With its live-action Mulan, Disney got a chance to breathe life into the legendary female warrior — a fixture of centuries-old Chinese storytelling — with a serious retelling and a picture-perfect cast. So it’s ironic the animated version that debuted more than two decades ago still shows more vim, vigor and character growth than the big-budget take now streaming for free on Disney Plus, which shed its $30 premiere access status Friday.
To be clear, I’m not a standard-bearer for the 1998 animated classic. But that version of Mulan took the time to get into the main character’s head, bringing us along on her journey as she worked to become a worthy soldier while struggling to balance her dual identities. The new Mulan, played by Yifei Liu, hits many of the same beats, but without the emotional resonance.
That, unfortunately, seems to be par for the course with blockbusters these days.
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Mulan borrows from the same conventions in Disney’s other big franchises, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars, which over the last few years have emphasized spectacle and set pieces over character development. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker had us rushing from one planet to another, but did we really learn much about Finn? (Clearly, John Boyega, who played the Stormtrooper-turned-hero, doesn’t think so.) Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame were too busy juggling dozens of characters to actually develop any of them.
Who cares though, right? Those were bombastic, fun movies that offered plenty of fan service and the best special effects money can buy.
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The sacrifice of character work in Mulan, however, is a far heavier blow because this isn’t the start of a franchise with multiple films. Steve Rogers and Tony Stark had the luxury of several sequels to evolve and grow — Mulan just had this one shot. The shallow portrayal is especially a shame because director Niki Caro set up an intriguing dynamic between Mulan and Gong Li’s mesmerizing Xianniang (who actually does get some development), which my colleague Abrar Al-Heeti calls in her review one of the film’s “most striking attributes.”
But Caro didn’t give that evolving relationship time to breathe, and the film speeds through what should’ve been many of Mulan’s biggest emotional moments. There’s no struggle to become a warrior — she’s already supernaturally gifted from the opening minutes of the film. There are no scenes to show off the gravity of her leaving her family — she’s already rocking her father’s armor and holding his sword in a hero pose (maybe there’s a place for her in the MCU?).
Light spoiler warning here: The revelation of Mulan’s real gender, her subsequent rejection, emotional breakdown and ultimate reconciliation with her comrades should serve as the emotional spine of the entire film. Instead, it spans about six minutes in total.
It’s almost an afterthought between an epic battle and the climactic, action-filled finale.
Having a fully fleshed-out Chinese character on the silver screen is important because, well, there just aren’t that many examples in Hollywood. And that dynamic between two Asian women — who aren’t talking about their love lives — is even more rare. It felt like a lifetime ago when Crazy Rich Asians hit it big, setting off anticipation that the film would spark more projects with Asians and Asian Americans. And while South Korea’s Parasite was a critical darling and this year’s best picture winner at the Oscars, it’s not exactly a film you take the family to watch.
With a $200 million budget and the weight of Disney behind it, Mulan was supposed to be a big moment for Asians looking to make a more significant cultural impact in the US.
But the combination of limited dialogue, some wooden acting from Liu and a hectic pace that prioritizes training montages and declarations of being “loyal, brave and true” over more exchanges between Mulan and her comrades, means the audience isn’t as invested in Mulan’s journey or development.
It’s especially painful knowing Caro and screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek tried to craft something that stood apart from the animated version, even if the plot points were similar. Unlike the Lion King or Beauty and the Beast, this wasn’t a literal remake, with the filmmakers taking a far more serious tone and booting elements like the catchy songs and Mushu (though this film does have a more subtle stand-in for the dragon).
Caro, in particular, should be applauded for the film’s visual panache, from the sweeping shots of the gorgeous Chinese mountains to the suitably grand scenes of the imperial palace. Mulan’s wire work and swordplay and the battle set pieces are worthy of any action blockbuster, and hark back to old-school historical Chinese epics.
When the credits ended and I saw the note “Optimized for Imax Theaters,” it was a reminder of all that the coronavirus pandemic has taken away, including the opportunity to appreciate the visual splendor of this film on a proper big screen. (For the record, I watched the film on my 32-inch computer monitor.)
All that eye candy, however, leaves you hungry and wanting for more, with the emotional and character heft decidedly lacking.
Still, here’s hoping Disney doesn’t decide to get franchise-happy and churn out a follow-up film. Otherwise, we may end up with another travesty like the animated Mulan II. Mulan the warrior may be able to scale walls and fend off the fiercest Rouran invaders, but even she’d be hard-pressed to make a cheap, straight-to-DVD sequel worth watching.