A REMAKE THAT BRINGS “HONOR”
TO ITS ANIMATED CLASSIC
In 1998, after the success of 1997’s Hercules, Walt Disney Studios released Mulan, their 36th animated feature film to moviegoers during the summertime. Directed by Barry Cook and Tony Bandcroft, the film, which starred the vocal talents of Ming-Na Wen, Eddie Murphy, BD Wong, and James Hong, takes place in China during the Han dynasty, where Fa Mulan, daughter of aged warrior, Fa Zhou, impersonates a man to take her father’s place during a general conscription to counter the on-coming Hun invasion. Released during the company’s famous “Disney Renaissance” era, Mulan, which was based off of the popular Chinese legend, was well-received by critics and moviegoers who praise the film’s animation, plot, characters, and musical score; grossing over $304 million at the box office worldwide. Additionally, Mulan earned both a Golden Glob and Academy Award nomination and won several Annie Awards, including Best Animated Feature. Following the film’s success and popularity, Disney did green lit a DTV (Direct-to-Video) sequel to Mulan, releasing Mulan II in 2005. However, the movie was poorly received by critics and viewers and a scheduled Mulan III feature film was effectively cancelled. Now, almost twenty-two years since the release of the original animated film, Walt Disney Studios and director Niki Caro presents the latest on-going trend of the studio adapting their properties into live-action features with the release of 2020’s Mulan. Does this live-action remake of the Disney classic shine or is it just another soulless “cash grab” on childhood nostalgia from the “House of Mouse”?
In ancient days of China, Mulan (Yifei Liu) is an independent young woman trying find her way in life; facing a lifetime of servitude, with her honorable father, Zhao (Tzi Ma), having high hopes for successful martial match. Such mundane task of conformity in a dutiful wife is something that Mulan doesn’t want and wants something more that to be trapped in a life she does not desire. However, when the evil Rouran, led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), make a plan to invade the land and conquer the Imperial City, the Emperor (Jet Li), orders the marshalling of soldiers to join forces and confront the oncoming threat, including Mulan’s father. Though he’s ready to defend his nation, Zhao is too old. Fearing what might become of him and realizing she’s of no use to the army as a female, Mulan takes his place; assumes a male identity and is soon put to work under Command Tung (Donnie Yen). Learning the ways of a soldiers and trying to bond with her fellow soldiers, including Chen (Yoson An), Mulan faces her greatest challenge as Tung’s men prepare for war with the Rouran, while the disguised woman is targeted by Xian (Gong Li), a witch that’s enslaved to Bori Khan who’s curious about the secretive warrior’s rare chi sprit.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Much like what I recently said in my “cinematic flashback” review for the 1998’s Mulan, the movie certainly had all the makings of a classic animated feature from the studio’s background. Yes, as I mentioned, the film came towards the tail end of Disney’s famous Renaissance era of theatrical animated films, took a little bit of different stance of trading off the more fairy-tale nuances and elements found in previous titles, but the gambit paid off. The depiction of Asian culture and various background influences were definitely interesting as well as the depiction of a female protagonist in a more active role of fighting and doing something that men could do. It was definitely a big step in animated storytelling and Mulan captured it beautifully. Plus, while all the voice talents involved were excellent, I personally loved Eddie Murphy’s Mushu as he was my favorite character in the movie. Plus, the score was good, the songs were good (though only four of them) and, of course, Christina Aguilera’s rendition of the film’s “Reflections” is something truly magical and memorable. However, much like a lot of Disney’s DTV (Direct-to-Video sequels) endeavors, I personally didn’t care for Mulan II; waning in a mediocre presentation of style and animation as well as storytelling compared to the original 1998 film. Regardless of that particular film, Disney’s Mulan was certainly a celebrated feature that it has received over the years and the enduring legacy it has spun within Disney’s culture.
