, her father is the only male and is still determined to fight for his country despite being disabled. Mulan takes it upon herself to take her father’s sword, armor, and conscription letter in the middle of the night and disguise herself as a man to take her father’s place.
Unconvincingly disguised as a man, she joins an army camp and we are treated to obligatory training and bonding montages. She tries to hide her powerful chi from the others at first and trains while holding back her true self, but a moment of anger during training reveals her skill. From then on she is more highly regarded. Because, you know, kick another dude’s ass and you’re all now bros.
Mulan has several great factors going for it. Chief among that is how gorgeous the film looks. The film is awash with vibrant cinematography and costume design. Using locations from New Zealand as well as the aforementioned China locations. the landscape pops with its own personality. The film is dealing with a vague period of time in Chinese history and seems more interested in creating a narrative that is more of a legendary tale as opposed to history or even historical fiction. The Imperial City is vaguely described as being in Central China, as doing otherwise could ascribe a historical perspective. This may not appeal to historical purists. But let’s be honest, tring to make a myth historically accurate is just not as fun.
The cast of characters is a near who’s who of Asian and Asian American entertainment. Tzi Ma is perfect as the father, Rosalind Chao, veteran of Star Trek and The Joy Luck Club plays the mother. Hong Kong martial arts movie legend Cheng Pei Pei has a cameo as the matchmaker. One of the biggest action stars of Asia now, Donnie Yen plays the battalion commander. Jason Scott Lee plays Bhori Khan. Award winning arthouse actress Gong Li plays the shapeshifting witch Xianniang. And Jet Li has a bit role as the Emperor. And yes, there is also a cameo by Ming Na Wen.
This should have been a cinematic triumph. Unfortunately, it falls short of its potential. Sure Mulan may have unleashed her true strength when she shed all pretensions of pretending to be someone she wasn’t, but the film just can’t shed the trappings of it being a Disney movie.
As can be expected from a Disney movie, it is a technically well crafted, good looking, and good sounding film. It also plays everything safely and predictably. Rather than completely upset the fans of the 1998 cartoon, they kept many references to it, and unfortunately many of these callbacks fall flat and hold it down. “I will bring honor to us all,” is a callback to the song. “We are going to make men out of you,” says their trainer, another callback. When the warriors are in their barracks comparing what they are looking for in a woman, it is an obvious reference to the song “A Girl Worth Fighting For.” When the father realizes that Mulan has taken off in the middle of the night, he is next seen in a shrine asking that “ancestors protect her.” This is all baggage that could have been left a at the train station, but the way it is shoehorned in is excessive. And the repetitive emphasis on honor and dishonor becomes tedious after the first five or six times it is mentioned.
Also hampering the movie is the script’s rather oversimplification of how Chi works. George Lucas was influenced by the ideas of Chinese mysticism and Chi and partially based the Force on it. It is as if the writers decided that Lucas’s version was a scholarly treatise on mystical energy and decided to dumb that down even further. Somehow, the power of Chi is the purview of men. Now I know we’re dealing with mystical stuff here so there is no authentic interpretation of Chi, but there is a reason the yin and yang symbols are associated with it. Though Mulan seems to have a spiritual guide in the guise of a Chinese Phoenix, the film doesn’t address the tradition that the phoenix is symbolic of female power and spirit, whereas a dragon is symbolic of male power and spirit.
Though director Niki Caro does a fine job behind the camera, even with the action scenes, they suffer from unquestionably staying safely within the PG-13 rating. The battles seem violent, but as clean as they can be. And we know that none of the supporting characters, let alone the lead, are ever in any real danger.
Now, it sounds like this movie is bad. It’s not. It’s actually good, but definitely not great. Liu Yifei is a very competent actress and she does well in the role, however some lines are delivered a little more wooden than others and that just could be because English is not her native language. Tzi Ma seems to established himself as Hollywood’s Chinese father figure, and he is one of the gems of Mulan. Jet Li as the Emperor is nearly unrecognizable with a beard but bears royalty well. Unfortunately his voice is obviously dubbed in post. Jason Scott Lee, exudes menace as Bhori Khan, which is saying something since there is really not much to the character’s back story.
As I’ve said earlier, the film is gorgeous to look not only with it’s location shots but its set design as well. The Imperial Court interior particularly stands out for its set design. The musical score by Henry Gregson Williams can get epic and while at times it calls back to the songs from the 1998 cartoon, I would have appreciated some references to the magnificent Oscar nominated score by Jerry Goldsmith. The martial arts action uses quite a bit of wirework for many of its fights and they work effectively in this setting.
I don’t know how history will look back on this film, where it will be forgotten or will it achieve a anysort of memorable status. There is indeed much to like about the film, but so much of it tries to be an appeasement to old fans that it drags what could have made the film better. It doesn’t hep that the script is a cursory interpretation of the complexities of Chinese culture. Will this be a breakout hit in China as Disney hopes? Who knows? China is the reason that Transformers and Fast and Furious movies make money. And it’s not like those movies are great movies either. This could have been worse, but it also could have been better.
But if it were made by China in this day and age, I’m sure it would be filled with a lot of nationalistic monologues and propaganda. So it’s lose lose for us.