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 – such as 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 live-action 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 screen time.

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.

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

Ranking the Disney Renaissance Films

Now that I’ve reviewed all ten films from the Disney Renaissance, what more logical way to follow it up than by ranking them all in a top 10 list? If you’ve read my reviews for the ten films, you may already know where each one ranks based on their numerical score . If you haven’t read them, I’ve included links to said reviews within each entry, so you can get a more in-depth idea of my opinion of them.

Now, let’s roll back the clock to the 1990s. Here are the 10 Disney Renaissance films, ranked from least to greatest.

 

10: The Rescuers Down Under

Rescuers Down Under

While The Rescuers Down Under holds the distinction of being Disney’s first ‘true’ sequel, it also holds the dubious honor of being the weakest movie of the Disney Renaissance. The animation is great, but the story has a notable lack of direction, with the returning characters from The Rescuers feeling shoehorned into an unrelated story. Although there is some fun to be had, The Rescuers Down Under ultimately falls flat as both a sequel and as its own movie, as neither of its two halves can find unity. Read the full review.

9: Pocahontas

Pocahontas

Pocahontas boasts beautiful animation and a great soundtrack, and even some fun characters (that Wiggins!). But Pocahontas and John Smith can be a little on the bland side, the villain never lives up to his potential, and some story elements just feel a little clunky. Pocahontas is a better movie than it’s often made out to be, but it still has some notable flaws that prevent it from living up to the majority of Disney films from its time. Read the full review.

8: Aladdin

Aladdin

Most Disney fans would be ready to form a lynch mob and lay siege to my castle for only ranking Aladdin at number 8.

Aladdin is a fun movie, no doubt. But the majority of its characters and its story are a bit on the generic side. Thankfully, Robin Williams’ iconic Genie is one of the best of all Disney characters, and he, along with the great soundtrack, help liven things up. I might not put Aladdin on the same pedestal as most, but it would be impossible to not be delighted every time that Genie is on screen. Read the full review.

7: The Lion King

The Lion King

If putting Aladdin relatively low on this list would make me a target for mobs of Disney fans, than Lion King’s placement would turn things into a full-on townspeople versus Frankenstein monster ordeal.

The Lion King is one of Disney’s most beloved films, and one of the most popular animated movies of all time. But while The Lion King succeeds in a number of areas – including a great story and some memorable characters – it falls short in others. Some of the comedic characters clash with the movie’s otherwise serious tone, and the songs are a bit inconsistent, and don’t live up to some of the other soundtracks of the Disney Renaissance. A really good movie, but it’s not quite the king. Read the full review.

6: Hercules

Hercules

Hercules is one of the more underappreciated films from the Disney Renaissance era. It produces laugh-a-minute gags and combines them with colorful animation and a pretty good soundtrack. Best of all is its villain. Hades is one of Disney’s best bad guys, as he steals every scene he’s in and runs away with it. It is admittedly a bit formulaic, but Hercules was one of the most fun Disney movies of its time. Read the full review.

5: Tarzan

Tarzan

Another underrated gem, Tarzan ended the Disney Renaissance on a high note. Tarzan boasts exquisite animation that blended hand-drawn and digital visuals in groundbreaking ways. It also features strong characters and emotional moments. If it weren’t for the lackluster comic relief and inconsistencies in its songs, it might rank even higher. Read the full review.

4: The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid is the film that launched Disney’s successful run known as the Disney Renaissance. That already gives it some brownie points. But the best part is that it remains one of Disney’s most entertaining movies even today. The animation is lovely, and the soundtrack is one of Disney’s best. Aside from Prince Eric being an incredibly bland character that undermines the whole love story at the center of the film, The Little Mermaid tells a charming tale and features Disney’s first truly memorable heroine with Ariel, and one of their best villains with Ursula. Read the full review.

3: Mulan

Mulan

Mulan has never been as renowned as the likes of The Lion King or The Little Mermaid, but it was one of the brightest stars of the Disney Renaissance. Mulan features strong storytelling, some good song work, great action sequences, and a unique and vibrant visual style. Best of all is Mulan herself, one of Disney’s best characters, and their strongest female lead until Frozen introduced us to Anna and Elsa. The only downside is the so-so villain. But Mulan remains one of Disney’s better films, carried by one of its strongest characters. Read the full review.

