It’s hard not to feel for Mulan.
It bares the weight of Disney’s gargantuan bottom line, a $200 million behemoth that further extends the mega-studio’s ambition to plumb the depths of its animated canon and capitalize on millennial nostalgia. It’s an overwhelming cross to bear on its own, and that’s without factoring in a global pandemic that ravaged the world and shuttered Hollywood.
Mulan went from a surefire box office smash to a begrudging test subject for the future of film distribution. Disney is betting that would-be theater-goers will shell out $30 on top of their Disney+ subscription for “premier access” to this highly-anticipated film (instead of just waiting until December). With industry-shifting consequences abound, Mulan represents a huge, unenviable risk. Much like its titular character on the battlefield, failure is not an option.
What relief, then, for Disney executives whose hides are hitched to this experiment that Mulan is worth that “Premier Access” price tag. Unlike several of its predecessors, Mulan eschews the compulsion to act as a carbon-copy of the original to forge its own distinct path.
That path begins with the new Hua Mulan, played by Liu Yifei. This Mulan is not the clumsy, awkward young woman many may remember. Here, she is a gifted combatant who can run up walls and balance falling teacups on her hands and feet. Her abilities immediately make her different, and her parents fear she won’t find a suitable marital match and bring honor to their family. Those concerns are eclipsed by the threat of an impending siege by the Rouran army, led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and Xian Lang (Gong Li), a shapeshifting witch. The Emperor orders the conscription of one man from each household to fight and, fearing for her disabled father’s life, Mulan masquerades as a man and takes his place within the Army.
The plot beats are pretty much the same, but the live-action Mulan deviates significantly from the original. The most important change is how the film is re-built around Mulan’s innate physicality. Director Niki Caro plays Mulan as a straightforward action-adventure instead of the musical comedy like the animated version. The sitcom hijinks, sing-along musical numbers, and cartoonish sidekicks are excised in favor of action-packed moments and dialed-up Chinese mythology. It’s the kind of change that Disney adaptations tend to avoid, but Caro’s interpretation works, giving Mulan’s story more weight and substance than it had before. The film takes itself seriously, but isn’t devoid of charm or appreciation for the original. There are clever references, callbacks and sight gags throughout that keep it from being the humorless slog that one might expect.
Mulan is also a stunning visual enterprise. Disney clearly spared no expense in bringing Imperial China to vivid life: the production design is uniformly exquisite, as are the intricate and beautifully detailed costumes. Cinematographer Mandy Walker’s work is triumphant, capturing all of this splendor within stunningly creative shots and awe-inspiring sequences. The action set pieces, more critical than they were in the original, are awe-inspiring, with Caro exhibiting a powerful command of them. The one weak spot is the CGI, which can be distracting in a few key scenes, but it doesn’t stop Mulan from being a true feast for the eyes.
Mulan could’ve afforded to extend the visual ambition to its characterization. The decision to make Mulan a skilled fighter from the offset actually weakens her character arc a bit. Animated Mulan earns her abilities through hard work and strict training, giving her a classic personal narrative of self-discovery. Live-action Mulan’s development comes from the inner turmoil over her deception and inability to be “loyal, brave, and true,” which isn’t as compelling. The naturally gifted superhero is a trope as old as time, but unlike the best of them, Mulan lacks a sense of self-actualization. Moments like her first battle out of disguise are beautifully realized, but lack the thematic wallop to make them truly transcendent.
Mulan’s character is also explored in contrast to Xian Lang, an intriguing concept that isn’t pushed far enough. Both women’s abilities are credited to a strong chi, or life force, which Mulan establishes as an admirable trait in men, but a feared one in women. Xian Lang is a dark mirror image of Mulan, representing the path she could possibly take after being shunned by a society that misunderstands and misrepresents her gifts. It’s an interesting comment on the restrictions of gender and cultural tradition, viewed through the lens of Chinese principles, but the film doesn’t fully engage with it, on either a thematic or character level. It’s a shame because Liu Yifei and especially Gong Li have strong screen presences, and the few scenes they share don’t feel like enough.
Those quibbles aside, Mulan is the first Disney live-action adaptation to justify its existence beyond a cynical cash-grab. It’s a visually arresting spectacle that surprisingly improves on the original in several ways. Even more impressive is how it skirts past the common pitfalls of other Disney remakes relatively unscathed. It’s still up for debate whether any of these remakes are really needed, but Mulan at least suggests they are something we could really want.