This brings me back to talking about the 2020 live-action remake of Mulan and the latest feature film by Disney in their recent trend of updating their beloved animated classic into a new cinematic way. Given the long list of the previous live-action remakes that the “House of Mouse” have done (i.e. Alice in Wonderland, The Lion King, Dumbo, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, etc.), it was almost a forgone conclusion that the studio was eventually gonna get around to doing their 36th animated feature in a new cinematic light. While the idea seems quite fascinated and many looked towards its release, the idea of some of these endeavors have begun to waning and don’t exactly bringing anything new to the table and heavily relying a “point for point” nostalgia remake. Such was the case with 2019’s The Lion King…I think many can agree with that. Thus, I was little bit hesitant to see Mulan as a live-action remake. However, the studio stated that the movie wasn’t gonna be a beat-for-beat reshoot of the beloved classic and was gonna be a little bit of a departure from previous live-action projects. This notion kind of me interested me and was soon fully realized when the film’s various movie trailers were released; promising more focused of war, honor, and sacrifice in a more grounded way than one of cartoon-ish humor and musical songs. So, I was definitely looking forward to seeing Mulan when it was originally gonna be released on March 27th, 2020. However, due to the events of the COVID-19 pandemic, Disney shuffled Mulan’s releases several times before making the decision of placing the film on their Disney+ streaming service (for a September 4th release) instead of having a theatrical run. So, I waited and decide to check out Mulan on Disney+ when it finally got released. And what did I think of it? Well, I liked it. Despite a few problems with this movie, Disney’s live-action Mulan dazzles and shines within its new cinematic medium in retelling the famous tale. It may not outshine my personal favorite Disney live-action adaptation, but its definitely up there amongst the top three and better than some previous releases of late.
Mulan is directed by Niki Caro, whose previous directorial works includes such films like North Country, McFarland USA, and The Zookeeper’s Wife. Given the director’s background of character dramas of focused individuals in more scenery of realism and of humanity, Caro’s foray into Mulan is one of interest and makes the feature her most ambitious movie to date. To her credit, Caro approaches Mulan in a somewhat different way from several recent endeavors of translating a Disney animated classic into a live-action feature film by ways and means of taking away many of the whimsical aspects of the original movie. What do I mean? Well, while the 1998 Mulan had all the dresses and trimmings of a Disney animated film (i.e. princesses, comical side characters, and musical songs), the 2020 version does do away with a lot of the notion, with Caro, along with the script writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, and Elizabeth Martin, grounding the story with something a bit more grittier and action-oriented. This, of course, means that the movie cuts the famous songs from the 1998 film as well as the character of Mushu, a fan-favorite of 1998’s Mulan. While this may dismay some diehard fans out there, I personally like this notion of omitting Mushu and the musical songs from the feature, especially since the 2020 Mulan is a bit more mature and serious within how it presents its story. Plus, as a side-note, I do like the idea of Phoenix being a somewhat spiritual ancestral guardian successor in the movie in replacing the character of Mushu from the 1998 one (kind of mystifying). Additionally, given the more gravitas nature of the film, it would be a little bit silly if characters start bursting into song.
Still, Caro and the writers frame the feature in the same way that the original animated film. Departing within its tones and certain nuances of characters, majority of the major plot points and storyline beats are virtually the same. So, don’t expect the film to be drastically different. What the movie does change and add is the usage of “Chi”, a universal energy flow that lives in all around us and gives its users the power to height abilities as well as usage of mystical arts of magic. The idea, while not entirely original, is something that changes up the status quo formula of Mulan and adds new elements to the narrative as well as the staging of actions sequences that something akin to the fanciful fight choreography found in popular Asian features with a heightened sense of visual nuances (i.e. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). All in all, the steps and measure to take Mulan in a slightly different direction is one that I liked and, while it isn’t perfect, it’s done in a way that doesn’t take away from the spirt of the story being told nor to the beloved animated feature as well as being a better representation of Disney’s live-action remakes since some of its more recent entries.
In the presentation category, Mulan certainly feels like a Disney feature film. Not so much within its nuances of characters and story, but within its visual representation as the film feels like a quality made feature endeavor from a major studio; complete with lavish costumes, staging of scenes, production / set layouts, and large sense of grandness and scope. In this regard, 2020’s Mulan succeeds and has a very lavishing and epic “look and feel” throughout the feature’s runtime; capturing the beauty and cultural landscape and background of Ancient China that feels almost mystical. Thus, the “behind the scenes” efforts made by Grant Major (production designs), Anne Kuljian (set decorations), and Bina Daigeler (costume designs) as well as the members of the Art Department team should be commended for their work on the film. Additionally, the visual action scenes (visual effect shots as well as staged choregraphing moments) should also be noted and, while not revolutionary, are still quite compelling to watch and entertaining in a spectacle / blockbuster-ish way. Also, the movie score, which was composed by Harry Gregson-Williams is spot on and definitely has a great musical composition pieces that harmonizes with every particular scene. The best, I must point out is hearing the melodies of the “Reflection” theme being played with rousing and epic sweeps that make it feel triumphant. Love it!
