Mulan (2020) Review

One of Disney’s more polarized recent trends has been their stream of live-action remakes to their catalogue of animated classics. At first it wasn’t so bad (even if the movies themselves were), with 2010’s Alice in Wonderland and 2014’s Maleficent being spaced by four calendar years, and both adaptations attempting to put their own spin on the material. But after a while, the sheer amount of these live-action remakes became excessive, and one has to wonder what exactly the point is of remaking movies that are largely considered timeless as is (other than capitalizing on today’s obsession with nostalgia, that is). Is remaking an animated film as a live-action one supposed to make it more legitimate? If that’s the mindset, that not only furthers the unwarranted and ignorant stigma that animated films are somehow not as good as their live-action counterparts, but also would seem self-defeatist on Disney’s part, given that their entire empire is built on their legacy of animated features. When 2019 saw no less than four such live-action remakes (well, the Lion King remake wasn’t actually live-action, but don’t tell that to Disney), suffice to say the live-action Disney remake well seemed drained.

Now, to be fair, not all of these remakes have been bad (I quite enjoyed 2016’s The Jungle Book and 2019’s Aladdin), and I’ll take them over those horrible, straight-to-video sequels that tainted the legacies of Disney’s 90’s and early 2000’s output. Still, it can be hard to get too excited for these live-action remakes, no matter how hard Disney might try. And they’ve probably never tried harder with this strange sub-genre than with their 2020 adaptation of Mulan, based on Disney’s 1998 animated film (which, in tern, is based on “The Ballad of Mulan” from Chinese folklore).

From the get-go, Disney seemed to be going the extra mile and putting the extra effort into this particular adaptation, which was a pretty transparent means of trying to win over the Chinese box office, as China has become a major player in worldwide box office numbers over the last decade. Not only did the film encounter its share of controversies ahead of release, but due to the global pandemic of 2020, the film’s theatrical release – originally planned as one of Disney’s tentpole releases of the year – kept getting delayed, with it eventually skipping US theaters outright and heading straight to Disney+ (infamously costing an additional thirty dollars to watch during its first few months on the service). And when Mulan was finally released in China, it not only failed to be the international hit Disney was hoping for, but outright failed in the market Disney was banking on it to succeed in.

But is 2020’s Mulan really as bad as its lackluster performance suggests? Eh, not really. But it’s also not nearly as good as I’m sure Disney was hoping it’d be, either, given how much effort they put into its marketing. 2020’s Mulan is a resoundingly okay-ish film. That of course makes it inferior to the animated film it’s adapting, as that remains one of Disney’s best, but that’s probably expected by this point (I’d argue that only the Jungle Book remake is as good as the original full-stop, though my favorite song from Aladdin admittedly comes from the 2019 remake). But it also isn’t the worst live-action remake Disney has released in recent times.

The film, of course, tells the story of Mulan (Liu Yifei), a young woman in ancient China, who disguises herself as a man to enlist in the Chinese army in order to spare her ailing father (Tzi Ma), who was initially recruited after the Emperor decrees that one male of proper age from every available family must enlist. Mulan, now going under the name “Jun” in her guise as a man, is risking her life both on and off the battlefield. If her true identity is revealed, she will be killed by her own army.

Though the premise remains the same as its 1998 animated predecessor, Mulan makes more notable changes from the original than many of the other Disney remakes. On the plus side, I suppose differentiating itself from the animated film justifies its existence a bit more. On the downside, I think few fans of the original film will appreciate these changes.

Notably, there has been a major change to Mulan herself. Not in her personality or ambitions, but in her abilities, as this Mulan is capable of channeling her “Qi” to perform feats of superhuman agility! Basically, she’s been turned into a Jedi (and not even original trilogy Jedi, which at least would have made sense with its Eastern influence). This change is, well, it’s something…I guess. I don’t exactly understand the reason for the whole Qi aspect to Mulan, except for that it allows her to run up walls, momentarily float, and be able to kick a spear as if it were a bullet firing from a gun, which I guess is the kind of thing you might see in a Chinese action movie. It’s more pandering to the Chinese market, is what I’m getting at.

It just comes off as a bit cheesy, really. The supernatural elements of 2020’s Mulan just feels kind of shoehorned in, and it’s kind of weird how the animated Mulan was more bound by the laws of physics than her live-action counterpart. Also, Mulan has a younger sister in this adaptation named Xiu (Xana Tang), though she doesn’t really play a role in the story, so I’m not sure what the point of the addition is.

