Walt Disney Pictures
Directed by Niki Caro
Written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, Elizabeth Martin
Starring: Liu Yifei, Donnie Yen, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Gong Li, and Jet Li
As I watched the live-action remake of Mulan, I found myself reminiscing on the original animated film. It’s a beautiful work, not just for its color palette or music, but the way it managed to weave both of those elements into a rollicking piece of filmmaking. Mulan doesn’t just work as a story of a woman proving her worth against a society dominated by men. It also works as a story about how even the most ordinary among us can rise to meet the most extraordinary of circumstances.
The original Mulan is a classic. The same cannot be said for this live-action remake. This version of Mulan strips the original of everything that made it moving or delightful. Gone are the musical numbers, here replaced by cringe-inducing dialogue that directly references them. One could make a drinking game out of the number of times the phrase “honor to us all” is spoken in the film.
It’s emblematic of how this version of Mulan tries to bank on nostalgia while trying to set its own course, and failing in both areas. Nowhere is its attempt to modernize the story more clumsy than with the character of Mulan herself. In the original film, she is an obedient young daughter who wishes to do right by her father. When she runs off to take his place fighting the Huns, she soon realizes she has no natural skills as a soldier. The tension during “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” isn’t just in hoping she doesn’t get found out by her comrades. It’s in hoping that she can actually prove her worth as a soldier. By the end, she manages to overcome her weaknesses and saves China from the fearsome Hun invaders. She may not have possessed the prodigious strengths necessary to be a legendary warrior, but she didn’t need them. In the end, it’s her determination and the loyalty of her companions that lets her emerge victorious.
This version of Mulan is a prodigious warrior from the start, one who is stoic and implacable. This would be fine if she at least had some entertaining companions she could bounce off of, but alas: there are none to be found here. They are instead replaced by one man who serves no function in the story aside from falling in love with Mulan. There is no one here to bring out Mulan’s human qualities, her humor, or her empathy for others. She isn’t victorious because of the bonds she forges with her friends. She’s victorious because she’s simply a better killer than the villain.
It’s a shame, because the film is quite beautiful to look at. The sets are intricately detailed and colorful, the costumes are vibrant, and the lush landscapes of New Zealand and China are captured here in stunning detail. One can see the visual inspirations from such Zhang Yimou works like Hero or House of Flying Daggers. However, in quality, it’s closer to The Great Wall.
What we’re left with is a film that is too dull for children and too dour for adults, and wastes time that would be better spent watching the original film for free on Disney+.