The long-awaited live action remake of Disney’s animated classic Mulan is finally here. This has been a rough ride for Disney as they have attempted juggling fan expectations, Chinese cultural sensitivity, and a tense political climate. Gone are the iconic musical numbers, most familiar supporting characters, and Eddie Murphy’s comedic relief as the dragon Mushu. What’s left is a movie that’s not as different as one may expect, partly because it doesn’t succeed in filling these voids.
For those unfamiliar, Mulan is the story of a girl who struggles with conforming to gender norms in a patriarchal Chinese society. When the Emperor of China decrees that one man from each family must defend the country from a coming invasion, Mulan secretly takes her ailing father’s place in the imperial army. Risking a death sentence and dishonor upon her family, she disguises herself as a man and marches off to defend China in battle.
Liu Yifei carries this film on her back with a powerful performance as the titular Hua Mulan. She creates a palpable display of Mulan’s inner struggle; trying to live up to the virtues of loyalty and honor, all while putting on this necessary façade. Her screen presence is magnificent, complimented perfectly by some of the most gorgeous cinematography ever put on screen. Vibrant colors transposed with wide, picturesque shots of beautiful scenery create an atmosphere that is truly epic. Visually, Mulan is a wonder to behold.
Sadly, the outstanding visuals contrast greatly with a very uninspired script. Despite having the same bold and empowering premise as its predecessor, this remake fails to meaningfully build on the original film. Without the songs and zany cartoon dragon, this rendition sets a more serious tone, and thus demands a more thorough and substantive storyline than what is provided. Instead glaring plot holes become apparent, the characters’ motives fall into question, and even the overall moral starts to ring hollow. Little justification is given for why Mulan fights so loyally on behalf of a patriarchal monarch that affords her gender no rights or why she should care about embodying the virtues of such a culture. Fealty to country is just taken for granted and that doesn’t sit well with the more rebellious message.
Female oppression is touched on a bit more through the introduction of the witch Xianniang, portrayed by Gong Li. Definitely the most intriguing addition, Xianniang possesses amazing power but, because she is a woman, is still looked at as no more than a dog by Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), the villainous leader of the invading army whom she follows. Thus, Xianniang presents a perfect foil to Mulan, and the dynamic between these two characters shows promise, but fails to climax into something meaningful. This is extremely disappointing as it felt like the purpose of this character should have been to evolve the story and give Mulan a broader perspective that is more empowering.
Unquestionably, a tremendous amount of talent went into making this movie. Visually, Mulan is stunningly beautiful, and I have no doubt director Niki Caro worked wonders with the material she was given. Disney’s obvious devotion to this movie leads me to speculate the narrative failings aren’t a consequence of lazy writing, but rather biting off more than they can chew. Trying to appease both American and Chinese markets is tricky in and of itself. On top of that, with American/Chinese relations being what they are, trying to tell a story rooted in Chinese culture that’s both meaningful and universally non-offensive is probably next to impossible right now. Not for lack of trying, Mulan ultimately failed both at being meaningful and avoiding controversy. Even though it excels in many other areas, none of it can compensate for its lack of both narrative and moral substance.
Synopsis: When the Emperor of China decrees that each family must send one man to defend the kingdom, Mulan illegally takes her ailing father’s place by disguising herself as a man and joining the imperial army.
Director: Niki Caro
Writers: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, Elizabeth Martin
Stars: Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Tzi Ma, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Ron Yuan, Gong Li, Jet Li
Run time: 1 Hour, 55 Minutes