Fans of the ’98 film may also be disappointed to learn that Li Shang, Mulan’s commanding officer who became her love interest by the end of the original film, is not present. His role is taken over by two new characters: the stern Commander Tung (Donnie Yen), and Chen (Yoson An), an ambitious soldier who fills the romantic interest role. The filmmakers claim the change was made because the idea of a commanding officer falling for one of his soldiers seemed “inappropriate,” but I have to wonder if they remembered the animated film very well, seeing as it was Mulan who was always crushing on Li Shang, and the latter didn’t fall for Mulan until the end of the movie and the war was over. Maybe I’m being too technical. Or maybe the filmmakers of the 2020 film are. Or maybe everyone is.

At least this remake still includes Ling, Yao and Chien-Po (Jimmy Wong, Chen Tang and Doua Moua), so there is some direct adaptation from the animated film here. It’s perhaps appropriate that this loudmouth trio also provide the most overt references to the 1998 film (“It doesn’t matter what she wears or what she looks like. It only matters what she cooks like!”). Though for reasons I don’t understand, the cute little cricket from the original movie has been changed into a human character named Cricket (Jun yu). So that’s a thing.

Even the villains have received an overhaul. Instead of an army of Huns, we have the Rouran. In place of the hulking Shan Yu from the animated film, we have a duo of primary villains: Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), the leader of the Rouran army, and Xianniang (Gong Li), a witch whose powerful Qi enables her to shapeshift. As much as I love the animated film, I don’t think anything is really lost with this change in villains. Shan Yu looked intimidating, but as a character he was pretty interchangeable with any of his high-ranking henchmen.

Now for the question most fans of the animated film had during the lead-up to the 2020 film: Is Mushu in the live-action Mulan?

The answer to that is, quite simply, no.

I understand this is a deal-breaker for a lot of fans, though I’m going to break a few hearts and say I can live with or without Mushu. I don’t dislike the Eddie Murphy-voiced dragon from the original, but he was another transparent attempt at Disney trying to replicate the magic they concocted with Aladdin’s Genie. I think Mushu was a better attempt than some of his predecessors like Timon and Pumbaa or the gargoyles from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but after a while it kind of got tiring how the sidekick characters in Disney movies were purposefully designed to be more popular than the main characters.

Still, I suppose I can see where people are coming from with their longing for comic relief. While I detest the internet generation’s dismissal of anything that “takes themselves too seriously” (God forbid a movie cares about the story it’s trying to tell), I also understand that taking one’s self seriously doesn’t mean you can’t also be funny and joyous. The Disney animated films understand this. But this Mulan seems so hellbent on being taken seriously (again, being a means to try and win over the Chinese market by removing an “American element” like Mushu), that it seems to shun the concepts of humor and joy. Even the trio of Ling, Yao and Chien-Po get limited screentime.

So Mushu isn’t in the movie, but he has something of a quasi-replacement in the form of a phoenix, Mulan’s family’s guardian. But the phoenix doesn’t talk or anything, so it’s not really a worthy character replacement and more like a visual element that vaguely plays the same role. Also, on a side note, this is the second time one of these live-action Disney remakes has replaced a dragon with a phoenix, with the first being 2019’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Maleficent no longer turns into a dragon, she turns into a phoenix. Mushu isn’t allowed in the new Mulan, but a phoenix is. I don’t know what that’s about. Is a flaming bird that resurrects itself somehow more realistic than a fire-breathing lizard or serpentine spirit? But I digress.

Another issue with this Mulan is that, much like The Lion King remake, the film is a whole half-hour longer than the animated feature that inspired it, yet somehow its story feels more rushed. It’s perhaps a credit to the storytelling abilities of Disney’s animators that they can create 90 minute movies that still feel like they take their time to establish story and character. These live-action remakes feel like so many key elements just zoom on by, that by the end of things I’m left wondering how they made it to the two hour mark.

Okay, I’m sounding largely dismissive. But 2020’s Mulan isn’t a total bust: the acting is strong, and helps give the film the proper emotional weight. Visually speaking, 2020’s Mulan is also very pleasant to look at, with great costumes and sets (though I could do without some of the obvious green screen bits). This Mulan remake retains just enough Disney charm to keep it afloat. But “just enough” might be the key words here, and for these live-action remakes on the whole.

I fully admit I had some good fun watching this version of Mulan. But you know what’s considerably more fun? Watching the animated original. But hey, it still beats the straight-to-video Mulan II. Let us speak no more of that.

5