Unfortunately, there are few criticisms towards that the movie that hold Mulan back from reaching titular cinematic greatness. Yes, I definitely agree that the film one of the better Disney live-action remakes than some of its more recent ones released, but it still holds something back; hampering the feature to what could’ve been as well as struggling to match the 1998 animated classic. As mentioned, one does certainly have to take a step back from the 1998 version of Mulan when examining this particular 2020 movie. That being said, I felt that the overall flow and pacing of the 1998 film was better handled in its presentation; having the narrative beats / plot points move from one scene to the next. I’m not saying that the script was bad or anything like that, but its shaping and how Caro maneuvers the film’s direction from time to time. Again, I do understand how the movie needs to stand on its own (with its own merits) as well as keeping one foot in the tradition and styles of Disney, especially to the original animated film. However, I felt that ebb and flow of the 1998 version (i.e. characters, story, pacing, etc.) were handled better than the 2020 live-action. It’s hard to put my exact finger on it, but, while it’s a very good and admirable attempt in reimagining the film, it just doesn’t surpass its original.
Another poignant criticism of the film is the new narrative mechanic that the feature utilizes within its storyline, with the usage of “chi” power that Mulan and several characters use the movie. Again, as mentioned above, its definitely something different and I do appreciate the new component in this live-action remake, but it’s kind of changes the formula from a “average girl” to become a “superhero” origin tale. How so? The explaining of Chi and heightened awareness certainly offers up some action / cinematic choreography and nuances to the proceedings, but it kind of changes the main theme of Mulan from a person succeeding through their natural abilities (i.e. courage, bravery, and doing the right thing) with a quality of an “everyman”(or “everywoman” mind you) to one of a superhero aspect of superhuman abilities of narrative influences. In that regard, the story’s narrative format is quite predictable and has been done many times beforehand, especially in the recent years of the multitude of superhero feature films being released. It’s not a super big “dealbreaker” for me, but it just doesn’t flow correctly sometimes; feeling a little bit too conventional in the theatrical landscape of storytelling.
As for minor point of criticism, I would say that the movie has a bit of a pacing issue in a few areas. Despite have a runtime of under two hours in length (one hour and fifty-five minutes), Mulan does have a few parts that seem a bit elongated within scenes / sequences that could’ve been more ironed out. This is most apparent during the film’s first act, which does seem to be slower / weaker parts of the movie’s three acts. Plus, I do have to say that some new material added, such as Mulan’s sister (Hua Xiu) feels a bit forced and quite inconsequential to the story as whole. Kind of feels like a abandoned plot point that got lost in the shaping of the film’s screenplay.
The cast of Mulan is pretty good and definitely handles themselves quite well in both acting abilities and in their respective characters. However, some of the particular characters themselves aren’t quite as sharpened as the script sets them up to be and can’t break away from the established architype molds of which they are (i.e. hero, villain, side character, etc.). Still, for most part, the talents that plays these characters elevate them whenever on-screen. At the head of the movie is actress Yifei Liu, who plays the film’s central main protagonist hero in Hua Mulan. Known for her roles in The Assassins, The Third Way of Love, and The Forbidden Kingdom, Liu handles herself well in the titular role of Hua Mulan and demonstrates all the various characteristic facets one would expect from title hero character (i.e strength, vulnerability, determination, etc.). All of this Liu sells and definitely fits the character role quite well. The character herself isn’t that quite different from how she was presented in the 1998 animated film, but I don’t think it needs to be as the story revolves around Mulan’s journey. Plus, the idea of the “Chi” (for better or worse) works within the movie’s narrative and brings a bit mystical property to the character’s proceedings. Overall, I thought that Liu was terrific as Mulan and definitely helps sell the movie in every way possible.
Interestingly, the movie takes a different stance on Mulan’s love interest (sort of). While the animated film sees the title character fall in love with her commanding officer (Captain Li Shang), the 2020 version creates a new character in the form of Chen Honghui, a fellow solider recruit that acts as a friendly rival to the character of Mulan and somewhat love interest and who is played by actor Yoson An (The Luminaries and Fresh Eggs). Plus, it fits the narrative better than Mulan would kind of fall in love with a fellow soldier rather than her commanding officer. That being said, the 2020 Mulan does have a commander officer character that similar to Captain Li Shang, with the character of Commander Tung, an officer in the Imperial Army. Played by actor Donnie Yen (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Ip Man), the character acts as more of the stalwart commander type figure that has been done many times over, but it suits the role in the movie quite well, especially with the more action scenes. Plus, I do like Yen and I liked him as Tung. Also, I did like that actor Jet Li (Fearless and The One) plays the character of the Emperor in the movie. The character is, more or less, a side character in the movie (much like how he was in the 1998 version), but Li makes the most of the screen-time and certainly pulls off the grandeur and gracefully persona of a Chinese Emperor.
