Updated: Mar 10, 2021
If you know me, as well as others like myself, I've become sick to death of all the remakes coming from Disney as of late. Normally, I would've been fine with them if they were meant to provide a different take on the story being told or to strengthen the craft going hand-in-hand with that story, but the quantity and collective lack of thought, effort, and distinguishability shown through many of these got on my nerves and those of many other people, who just wanted to see Disney push more creative boundaries and not wrap their heads so much around what came before.
But then, there's this one remake that would come along to challenge how you perceive the capabilities of a live-action remake from Disney, as well as how to make a genuinely well-meaning live-action remake that intended to stand on its own two feet. And that remake, to me, was Mulan.
The story, I think it's a safe bet you're already acquainted with. In Ancient China, a young girl named Mulan struggled to fit into her family circle and village dynamics because of her rambunctious antics. But to make matters worse, China was being invaded by incoming soldiers from the North, so the Emperor decreed that one man from every family shall volunteer and join the army to fight against them. And, to Mulan's horror, that included her father, Hua Zhou. After protesting about his participation in the army, Mulan decided to take her father's place in the army by disguising herself as a boy, self-nicknamed Hua Jun, leaving with her father's armor, sword, and horse, and departing from her village so she could join the army and fight.
While that's going on, the leader of the invaders, Böri Khan, played by Jason Scott Lee, plotted his and his men's tactics to take over China and especially settle the score with the Emperor, who wronged him in the past. It turned out, of course, he was also doing this in cahoots with a witch named Xianniang, played by Gong Li, who was helping him further his goals against China. It would eventually have gotten to a point where these two opposing forces inevitably found and fought against each other, resulting in, among other things, a confrontation between Mulan and the witch, who admitted to Mulan that they possibly shared more in common than Mulan'd like to believe.
The first thing I will say about this movie is that out of all the live-action remakes ever made by Disney, this one I was genuinely the most excited to see. Why? Because unlike 80% of Disney's other remakes, where they were just carbon copies of the same movie, except it was recreated in live-action, this movie intended to tell its own spin on the classic story of Mulan, complete with some callbacks to the animated Mulan for good measure. The way I see it, a good remake should be able to tell a classic story, or of a classic movie, on its own artistic merits.
Think about it. The Coen Brothers' True Grit retold the story of a little girl venturing out into the Wild West to seek down her father's killer with a darker sense of humor and a more grizzly portrayal of the Wild West. Bradley Cooper remade A Star is Born with a contemporary edge, showcasing that the issues brought up in the past versions of the movie still carried relevance. Both Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments were remakes of old black and white silent films, and embellished their stories with color, sound, and an even greater scope.
And before I saw it, the Mulan remake looked like it had the potential to be that kind of remake judging from what it meant to pull off.
As for what I thought of it after finally seeing it for myself... well, let's just say it had a lot of strong points, but still struggled with some of the others. It was, to put it mildly, so close, yet so far.
Let's start with some of the more obvious changes. This film was meant to be more faithful in spirit to the original ballad of Mulan, with more focus devoted on the elegant elements of the story. One primary example I remembered was that unlike the animated Mulan, where she was an only child and had a grandmother, here, she had a sister. This was like the original ballad, where Mulan did have siblings. Of course, one detail that was new about the sister was that she was afraid of spiders.
This version was also meant to be a more mature take on the natures of war. In fact, I was flat-out shocked when I found out that this was going to be rated PG-13. Being that this was a reimagining of the animated movie, in a sense, it told me right away that unlike its animated brethren, which expressed the natures of war in a very indirect, subtle way, this version decided to take a more upfront look at them. And because this was a live-action war movie, this seemed like the right way to go.
As is, some of the natures of war were shown in noticeable enough detail, such as some of the comrades, as well as the enemies, being shot with arrows onscreen and, even for a few seconds, some reflection on how these comrades have fallen in action. But for the most part, the action on the battlefield was mostly bloodless, save for one scene where Xianniang dripped blood after Mulan stabbed her in the hand.
In fact, you remember what I said about the falcon in the original film, and how I thought that it could’ve used a little more involvement and participation for the Huns in the movie?
Well, that falcon sure had a bigger role in this version of Mulan... and then some. Apparently, the falcon was one of the many forms Xianniang took to pull off certain tasks for the Rourans, such as eavesdropping or even reporting to the higher-ups in China about the goings-on concerning them, mostly in the form of an Imperial Scout.
I found Xianniang to be a fascinating, but slightly uncertain, addition to the story of Mulan. Throughout the movie, it seemed like she was working for Böri Khan and helping him with his plans for revenge, but other times it felt like she was the one pulling the strings, with Khan being just a pawn in schemes of her own. And then, later on, when Xianniang went face-to-face with Mulan, she tormented Mulan about how she was pretending to be someone or something that she wasn't, and that, just like Mulan, she too, was rejected by society just because of her gender. She had plenty of interesting capabilities and qualities to her, but I felt like they were mostly undermined a little by the uncertainties of her commitment, direct or indirect, on the battlefield.
Another big change you may notice from the movie is that the movie completely removed Mushu and the 'lucky' cricket. The way I saw it, that made sense, seeing that this movie is a live-action version of Mulan and that having those characters in the movie would've felt out of place. Instead, they, along with the ancestors - I’ll get to that shortly - were replaced by the Huas' spirit animal, the Phoenix. And truth be told, using that spirit animal as the Huas' guardian was a clever move on the movie's part. While the dragon in the original movie was powerful, the Phoenix kind of tied to the overarching theme of Mulan's ways of rising to the challenge, succumbing to the wounds of her being discovered as a woman, and then rising again to meet the challenge once more, this time more powerful than ever before.
While we're still on that subject, let's talk about the magical elements in the movie. At first glance, some people might find this off-putting, since Mulan is a war story. However, the way I see it, both versions of Mulan from Disney had some elements of magic, yet they each kept their focus on the greater stakes at hand, like the war effort and what needed be done to outmaneuver the opposing side. In the animated film, the ancestors arrived as spirits, brought Mushu to life, and that's it. Here, much of the magic only came from the Witch, with one of her biggest powers being the ability to shapeshift into different people and animals. And the Phoenix, while it looked magical, felt like nothing more than what you'd see in a guardian angel, if you will.
And speaking of removing characters, the character Shang was replaced with two characters in this movie. One was the commanding officer himself, Commander Tung, played by Donnie Yen, and one of Mulan's war comrades, Chen Honghui, played by Yoson An. I felt as if Chen was the more vulnerable and sympathetic qualities of Shang if they manifested themselves into a separate character. He was very respectable, but sadly, I did not find him that interesting. He just showed support for 'Hua Jun' when she was down on her luck, just showed a second of bewilderment when the truth came out about 'Jun's' identity, and still stuck to her side through thick and thin. And, at some points throughout the movie, he and Mulan, both in and out of her disguise, started showing hints of a romantic relationship. They were subtle and, thankfully, never overplayed, also like in the animated movie. In fact, this had me wondering, you remember the young boy in the animated movie who stepped in to declare that he would've taken his father's place in the army? I might be overthinking this, and this may not be true, but could it have been that this boy was Chen? If that were true, then that's reason enough to stir up my inner Matchmaker.
Also, as intimidating and no-nonsense as Commander Tung was on a normal basis, he wasn't without some tender moments of his own. When Mulan, as 'Hua Jun', came in to talk to Tung about her identity, he assured her that fear in the face of battle was nothing to be ashamed of, and that having known Hua Zhou in wars past, he would've been thrilled to introduce her to his daughter back home, thinking that his Matchmaker would've found them to be the perfect match.
And the comrades in the original movie, Ling, Yao, and Chien Po? The closest things we had to those guys in this movie were a couple of war comrades who were just obnoxious, as well as a plump guy who was prone to being emotional sometimes and thus derided for it.
As for the villains of this movie, besides Xianniang, Böri Khan and the Rourans were introduced with more menacing qualities compared to the Huns in the animated movie, such as them plundering nearby villages, especially with Xianniang helping them out, and proved themselves a force to be reckoned with. And, the leader, Böri Khan, was introduced with more interesting qualities based on his personality. While the Rourans were not given enough exposition, Böri Khan mentioned how he decided to retaliate against China, and especially the Emperor, because of his land being taken over by China and his father being slain by the Emperor once he rebelled about it. This was a step up from Shan-Yu in the original animated movie, where he simply held a grudge against China and the Emperor, but this also introduced plenty of questions. For instance, what did China want his land for? Was the Emperor a flawed person for wanting to take over someone else's land? Was Khan's father rebelling for his people, or was he as infuriated about China's encroachment as Khan was? In fact, the collaboration between him and Xianniang introduced even more questions. How was she mocked by society before Khan found her? Or did she find him? Was it he who turned to her for guidance in his quest for vengeance? Or did she go to him and make that promise herself?
Now, the animated Mulan was only an hour and a half long, whereas this Mulan was a little close to two hours long. And honestly, I think it could've used at least another half an hour of footage to go into a little more detail on some of the things that were begging to the explored more. Like, say, Chen's background or the war comrades' backgrounds, Böri Khan's history, Xianniang's history, or even show a little bit more of the travesties of the war effort from both sides. Or, how about more light being shed on the background of Commander Tung, like when he still had Hua Zhou as one of his soldiers in training? When you really get down to it, this is a Disney remake with plenty of artistic merit, like Cinderella, Jon Favreau's Jungle Book, and arguably Pete's Dragon. But it is also a PG-13 rated war flick, much like Spartacus, Doctor Zhivago, and Princess Mononoke. With that kind of distinguishment from all other movies like it, it could have benefitted from further exploration of the war being fought, as well as on the characters participating in it.
In fact, unlike the animated movie or even the original ballad, the village Mulan grew up in was located in a circular wooden structure called a Fuijan tulou. That...was definitely not the kind of Chinese village I had in mind. And while I admire the movie's intent to introduce worldwide audiences to that type of structure and rural setting in China, it just didn't make sense for the story of Mulan. You see, these structures, from what I just read about them as of this writing, were constructed between the 12th and 20th centuries, whereas the events of Mulan occurred as far back as the middle of the first millennium, like 400-700 AD. Couldn't they have picked a more appropriate village that was custom in China as well as to the time period in which Mulan was set?
Ah, well, these were the biggest complaints I have about the movie. Let's move on to the good stuff.
Let's start with the actors. Besides the majority of them being just the right ethnicity to portray the characters in the movie, they all expressed a commitment to their body language and ended up making many of the characters in the movie feel authentic in their expressions. In situations where it was elegant, the performers spoke in a very elegant mood. When the situations were uncertain or ominous, the actors allowed their characters to express themselves the same way anyone in these situations would have reacted...most of the time. Whenever I thought of the performances in the movie, I couldn't have thought of one that felt either wooden, overdone, or out of place; to me, it all worked.
And of course, the highlight among these performances was Yifei Liu as Hua Mulan.
I was in awe over her boldness whenever she conveyed them through Mulan, and even though at times, she made Mulan look too uncaring in some of the more extreme moments, there were times when Liu squeezed in moments that showed just how aware Mulan was of the heavy-handed circumstances and how she felt about them, whether she was responsible for them or not. Tiu's expressions helped Mulan show herself off as a very skilled, capable swordswoman who can hold her own in battle, look very elegant, and even look a skosh silly when being put in certain social roles expected out of women like her at the time. Many of the strengths in Liu's acting helped smooth out some of the more minuscule bumps that may have occurred in between the more authentic moments.
Case in point: during her time in the war camp as 'Hua Jun', she and the soldiers were reminded by Commander Tung of the three virtues that made a great soldier. And they were "loyal, brave, and true". But while Hua Jun enthusiastically repeated the first two words, knowing she lived up to them, she stumbled a little on “true”, because of how she had to hide her gender from the entire army. Little moments like that were sprinkled from her throughout the movie, and when they did express themselves, they felt genuine. I'll always love the original Mulan, but I still ought to give credit to Liu for making Mulan look so resilient, confident, and even a little vulnerable at times.
Something else I admired about the movie was the shots. Sometimes, when the movie wasn't busy talking about war or family duty, it allowed some moments for the characters, but mostly the audience, to take in the full beauty and scope of the Chinese landscapes. Some of the shots of the mountains with the sunrise creeping up behind them were stunning, and some of the shots of either the Chinese gardens or the fields or even the Imperial City, they were really breathtaking. They almost made you feel like wanting to visit this place sometime soon just so you can immerse yourself into the country for all its cultures and ethics.
Even when you compare this to the shots of the other live-action remakes, they were a bit dull with their expressions of the beauties of their locations, with Aladdin being the closest to capturing the spirit of the location of the original animated movie. Here, I watched the scenery in as much awestruck admiration as I did from watching the animated Mulan.
Speaking of which, the costumes and makeup were just astounding. Whether it's the handmaiden outfits or the war armor, the precision in detail spotted on each of them just screamed either Chinese culture or Chinese battlegrounds, they were that authentic.
Next up, the action. Whether it was on the battlefield or even in other locations, the way the characters responded to certain situations was very exciting to see. What was even better was that they ranged from something as small as Mulan trying to save the dishware from shattering in the Matchmaker's place to the more obvious modes of action in the battlefield, such as Mulan tricking the the Rourans into flinging a flaming boulder into a mountain to trigger an avalanche to bury most of them with. Every time someone responded to deal with certain situations at hand, they were riveting, and more often than not, they kept you hooked, like I was.
And this leads me to what I consider the absolute best aspect of the entire movie: the stunts. The amount of choreography the actors put into their movements and martial arts were amazing, and they added to the excitement of the circumstances going on in the movie, as well as to the authenticity of the Chinese methods of combat. I can imagine the actors going through months and months of training just to nail down the right movements necessary for each character, including Mulan, to express, and it paid off big time.
Of course, let's talk about three of the biggest problems this movie had outside its artistic realms.
One, it had to deal with snide remarks from people who expressed misgivings over this movie at a time when America, and the whole world, was suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic. Why? Because the disease was carried over from China, and after it spread, there was a kind of uncertainty being expressed over this movie's potential because of it being about Chinese customs. True, the movie may not have come at a worse time, but why express hesitance over a movie that had nothing to do with what happened to share the same origins as its story?
Two, the movie was subject to boycott threats from people who lambasted Yifei Liu's political views, where she expressed support for the Chinese police when they came to take over Hong Kong, an otherwise Democratic unit. Because many people were a little sensitive about anti-Democratic motives and views, this caused them to become misconstrued over those issues concerning this movie. Yes, the political expressions were questionable, but let's not forget that this is the same lady who gave a terrific performance in the movie as the main lead, and the efforts from all the actors and the crew members were very evident throughout the movie. Don't let anything like one individual's political opinions deter you from giving credit where credit is due.
But the biggest and most annoying onslaught of criticism came from those who complained about the movie being nothing like the animated movie. That is to say, they didn't like how the songs were not used, and they were especially P.O.'d that neither Mushu nor Shang was in the movie. Well, guess what? The differences I made clear about the movie, as well as its pursuits in giving itself its own identity, were exactly what I wanted to see from this movie. For too long, we've been fed constant remakes from Disney that, as I said, were the same thing, just in live-action, and to see a movie like this try to pull off something that allowed itself to stand on its own two feet compared to its animated counterpart was nothing short of refreshing. And you know who else shared my opinion on this? Tony Bancroft, one of the co-directors of the original movie. So you know the movie did something right when the director of the original movie gave it his seal of approval, and it saddens me to see so many people making a big fuss over Disney treating them to something that was beyond their comfort zone.
Simply put, we are surrounded by spoiled brats.
But getting back to the movie itself, is it the best live-action remake that Disney ever made? I wish. Do I think some elements from the movie should have been more refined or given more exploration? Without question. But all the same, I am very happy I saw it. Having grown up with the original Mulan, I knew it would've taken a very skilled crew of actors, writers, and directors to craft a recognizable classic story into something that really showed promise. And the cast and crew of Mulan 2020 did exactly that. What started as Disney's most curious live-action remake imaginable became one of the most flawed, yet confident and - in my opinion - misunderstood live-action remakes ever made, period. It may not be among the best films Disney ever made, and it could've been better, but when I compare this to more than half of the live-action remakes that came before it, I say to them, 'eat your heart out.'
The original Mulan will always bring honor to me, while this Mulan seemed honorable enough. And honorable enough is good enough for me.
My Rating: B.
— The funny thing is, at first, when I saw the woman introducing Mulan to the Emperor, I thought that was Mulan all dressed up again, before it was just a handmaiden introducing her to him. But then, when I looked up the movie, it turns out that was Mulan, or, rather, the voice actress of the animated Mulan herself, Ming-Na Wen. That was just one good example of the remake providing subtle, flavorful callbacks to the original animated movie.
— It's interesting just how debatable it is about how faithful this movie is to the original ballad. The original ballad said that Mulan got the horse, sword, armor, and so forth, from plenty of marketplaces across her village, and that she spent up to twelve years fighting in the battlefield, without ever showing off her gender to the army until their comrades met up with her in her own home and saw her for who she really was. I guess the live action movie still had to hold onto the gender-reveal (no pun intended) for the second act for dramatic liberties.
Come to think of it, there was this cute scene where Mulan saw a pair of rabbits, one male and one female, hopping alongside each other and later talking to her family about it. This was actually a nice callback to the ending of the original ballad.
— I remember reading from somewhere that the biggest reason Shang was replaced with Commander Tung and Chen Honghui in this version of Mulan was so the creators would've removed what they thought were uncomfortable allegories of the male authority figure making the moves on the woman, mostly in response to the MeToo movements going on. Conceptualizing Commander Tung and Chen for different artsitic pursuits, I would've approved of. But this is BEYOND ridiculous. You do know Shang never even knew Mulan was a girl until she was shown off as she was, right? And he never even attempted to make moves on her at all; he just didn't know how to express his feelings for her.
— Speaking of the COVID-19, this was originally supposed to be released in theaters in March of 2020. But when the disease started to spread, this was delayed until late in the summer. And when it started to be hit with more and more delays, Disney ultimately decided to downgrade this movie to a Disney+ exclusive, albeit with a Premier Access rental fee. After seeing this movie, I wish this still came out in theaters instead of on Disney+. Who knows how cool it would've been to see all the hefty action and war scenes on the big screen?
Something else I ought to get off my chest is that at first, I didn't mind the delays as long as the delayed dates coincided with the lessening effects of COVID-19. But now, as of this writing, and even though plenty of theaters across the country have opened up and are ready for action, a few more delays of certain movies cropped up, especially by Disney. And honestly, it's starting to feel like a real pain in the butt at this point.