Overwritten, underdeveloped, and tone-deaf. These are the qualities we see in a Disney live-action remake. These are the qualities we see in Mulan. I have made no secret of my disdain for the Disney+ original offerings on this site, it’s as close to a niche as I have here, so I suppose I should be happy or grateful that the “Newlan” is only boring and disrespectful to both the animated film and the original story as opposed to a full-on assault on the soul the way Lady and the Tramp or Artemis Fowl was. But I am not a magnanimous man.
Directed by Whale Rider helmer Niki Caro, Mulan follows a relatively similar structure to the animated classic we all know (and the actual Chinese folktale), with Mulan (Yifei Liu) as a young woman in a village in rural imperial China who decides to take her father’s place when he is drafted, pretending to be a man and rising through the ranks of the Chinese military under this lie. It’s all surprisingly standard stuff with a few new characters thrown in and a few of the most memorable aspects of the animated film shamelessly shuffled under the rug of the Disney vault for fear that their inclusion would have brought any life or character to this pastiche of focus-tested culture.
Mulan wants to be an honest film, leaning harder into the original story and holding onto proper Chinese culture, as opposed to the wackier, more clearly western-inspired stylings of the animated film, with Eddie Murphy and all the songs. The biggest issue here, for me, is that nothing is brought in to replace the gaps of the comedy and the music that bolstered the simple and child-friendly structure of the 1998 film, and instead it focuses a bulk of the film’s runtime on pretty shots and the most basic of wuxia action stylings that add nothing but more time to spend in this lovingly shot desert of storytelling…actually, the joke doesn’t work because there’s an actual desert at one point. Damn this movie.
I could spend a lot of time talking about the use of chi in the movie and how the new female villain undercuts a lot of the film’s points, but a lot of the deeper criticism of the film has been long-discussed by people far smarter and far less white than I am, and I implore you to check those pieces out as well. Outside of all of the convoluted mashes of various eras of eastern and western culture being smashed together to build a Frankenstein’s monster of timelines and ideas that say far less than the intentional puree of the animated film, the film just makes such an effort to undercut its own ability and beauty at any possible point. Whenever there could be a powerful character moment, the movie switches to a new location so as not to bore any children potentially watching. Whenever the action scenes heat up, they find themselves neutered to keep the exceptionally tame PG-13 rating (I can’t help but feel like the movie really wanted to be PG). Whenever I found myself interested, within seconds the movie would flee from my interest like I’m the one with the bow and arrow pointed directly at the screen.
Mulan isn’t a terrible film, there are those few moments where the movie captured my attention, waking me from the slumber of mediocrity, but a lot of my dissatisfaction with the film comes in those moments, seeing the film strive for something new, something palpable, only to lose its way in record time. There’s nothing even particularly incompetent about the film, it’s just designed so as not to make any waves or any notable points of reference for its own story. There’s no sense of time or place, nothing feels like a coherent whole, it’s just a movie for movie’s sake which is so incredibly frustrating and disappointing.
Mulan isn’t the worst of the Disney remakes (Lady and the Tramp, The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast) nor the worst Disney+ original (Artemis Fowl, Noelle), but the additional $30 for premium access is giving it a higher profile than those films because of its disruption to the traditional VOD/streaming release strategy, so it’s probably getting hammered harder because of it, even more so than The Lion King in certain online circles. Is that fair? I’m not entirely sure, but in an age where Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and even Disney+ are offering high-profile releases bundled in with existing subscriptions (check out The One & Only Ivan, it’s quite good), something feels doubly annoying about Mulan (2020). It’s a wet blanket of a film that will be promptly forgotten by eastern and western audiences alike, hopefully, eventually, to make way for a memorable AND honest version of this story that resonates across the globe.