In the role of the antagonist, 2020’s Mulan has two, with the villainous characters of Bori Khan, a warrior leader that commands the Rouran army, and Xianniang, a powerful shapeshifting witch that aides Bori Khan on his quest for domination over the empire. Of course, Bori Khan is quite similar (almost based off of) to the character villain of Shan Yu from the original 1998 animated film, but the movie tries to flesh out the character to give some insight behind Khan’s motivations for conquest. However, there is not much to him beyond a few throwaway dialogue lines; resulting in Bori Khan being pretty much the same as Shan Yu (i.e. not much differences). Naturally, actor Jason Scott Lee (Lilo & Stich and The Jungle Book) gives a convincing performance as Bori Khan, with a great sense of intimidation and villainy to the character, so that does make the character better than his straightforward villainy. As for Xianniang, the character, which was newly created for this adaptation, seems much more dynamic and powerful to see as a bad guy antagonist in the movie…. more so than Bori Khan. Her powers are interesting and cool and she has more of a sympathetic background to understand who she is and why she’s kind of like the “darker half” of what the character of Mulan could possibly become. Plus, actress Li Gong (Curse of the Golden Flower and Memoirs of a Geisha) does a terrific job in the role and certainly plays up the viciousness as well vulnerable doubt that plagues the character. Perhaps one of the greatest changes / additions made to the Mulan story is her character.
The rest of the cast, including actor Nelson Lee (Blade: The Series and Stargirl) as the Emperor’s council known as the Chancellor, actor Ron Yuan (Marco Polo and Sons of Anarchy) as Sergeant Qiang, actor Jun Yu (Fresh Off the Boat) as hapless soldier recruit named Cricket, actor Jimmy Wong (Video Game High School and MyMusic) as fellow soldier recruit Ling, actor Chen Tang (Warrior and Grey’s Anatomy) as fellow soldier recruit Yao, actor Douga Moua (Gran Tornio and Tournament) as fellow soldier recruit Chien-Po, actress Pei-Pei Cheng (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Ice Fantasy) as the Matchmaker, actor Tzi Ma (The Farewell and Rush Hour) as Mulan’s father Hua Zhou, actress Rosalind Chou (Plus One and The Joy Luck Club) as Mulan’s mother Hua Li, and actress Xana Tang (The Let Down and Dead Lucky) as Mulan’s sister Hua Xiu, are delegated to smaller supporting roles in the movie. Though the character on-screen time can be somewhat limited to the other major players in the movie (despite some being sensible characters in Mulan’s story), the acting talents that play them are solid across the board.
Lastly, there is one cameo appearance of the original voice actors from the 1998 Mulan version. I wouldn’t spoil who it is, but just keep an eye out or rather a ear out to hear her voice in the live-action film.
With the invasion of the Rouran army encroaching upon the land and to spare her father’s life, a young girl finds herself poised to show the empire what one person can do in the movie Mulan. Director Niki Caro’s latest film takes the iconic 1998 Disney film and translates it into a live-action remake; the latest in the studio’s current trend of reimagining their beloved properties into new cinematic mediums. While the film can’t quite surpass the original in terms of story and characters (as well as having a few pacing issues and clunky new elements), the movie (as a whole) is effectively good and better than most of Disney’s live action remake adaptations of late, especially thanks to Caro’s direction, the action oriented tones, the visual aspect / appeal, the solid cast, and its entertainment value. Personally, I liked this movie. Yes, it wasn’t absolutely perfect, but it still was fundamentally fun to watch and I was entertained more than what I was expecting the film to be. I mean…after seeing the other live-action remakes by Disney (i.e. Aladdin, Dumbo, and The Lion King), 2020’s Mulan is definitely a step forward in the right direction. Naturally, this means that I would that my recommendation for this movie is a “highly recommended” one; a finer adaptation from the “House of Mouse” as I’m sure fans of the 1998 animated film will like it as well as causal moviegoers. In the end, while Disney will most likely continue its trend of revisiting and updating its beloved animated properties for new cinematic presentations, Mulan stands as something that the studio should aspire; keeping one foot firmly in its past and the other in new territory. In this regard, Mulan is a remake “worth fighting for”.
4.1 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)
Released On: September 4th, 2020
Reviewed On: September 8th, 2020
Mulan is 115 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence