‘Mulan’ (2020) is not very Disney

William Pham

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3 out of 5 stars

     Engulfed in controversy, COVID-19 delays and a $36 paywall, expectations before watching new release “Mulan” were low. Following in line with other live-action Disney remakes like “The Lion King,” “Aladdin” and “Beauty and the Beast,” “Mulan” seemed destined to be another Disney failure that did not capture the eccentric and distinct feel of the film’s animated counterpart.  

     Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised, even if other reviewers felt that the movie was too inundated with political controversy.  

     Although there were some glaring issues like obvious productional mandate, the overall film felt very polished and exciting. The essential aspects of “Mulan” — the themes of family, honor and gender equality — were well-communicated in this remake. The direction of “Mulan” is a new and fresh take never seen before in a Disney film, and that alone makes it worth the watch, given a few other extra caveats.  

     Disney has been shrouded in controversy due to the whitewashing of Asian characters, but “Mulan” is beginning to break the habit. Rest assured, the film about a Chinese woman that takes place in ancient China has all Asian actors, a feat that is noteworthy for any film, let alone Disney.  

     The cast and their performances in this film were tremendously strong. The inclusion of many well-known Chinese martial arts actors like Donnie Yen and Jet Li helped to give “Mulan” a very action-movie feel, something that was necessary for a project like this.  

     Tzi Ma, who played Mulan’s father, delivered perhaps the strongest performance. Ma portrays Hua Zhou as a man who genuinely loves his family, particularly his daughters, and is proud of their strong-willed nature. But more importantly, Ma embodies the societal issues that the film constantly tries to uncover.  

     Mulan’s father loves his daughter and supports her interest in fighting and exploration, but he is made to be ashamed of her by his village. This alone is at the core of what the “Mulan” narrative fights to change.  

     I thought Liu Yifei delivered a relatively satisfactory performance as Mulan, despite her recent disappointing comments supporting police violence in the Hong Kong protests. Her portrayal and appearance are how many had imagined the real-life Mulan to be after the animated release.  

Still of Liu Yifei  from the Mulan movie.
Liu Yifei as Mulan. Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

     Despite many good aspects of the film, production mandate and oversight single-handedly worsened and almost wrecked the film. There were numerous strange and unnecessary choices that left audiences wondering what the direction of film was and who the film was catering to for the duration of the two-hour film. 

     Executive changes drastically removed many lovable and defining aspects from the animated version — things that audiences expected. For instance, the removal of classics characters and the inclusion of new ones hurt the film and added confusion to the plot. 

     Commander Li Shang from the original “Mulan” (1998), the guy who sang “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” was split into three characters: the love interest, the commander and the regiment trainer. Instead of one single strong and developed character, one that rivaled Mulan herself, three shallow and mostly forgettable characters took his place.  

     This change really felt weird, given that the reasoning was because the executives did not want Mulan to fall in love with her older commander. This could allude to incidents of abusive power imbalance in Hollywood, although the two situations are vastly different.  

     The film also added a new secondary female antagonist, a witch who works with the Mongols. Not only did this character feel meaningless, but she also was overdeveloped, and the film could have advanced without her. She made no contribution for most of the plot, and her costume was overly flamboyant. The producers tried to shape her as a foil to Mulan — an outcast from society because she is a woman and a witch — but the effort failed.  

     Since this was a live-action remake, the producers also felt that the film needed to be more realistic than the animated film (as if I watch Disney films for their realism). “Mulan” was then branded to be more of an action film, so no songs from the original film show up in this remake, except for an instrumental version of “Reflections” in two scenes.  

     For a remake of a movie that was defined by its soundtrack, this was a horrible decision. The songs of the original were catchy, and they were the glue that held everything together. Not incorporating the music is a major blow and will deter some older audiences.  

     Mushu the dragon, originally voiced by Eddie Murphy, makes an appearance, but not as the anthropomorphized version audiences have come to love. Instead, the dragon is just a visual nugget.  

     “Mulan” originally had a March 2020 release date, but COVID-19 delays forced the film to be released this month instead. Without a theatrical release, the movie was not going to break even on their budget, so the decision to release the film on Disney+ was made. As of right now, the film is available for a whopping $36 on the platform, consisting of the $6 Disney+ subscription fee and an additional $30 for premier access.  

     Although many understand the decision for this pricing, no film is worth $30, and this film might not even be worth $6. Fortunately, audiences can wait until December before the film becomes available on Disney+ without the $30 access fee. 

     “Mulan” is worth the watch because it is a new direction for Disney movies. But with that said, audiences should watch “Mulan” with an understanding that it is a new take on the classic tale, without some noticeable highlights of the animated original, which could be an understandable dealbreaker for some.  

     Instead of buying the film now and paying $36 on Disney+, wait for December and then try it.