Disney’s 2020 live-action remake of the classic animated film is not a bad movie. However, in trying to distance itself from the original by finding its own, more mature voice, Mulan falls far short of being a truly epic event. The potential is there and the foundation is solid. But by never truly committing and following through on what it wants to be, the film feels undercooked and underdeveloped.
The story of Hua Mulan is epic in and of itself. Ripe for a grand cinematic treatment. The 1998 film presented the story in typical Disney fashion, making it accessible to a wide audience and ultimately being a fun and exciting ride.
When news of Disney greenlighting a live action remake of the film broke, there was a mix of excitement and collective groans. It would be another remake added to the growing list of Disney animation being reimagined into live action films.
Reimagining a story, especially a television show or a movie, is not usually a bad idea. In fact, embarking on such an effort can yield excellent results.
But with any remake and especially reimagining, there’s a careful tightrope to walk. Fans will look for a respectful adaptation of the original film. Some will want a word-for-word remake. Others will be fine with Easter eggs sprinkled throughout. And then there’s the desire to create something different. Especially when it’s an animated children’s film being reimagined into a more mature, perhaps darker or more realistic story.
For Mulan, it never fully commits to any of those options. And because of that, this live-action film misses the mark on several fronts.
The original film fits perfectly in the Disney catalog. A memorable soundtrack with endearing, fun characters, careful romance and exciting action. It’s a classic Disney animated film. And what’s more, it featured a voice and characters that weren’t (and still aren’t) normally seen in such films. It’s a meaningful film for so many people, aside from being an enjoyable escape.
So it’s unavoidable to compare the two films. And unavoidable to try and carry over the same feelings to this film which was touted from the beginning as its own entity with nods to the original.
This film is in some ways a more mature reimagining of the animated film. (Partly accomplished by eliminating talking dragons and musical numbers.) But in many other ways, it is essentially an adaptation of the original source material. Much like any other fairy tale, legend or historical figure that gets several different interpretations over the years in different media.
There was a worry that the film would be so much darker or more mature that it would alienate younger audiences. There wasn’t really a worry the other way around as Disney made a point to say they wanted this film to be a more realistic and grounded adaptation.
Again, there is a lot of merit in being able to take something and reimagining it in a different way. Respecting the original while doing something different.
Mulan doesn’t seem to follow through with that. And when not strictly following the animated film or focusing on your own treatment of the story, this film is left somewhere in between. That leaves characters and the story underdeveloped.
This is a film of undercooked ideas.
Good Ideas, Lacking in Execution
The best and really only fully realized theme is that of “devotion to family.” The film spends a fair amount of time on Mulan’s family dynamics. Of course, setting up her decision to take her father’s place in the Imperial Army. The film begins and ends with her family and the idea of bringing pride and honor to your family by being yourself. That in the end, Mulan can trust in her family to be there for her just as much as she is there for them. And they believe in her after having doubted or sheltered her all her life.
Scenes between Mulan and her father (a great Tzi Ma) are some of the film’s strongest and most emotionally affecting.
The rest of the film, however, is not as fleshed out.
The film tries to position itself as an epic historical war movie at times. Which, on its own, can absolutely make for a great film. But that is not possible here when the big battles (especially in the end) are lifeless and overchoreographed. The overreliance on wire fu stunts make the fight choreography feel stilted while the wider shots of the chaos at hand feel contrived.
But for Mulan, pairing it with dueling themes that never truly come together make the war action (both the battles and the thin plot involving protecting the kingdom and the emperor) half-hearted and only mildly exciting.
Now the most talked about changes from the original film aren’t inherently bad. But again, the lack of follow through shortchanges the narrative possibilities.
The elimination of Mulan’s love interest Li Shiang drew sharp rebuke from fans. Especially when Li Shiang’s romantic interest in Mulan in her male disguise was seen as him being bisexual. So it was certainly interesting that such a progressive idea was okay for the animated film, but almost completely erased in this film.
Now, Li Shiang was essentially split into two new characters. Donnie Yen’s Commander Tung serves as the commanding officer of the Imperial Army and Mulan’s mentor. Yoson An’s Chen Honghui, meanwhile, would take the love interest role. But this time he is a fellow recruit.
Whatever the reasons for the film to have split Li Shiang into Commander Tung and Honghui, the film wastes the opportunity to develop either character more.
Commander Tung’s supposed mentoring could have held much more weight for Mulan, especially when there is a history between him and Mulan’s father. Their relationship could have served as a sort of second father dynamic. Especially on the battlefield. Thus making the revelation of Mulan’s identity more impactful.
