Mulan Review: Disney Live Action Is Beautiful To Look At. But Where’s The Charm And Humour?
The Coronavirus pandemic took a lot from each one of us. And for cinema lovers, it robbed them of a chance to enjoy some of the biggest, most anticipated releases on the silver screen. And mind you, 2020 was going to be a year to remember with the kind of slate that it had for entertainment. I could list 40 movies just off the top of my head, from sequels to franchise films to original stories and reboots, most of which are now delayed or releasing on OTT. This was poised to be an epic, epic year at the movies. One of the names on the list was the live action remake of Disney’s Mulan, directed by Niki Caro, and starring Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Yoson An Gong Li, Jason Scott Lee and Tzi Ma. The film, initially set to release in March 2020, finally released in the United States in September, and digitally arrived in India on December 4, on Disney+ Hotstar.
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For those who never met the OG animated Mulan….
When the kingdom is under attack, Mulan’s old father is conscripted by a royal decree to fight in the war. Unable to let her father go meet his certain death, Mulan disguises herself as a man, and sets off to fight in her father’s place. Of course, she’d bring dishonour and shame on her family if she did that. Not to mention, the age old question that follows all young women who dare to step out of line—but who will marry you if you do this?
Anyhoo, Mulan manages to survive training and bunking in an all-men war camp, watched over by her family’s spirit animal which brings to her the strength of her ancestors. During one of the battles, Mulan’s deception goes down and she’s finally revealed to be a girl. Obviously, men are pissed and she gets expelled from the army.
But then, something happens (I won’t give spoilers, shame on you for not watching the animated one still!) and the commander reluctantly accepts Mulan’s help. Our heroine saves the day, brings honour to her family and even finds some love, because that’s what Disney princesses gotta do.
What new upgrades does Mulan get in the live action remake?
To say that there were expectations from Mulan is an understatement. The film took a long, long time, years, in fact to finally arrive on our screens. Disney has been attempting to give its productions that ‘woke’ update. So you had Niki Caro at the helm of things, the second time Disney entrusted a film with over a $100 million budget to a female director. And an all-Asian cast with not a single white face in the throng (except behind the scenes; the team is pretty white). Mulan’s story itself, though in spirit, true to the 1998 original, gets a few major and minor tweaks that could be considered an attempt to make it more politically relevant.
For example, in the original Mulan, you had the Huns, led by the ruthless Shan You, who were attacking Han China, the imperial kingdom in which Mulan lived. In the remake, the Huns are swapped for the Rourans, a Proto-Mongolic tribe, lead by Boris Khan. Also, Khan is not alone; he has the powers of a powerful, shapeshifting witch, Xianniang, who is hell bent on defeating the emperor because she got banished from the kingdom for practicing witchcraft. Only, it is called ‘Chi’, which is basically a lot like the ‘qi’ from Chinese culture and quite similar to The Force in Star Wars, a vital energy force that is part of humans, and which, if harnessed properly by the human, makes them almost superhuman.
Mulan’s chi is pretty much as decked up as the Xianniang’s, and this makes it one of the most crucial deviations from the original animated Mulan. In the OG, Mulan was just a regular girl with an extraordinary grit. But the live action Mulan isn’t just stepping in to save her father from death; her Chi makes her a nigh superhuman warrior.
Oh, also, there’s no Li Shang, the general who is rightly impressed by Mulan’s alter ego warrior and eventually falls in love with her real self. And instead of a hilarious, talking dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy as her ancestral spirit helping her, the new Mulan brings forth a stunning phoenix that can only be seen and felt by Mulan, as it soars stunningly in the sky to remind her of who she is.
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What do I like about the new Mulan?
As I mentioned earlier, the introduction of the Chi is one of the biggest changes in Mulan. And it gives me something to both love and hate. Let’s talk about what I love about this first.
I love the setup of Xianniang as an anti-hero to Mulan. She notices that Mulan channels the same power as her, and tries to “bring her over to the dark side.” *cue in Darth Vader theme* Her motive is revenge, sure, but it’s one that she wants on her home that denied her the right to be herself. Both Xianniang and Mulan’s stories run parallel. They’re both women who were blessed with something that let them be more than the gender roles prescribed to women in the kingdom. While Xianniang was more open with using them, she got banished for it and turned evil. Mulan was saved from that fate, but could she have also gone down the path of resentment had she been forced into a marriage she did’t want? It’s a nice way of telling young women that the society might shame you for being who you are, but don’t hide it. Find the courage to be yourself.
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Another thing that I like about the introduction of this Chi is that it gives Mulan more than one reason to join the army. It’s not just to save her father, but because she wants to do it for herself too. It’s her one chance, it’s literally what she feels she was born to do. It is her destiny. This retelling of Mulan then feels like an upgrade in terms of the messaging, which is much more for young, adolescent girls and full grown women than it is for little kids. It’s more grave, more serious.
