Mulan Review -- All Style, No Substance

  • First Released Sep 4, 2020
  • movie

Disney's live action Mulan stumbles while trying to update an animated classic.

Disney's recent history with live-action adaptations of their animated classics has been a mixed bag at best. There seems to be no real hard-and-fast conventions as to just what gets added or changed in the transition from 2D to 3D. New songs are added, new characters, new plot threads--all, presumably, in service to whatever will help reinvent a decades-old classic for a new generation. Unfortunately, in the case of Mulan, it seems that the calculations were botched right from the start.

It's a familiar story. Hua Mulan (Yifei Liu), the eldest daughter of an aging and wounded father, secretly steps in to serve in the military when one man from every family is called upon to defend their corner of China from invaders. To do so, she disguises herself as a man--keeping her secret from both her superior officers and comrades. It's roughly the same take as the 1998 animated version, which also adapts and westernizes a 6th-century Chinese poem called The Ballad of Mulan, with some vague historical accuracy tossed in for good measure. Gone are the anthropomorphic animal companions and songs many grew up with. The Huns have been swapped out for the more accurate but less familiar (and presumably less lyrically-inclined) Rourans, led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) rather than Shan Yu. There was even an attempt to give the Rourans some genuine depth beyond just being the bad guys with a B-plot about patricide.

But ultimately, these vague stabs at making a down-to-earth, historically influenced war movie only serve to make Mulan feel muddled and confusing. The military training montages trip over themselves to evoke familiar and distinctly American WW2-style war movie tropes--it even starts to feel like an early episode of Band of Brothers at one point--while also trying to preserve some of the slapstick comedy from the animated version and maintain the illusion of historical authenticity. The effect is a strange in-betweenness that feels hollow and could potentially be attributed to the film's distinct lack of behind-the-camera diversity, especially within the writing team, something the film's director Niki Caro has faced criticism over.

The gags about Mulan's male alter-ego risking discovery exist in the same half-in-half-out place where it's both played straight but also peppered through with lackluster locker room style jokes that never actually land. It seems like the whole situation gets a lot less funny without comedy dragon Eddie Murphy running around to cut the tension and keep things light, but this movie would love to have its cake and eat it too.

That proves all the more challenging with every song removed in favor of montages played over familiar but instrumental musical cues. You're not going to hear anyone break into song about making a man out of you or wishing their reflection would show who they are inside--but you're definitely going to be reminded that those songs exist and are catchy as hell. In fact, the theme of reflections and being able to embody your true self has been almost entirely jettisoned, making the musical references feel extremely strange.

Instead of being a normal-but-headstrong girl who, for all her flaws, desperately wants to do good for her family, hiding her fun-loving self under a mask of "proper" girlhood, live-action Mulan is a literal superhero. Her "chi is strong," which grants her some fantasy-inspired martial arts prowess even as a child that no one, not even the men in her life, seem to share, but because she's a girl she must keep these powers hidden.

This conflict is painted in starker relief against a new character created for the live-action version, Xian Lang (Gong Li), a shape-shifting "witch" (the word continually thrown at her throughout the movie by both allies and enemies as if she's one wrong move away from being burned at the stake). Her powers are much more distinct than Mulan's--she can turn into a falcon, or a cloud of bats, and for some reason has aligned herself with Bori Khan despite being feared and hated by both him and the rest of his male allies.

Xian Lang and Mulan are designed to be foils--two "witches" in a world of men who refuse to accept them as allies, despite their obvious abilities--but the narrative arc between the two of them is so poorly handled and bogged down in clumsy Disney-fied morality that it winds up losing every bit of impact. Where the moral of the animated Mulan is certainly oversimplified and the victim of its own Disney-fication, at least the story can be boiled down into a series of truisms about being brave in the face of great danger and proving yourself against people who doubt you. With the introduction of Xian Lang, this version of the story starts punching way above its weight class with confusing messages about just which outcasts "deserve" to be brought into the fold, the "right way" to be yourself, and the supposed righteousness of fighting to preserve systems that have no space for you as an individual.

It's both messy and reductive--which is a shame because Li and Liu have some of the most interesting chemistry in the movie and, in the hands of a more skilled writing and directorial team or under the banner of a different studio, there could have been some real meat on these bones. Instead, it feels like a weird and unnecessarily complicated pivot on a story that isn't interested in interrogating it at all.

Beyond Xian Lang, Mulan's supporting cast is made up of new, but vaguely familiar, takes on animated characters. Donnie Yen is woefully underused as Commander Tung, who partially takes the place of the cartoon Li Shang. Yoson An does his level best as Chen Honghui, another new character based partially on Li Shang--the part of him that's supposed to have some romantic tension with Mulan, which never actually happens here. It's not an unwelcome change--romance would feel out of place given everything else, but it feels like the love story was deleted and then never replaced, leaving Chen Honghui's story all but empty. There's even a vague attempt to nod to the anthropomorphic cricket character from the animated version with a side character literally named Cricket (Jun Yu) who exists strictly to be cute and--well, that's kind of it. At least he definitely succeeds there. He's adorable.

None of these tertiary characters are memorable and none have much to say. In fact, you'll be hard-pressed to remember any of their names the moment the movie finishes, given how brief and hand-waved both their introductions and individual arcs are.

Stranger still, Mulan's PG-13 rating and emphatic need to amp up the vintage, American war tropes may make it too scary, raunchy, or inscrutable for whole swaths of what ought to be its target audience. It's not aiming for the same demographic as its animated counterpart, but it never commits to anything that could make it more mature in a meaningful way, instead opting for more battle scenes and cgi-infused action rather than nuance or narrative complexity.

That said, it's definitely going to land for some. And with any luck, some of the kids sitting down to watch Mulan with their families will still be thrilled to see themselves writ large in a live-action Disney movie for the first time. That means something, even in the face of an otherwise disappointing movie. And thankfully the animated version is also available on Disney+, so you'll be able to hop directly from one straight into the other and laugh and sing along to your heart's content.

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The Good

  • Liu shines as the titular hero and shares great chemistry with Li
  • Flashy sets and bold color palettes ooze style

The Bad

  • Serves up a muddle and confusing message about heroism
  • Offers no arcs or development for supporting characters
  • Never manages to recapture the charm or the heart of the animated movie
  • Earns the PG-13 rating but at what cost?
  • Supporting cast members like Donnie Yen are woefully underused

About the Author

Meg Downey is an Assistant Entertainment Editor at GameSpot who loves monsters and superheroes in any combination.