2: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Hunchback of Notre Dame

Yet another Disney movie that doesn’t get the credit it deserves, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was divisive in its day for its mature themes and dark subject matter. But those aspects are the very things that make The Hunchback of Notre Dame such an unique entry in the Disney canon. It boasts great animation and some of Disney’s most powerful songs. It also claims more fleshed out characters than most Disney fair, including one of the studio’s most sympathetic heroes in Quasimodo, and undoubtedly its darkest villain in Claude Frollo. Read the full review

1: Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast.

Few Disney films are as iconic as Beauty and the Beast, and it’s with good reason. Few Disney films are as good as Beauty and the Beast.

Beauty and the Beast remains a magical film, with a romantic, heartwarming story, beautiful animation, an absolutely stunning soundtrack, and one of Disney’s most memorable casts of characters. From Belle and the Beast to Lumiere and Cogsworth to Gaston and LeFou, Beauty and the Beast features a strong cast of characters so charming that they are synonymous with the Disney brand itself. It’s everything Disney does, done right. Read the full review.

Mulan Review

Mulan

When Mulan was released in 1998, the Disney Renaissance was nearing its close. Pixar was on the rise to prominence, and Dreamworks had started to make a name for themselves in the animation scene. But the 90s Disney films still had some steam left, as is evidenced by Mulan. It was one of the best Disney films of its time, and it has aged gracefully.

 

Mulan tells a story that’s simple in structure, but epic in scope: An army of Huns – lead by the villainous Shan Yu (Miguel Ferrer) – have invaded China. In order to gain enough soldiers to fend off the invaders, the Emperor commands that one man from every family join the Chinese army.

In a quieter part of China, a young woman named Mulan (Ming-Na Wen) is trying to find her place in the world. After Mulan botches a meeting with a matchmaker, she is deemed unsuitable for marriage. But Mulan is simply too spirited for the confines that society has put on her, and is destined for greater things.

Mulan’s father is eventually called to join the ranks of China’s army, but he is aged and injured. Mulan, fearing for her father, disguises herself as a man to enlist in his stead. This being a Disney movie, she is joined on her journey a comedic dragon named Mushu (Eddie Murphy).

MulanThe movie works so well primarily because Mulan herself is so appealing. Most of the Disney heroines before her were either helpless damsels waiting for a noble hero to whisk them away, or relatively stronger characters whose romantic interests were nonetheless the focus of their quests. Mulan is instead a strong, independent character who still manages to have some funny moments. Yes, her commanding officer Shang (B.D. Wong) still catches her eye, but it’s not the center of the story. Mulan is all about its titular heroine, and its her strength and spunk that carries the story.

While the presence of Eddie Murphy can make Mushu feel like a simple star-vehicle, Mushu ultimately works, and becomes a humorous foil for Mulan. Mushu may not reach the comedic heights of Aladdin’s Genie, but his energy served as a fun precursor to Eddie Murphy’s role as Donkey in the Shrek series.Mulan

The downside is that Mulan’s villain, Shan Yu, is a rather forgettable foe. He looks intimidating enough, and certain scenes allude to just how evil his actions can be. But you could potentially swap him out for any of the other Hun characters around him and you may not know the difference. The Hun army as a whole has more of a villainous presence than Shan Yu himself.

Mulan features a short list of songs which, although consistently good, are too few and far between. “Reflection” is Mulan’s centerpiece number, and is one of the more underrated ‘princess songs’ in Disney lore. “Honor to Us All” is a fun opener, even if it can’t touch the likes of “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast. “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” is a lively piece with some touches of humor. “A Girl Worth Fighting For” is comedic and catchy, though it followed the “Hakuna Matata” tradition of the comedic song happening at the wrong time.Mulan

The songs in Mulan are all solid, but they are a smaller presence in the film. With the exception of Reflection, you can imagine Mulan working just as well without them.

The visuals of Mulan were a departure from its predecessors in the Disney Renaissance, but are just as lovely. Mulan utilizes simpler designs in its characters and backgrounds. It has a notable watercolor look about it, to mimic Chinese artwork with a dash of Japanese anime.

Mulan ranks highly among the Disney films of the 90s for its well-structured story and compelling heroine. The soundtrack might not match up to some of its peers, and its villain can’t hold a candle to Disney’s better bad guys. But Mulan gets bonus points for its terrific action scenes and unique art style. It borrows some familiar elements from past Disney films, but tweaks them in meaningful ways.

Mulan may not be the most iconic film from the Disney Renaissance, but it is, quietly, one of the era’s best.

8