I also think the film is spectacular where it needs to be. The phoenix flights are my favourite, as is the scene where Mulan and Xianniang fight. The shots of Mulan practicing by the lake…. I think the film is one of Disney’s most beautiful looking remakes. Which brings us to….
Erm, great stuff, fellas. But here’s why I’m not feeling it.
The editing is a mess. And this comes from someone with not enough technical knowledge, but I can stake my prized possessions on this. I thought some of the action scenes, especially the introductory fight of Xianniang, were so chaotic, they made an already fast-paced scene extremely jarring, confusing and awkward. The sets and costumes are beautiful. Love. Love. LOVE. But they FEEL like sets and costumes. Like they were created for specifically that moment. The homes in Mulan’s village don’t feel lived in, and everything feels a little too, erm, clean and surreal to me. There’s also some major cultural appropriation when it comes to the portrayal of the Chinese way of life, in that it looks too wooden (maybe because of the lack of Asian representation behind-the-camera?). Hey, not me, the Chinese are saying this.
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In fact, this lack of ‘realness’ is the part that I hate about the introduction of the ‘Chi’ in the story. You see in the original, Mulan being an ordinary girl doing extraordinary things felt like a whole different level of achievement. That would require her character to undergo such a humungous change to get strong enough, physically and mentally, to do what she did. The new Mulan feels like she didn’t have to work so much as simply start tapping into that mystical force that she already had. And that is precisely why the ‘heart’ seems to be missing from Mulan. You’re in awe of her, but you don’t ‘feel’ for her. There is no growth for her character, which is why she isn’t as much of an inspiration. Her struggle isn’t human anymore, and therefore, not relatable. Moreover, they never end up delving into what the ‘chi’ exactly is, why some people are born with it while some aren’t, and that just makes you not care about it at all.
What makes this somewhat worse is the removal of two very crucial (according to me) elements from the remake. First is the absence of Mushu the dragon and General Li Shang. Mushu provided much of the comic relief to the story with his harebrained ideas and his witty clapbacks. Imagine if you took away the comic relief that the Genie brought to Aladdin. How would it feel? Exactly.
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Li Shang, again, was a pretty fun character whose admiration of and camaraderie with Mulan’s alter ego was rather endearing. So much so that it became over the years accepted as a bisexual canon love and Shang as an LGBTQ+ icon. Even if you set aside the representation, Gen. Li Shang was a handsome hoot that both Mulan and we could easily crush on. We get Honghui, but it just doesn’t feel the same, you know? The reason for this, as explained by the makers, is that the film wanted to be careful of not treading into the #MeToo zone, considering Li Shang was Mulan’s boss in the movie, and him falling for any version of her would be considered a little problematic. However, if you ask me, that’s a feels like a very far stretch since he only propositions her after she has left his employment.
The second thing was the removal of the songs. Now, Mulan OG had some pretty good ones, with ‘I’ll Make A Man Out Of You’ being my favourite! Director Niki Caro had spoken about the reason behind this change, as she thought the musical numbers didn’t fit in with her more serious, mature version of the story. And so, most of the original songs’ music has been fitted in instrumentally in the scenes as a tribute to the original.
Which brings me to my biggest complaint: Mulan is booooooring.
You think you’re disappointed? You don’t know how disappointed I am as I write this, or I was when halfway through the movie, I felt a soporific haze descend on me! Mulan seems to have forgotten that for all its woke upgrades and visual elegance, it is still a Disney movie and comes with certain expectations attached to it. Especially because the original is such a charming, funny, endearing story that you’re instantly invested in.
To me, the two Mulan movies feel like childhood and adolescence. The animated 1998 Mulan is like a child. It’s abundant in those warm mushy feels. It breaks out in song in the middle of an ongoing war! Its humour is also carefree, and it manages to make some pretty bold jokes about a woman living with a bunch of male soldiers, pretending to be one of them. It’s fun.
The live action Mulan, much like an adolescent, holds back and measures its words. It’s in that serious emo phase where it’s ‘finding itself’ so you have to also be serious around it, take the lessons, and move on.
The whole affair makes the film quite boring. I mean, I came to watch a Disney movie, and I’m not feeling butterflies and rainbows, nor am I feeling empowered in any way (like how Disney’s Frozen makes you feel, ya know?). So what are we doing here, guys?
Mulan looks nice. And has a few messages of female empowerment and lessons in integrity embedded in it that are well received. But call me old-fashioned, I like my Disney movies, animated or live action, to come with some heart and plenty of hearty laughs. And with Mulan, I’m just not feeling the Chi that I know Disney is capable of.
Sharp-tongued feminist. Proud nerd. Opinions with on-point pop-culture references about films, books, your toxic BF, the patriarchy, and the Oxford comma.