Mulan review: A colorful, confused take on a beloved classic

Disney's MULANMulan (Yifei Liu)Photo: Film Frame© 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Disney's MULANMulan (Yifei Liu)Photo: Film Frame© 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved. /

Despite decadent costumes and a sweeping score, Mulan’s determination to bloat an airtight story with new themes and characters is its downfall.

We’ll admit it. When we first heard that Mulan would be the next Disney animated film getting the live-action remake treatment, we were skeptical. No Li Shang? No Mushu? No singing? It seemed like the film was glutton for punishment — but then the first trailer dropped, and our faith was slowly restored. Maybe, we thought to ourselves, taking Mulan in a new, more “serious” direction would lead to more creative freedom, and the end result could be a beautiful Disney take on a classic war story steeped in legend.

Sadly though, the film we got was decidedly not what we’d hoped for. It was devoid of all charm from the original, but also over-reliant on the audience’s familiarity with the story to get us to keep watching. With new concepts like “chi” and a shapeshifting witch padding the runtime an extra half hour, Mulan is a sluggish, messy film that somehow manages to be less feminist than the original.

Starring Yifei Liu as the titular Fa Mulan, Mulan follows a spirited young woman, gifted with immense power called “chi,” who is living in Imperial China and disguises herself as a man to join the army and save her injured father from having to sacrifice his life. In addition to struggling to conceal her identity from her superiors (Donnie Yen, Ron Yuan) and her cohorts (Yoson An, Doua Moua, Jun Yu) Mulan also finds herself grappling with invading warlord Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and the shapeshifting witch who fights alongside him, Xianniang (Gong Li).

If the latter half of that sounds unfamiliar to you, it’s because this reimagining of Mulan adds quite a bit of new material and changes even more — but with very little success. The biggest cosmetic change is obviously the lack of singing, which we don’t terribly miss because it admittedly would’ve felt a little odd, given the more historical/war-centric tone the film seems to be aiming for. On a similar note, although the film is a little stale without Mushu as a source of comedic relief, that’s also one aspect of the original that makes sense to cut if the filmmakers were looking to take Mulan in a new direction.

Beyond those two things, however, virtually every other change from the original is for the worse. We don’t quite understand why Shan Yu (whose terrifying voice was provided by the late Miguel Ferrer) had to be changed to Bori Khan, a character who, for all intents and purposes, is the exact same as Shan Yu, just less intimidating. Jason Scott Lee is unremarkable in the role, which seems to be by design, because the film is very transparently pushing Xianniang as the film’s true antagonist.

On paper, her story really works. She’s a direct foil for Mulan, a sort of reflection for the path she could have taken, had she not stayed loyal, brave, and true. However, the film is so intent on making them two sides of the same coin that it feels forced and artificial as opposed to natural, especially because Xianniang and Mulan don’t meet until halfway through the film, and have no connection that would link them — symbolically or otherwise. It’s a shame, because Gong Li gives the film’s best performance as the shapeshifting witch, and she’s a genuinely sympathetic figure, as well as a very visually striking one.

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However, every time she clashes with Bori Khan, we can’t help but wonder why she doesn’t just deal with him then and there. She’s an incredibly powerful witch, and he’s just a regular man (albeit an intimidating one). It makes no sense that she continues to just sit by and take his insults and do his dirty work when at any time she could kill him and be on her way. Her obvious power but unwillingness to take control of her situation not only makes her difficult to root for, but also makes the film as a whole frustrating to watch. And so her sacrifice to save Mulan at the end of the film feels meaningless because she spends the entirety of the film doing nothing but taking insults and abuse from Bori Khan.

Despite the frustrations we had with Xianniang, she was just one of many changes/new additions to the film that drove us up the wall. Far and away the worst addition was the introduction of “chi,” a magical sort of life force that Mulan apparently has the ability to harness. The movie spends its first ten minutes introducing this concept, but we can’t for the life of us figure out why this had to be added to the film. The presence of chi utterly decimates what makes Mulan great: It takes her from a simple woman willing to do an extraordinary deed to protect someone she loves, to a Luke Skywalker-style hero who already has amazing powers and doesn’t need to struggle or work to develop her gifts; she already has them.

The addition of “chi” isn’t the only way Mulan decimates what was once a strong character. On the whole, Mulan has little to no personality, and instead of making active decisions for herself, she spends the runtime being told what to do, pushed around, and saved by men. Instead of forging her own path and acting in defiance, Mulan only gets to win when men in the narrative allow her to.

The film has a half dozen unremarkable male characters, all of whom blend together due to their lack of a discernable personality. Where Mulan was once known for its quippy, fast-paced dialogue, this Mulan feels sluggish and uninspired. The worst part is that, even though there’s an ensemble filled to the brim with male characters, the film cut out the most memorable man from the original: Li Shang. Instead, the role is split in two — Donnie Yen as the commanding officer, and Yoson An as the friend/potential (but unfulfilled) love interest — and neither really make a lasting impression on us.

Despite all of the attempts to differentiate it from the original, though, Mulan is still reliant on the audience’s knowledge of (and affection for) the original to make the story work. The story barely scrapes along and never really raises stakes or emphasizes key moments, seemingly because it assumes the audience already knows what’s going to happen. Whether on purpose or not, it falls back on the original to move the story along, which is especially frustrating because of how much that contradicts with the filmmaker’s narrative of making this version of Mulan a new, refreshing take on the original. Mulan wants to have it both ways, but it’s painfully obvious that if the original didn’t exist, this film just wouldn’t work.

Despite it’s beautiful, colorful costumes and sweeping cinematography, Mulan is also lackluster in terms of filmmaking. The fight scenes have a hokiness to them that takes us immediately out of the seriousness of this remake and has us scratching our heads as to whether or not the filmmakers intended for us to take it seriously. The sudden zooms, frequent cutting, and erratic camera movement all give the fight choreography a cartoonish (for lack of a better word) feel to them, and we don’t mean that in a good way.

Although it does boast some decadent visuals and a standout performance from Gong Li, Mulan‘s unnecessary changes and additions both pad the runtime and weaken its protagonist, resulting in an overworked and underbaked slog of a film that does the original a true injustice. Dishonor on you, dishonor on your live-action remake.

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