Meanwhile, the romance between Mulan and Honghui is barely teased. But that dynamic also had major potential as a sweeping romantic tale. As rivals-turned-lovers, it would have been a familiar story that would have benefited from the extraordinary setting and circumstances. Two brave heroes brought together by war and separated by war. But ultimately would find their way back to each other. (Maybe that’s the sequel?)
And again, it would have allowed for the (still) groundbreaking idea that Honghui has feelings for Mulan even when she was disguised as a man. (Though there’s interestingly a few moments where Honghui appears suspicious of Mulan’s true identity. Like he’s known for a while this “Hua Jun” isn’t who he says he is.)
Then there’s the introduction of Gong Li as Xian Lang, a witch. For some fans, removing Mushu from the film in an effort for a more realistic approach to the story, yet adding in a shapeshifting bird witch seemed odd. But like Commander Tung and Honghui, the addition of Xian Lang opens up a lot of possibilities as well.
Xian Lang offers Mulan a more character-driven antagonist compared to Shan Yu in the original film who may be more of the moustache-twirling villain type. Shan Yu is present in this film as Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee). But once again, his character gets even less of a grounded story than the original.
Xian Lang is introduced as a sort of mirror for Mulan as both struggle to be who they are in a culture and society that looks down upon people like them. That can be interpreted in a few different ways. But in the film, the most basic interpretation is that of strong women being some kind of a threat to the patriarchal society and them overcoming that.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t necessarily delve deep into the commonality between Mulan and Xian Lang to have any impact beyond merely being a foil to her in a few scenes and to give the film its dose of fantasy and mythical elements. Which may or may not have been necessary.
Visually, the film features some stunning cinematography and well-designed sets. But the action isn’t as thrilling as it could be. Like I mentioned earlier, the wire fu feels strangely subdued and almost slow. There’s a lack of kinetic energy and free-flowing action in the scenes. Almost giving the impression that the actors are literally being held back somehow.
It’s certainly hard to have to be so critical of a film as meaningful and groundbreaking for the Asian and Asian-American community as this one. But at the same time, maybe that’s why I am this critical. Perhaps expectations were too high. But when films like this are few and far between, many want to strive for the best and not just being offered something just to have it.
When it comes to the cast, there’s far less to nitpick about.
Liu Yifei is a fine choice for Mulan. While there are times where she does feel a little shaky, it could just as easily be because of the material. The screenplay at times merely throws her into situations instead of her as a character driving the narrative. And that in turn can affect what Liu Yifei is required to do.
The rest of the cast does their best with what’s given to them as well with a few elevating the material.
Gong Li may be the standout as Xian Lang even with her minimal screentime. Seeing more of a back and forth between her and Mulan would’ve been one of the film’s strongest points. Some point out a bit of non-platonic vibes between Milan and Xian Lang too. And the film could’ve absolutely expanded on that as well. But again, the film holds back on following through with ideas it presents.
Liu Yifei also shares a great chemistry with Yoson An that felt very hindered by the writing. The romantic chemistry is absolutely there. And people shouldn’t be afraid of it. Falling in love definitely doesn’t have to take away from Mulan being a strong warrior as she is very much established as her own person even without a love interest. But it’s a sad waste of great potential seeing their chemistry.
It’s no surprise that Donnie Yen and Jason Scott Lee deliver in their respective roles as well even if the screenplay doesn’t fully utilize their talent and gravitas. Same goes for Jet Li who merely looms in the background until he is the proverbial damsel in distress.
But overall, the writing for the characters does not reach the level of the talent and capabilities of the actors.
I feel like Mulan could’ve tightened its story while also delving deeper into its main themes:
-Mulan’s identity and being true to herself in a patriarchal society.
-A little more focus for Xian Lang in order to better illustrate Mulan’s struggle.
-Plus a little more with Mulan and Commander Tung for those mentor/father-like philosophical moments.
-Go all out with the Mulan-Honghui romance, raising the visceral, emotional stakes for both characters.
-In turn, developing the friendship between Mulan, Honghui and their comrades more as well.
All of these themes are character-driven. And with a stronger focus on the characters, it makes even the most overchoreographed action sequences feel thrilling and impactful. Connecting to the characters and then having them thrown into dangerous situations are a simple recipe for an exciting film.
There is absolutely a great, epic film somewhere here. And if the sequel pushes through, there is a strong foundation for them to build upon and improve. There is plenty of story to tell with these characters.
But ultimately, in trying to distance itself from the original, Mulan results in an undercooked and almost early draft of a film. It probably would’ve been better leaning more into the original film, even without musical numbers or a wise-cracking dragon. Embracing the action-packed and romantic magic of the animated film and giving it a big-budget war epic treatment would’ve been the move here.
Nonetheless, Mulan is a fine film that delivers as a cultural moment. But falls far short of being the true epic that it was fully capable of being.