Review: Mulan (Live-Action 2020)

It's been well over a year since the first live-action Mulan teaser. As of today, the latest Disney remake is now available on Disney+ as their first premier access original. That means that for $29.99, less than what the cost of a day at the theater for the average family, you can add the new Mulan to your Disney+ library to watch as many times as you want. There have been some complaints about the additional fee to the paid subscription service, but it was something Disney needed to do in order to even come close to making back their budget after the film got delayed from its March 27th release due to COVID-19 complications. If you don't think it's worth paying extra, the movie will be added to the regular Disney+ catalog on December 4th for no additional charge. After watching it myself, I have to admit that it probably is not worth the extra fee to stream it early unless you are a die-hard fan of the Ballad of Hua Mulan or want to help support Disney's COVID losses.

Mulan 2020

To preface, I am a huge fan of Disney's 1998 animated Mulan. It is one of my top ten movies of all time, and Mulan is one of my favorite Disney Princesses. This movie was a must-see for me regardless of how bad it was. The nearly six-month-long delay only made me more curious about what I was missing. Now that I've seen it, I can say for certain that it adds nothing of value to the brilliant light-hearted musical war epic from my childhood. There were many things that Disney changed in this version that were met with criticism. It had no singing, no fun sidekicks, and no levity. Some people have claimed that Disney made this movie to appeal more to Chinese audiences who were disappointed with the animated film. That is most likely true. Others claim that the changes were done to make it closer to the original ballad. That is false. Disney took great liberties with the Ballad of Hua Mulan in their 1998 adaptation because they had to. The ballad is so simple that it doesn't lend itself to a full-length feature with a beginning, middle, and ending. This version takes equal liberties in fleshing out the story into a two-hour film, many of which follow the beats of the 1998 script, and some of which are entirely original. Whatever their true motivation was in sucking the fun out of the animated film, they failed to create something nearly as beautiful, deep, and entertaining.

The new Mulan follows all of the same feminist cultural trends that Hollywood has enforced within the past decade. As a woman who joined a war saved the emperor of China from a dangerous army leader, Mulan was already somewhat of a feminist icon. In today's culture, that's not good enough. Women are not allowed to start out as ordinary girls or people will accuse them of entering into Damsel in Distress territory. Instead, they are required to be badasses from the womb, which I think places unrealistic expectations on little girls and sets them up for disappointment when they learn that they have to work hard to become good at something and will need help from mentors and other figures along the way. In this movie, Mulan is shown as a little girl who is capable of seemingly impossible physical feats due to the amazing level of chi that she was born with. Her father tells her that she must hide her chi from the world because girls with that much chi can never find a good match.

She uses her magical chi in front of the matchmaker to try to save a tea set that got flung into the air when a giant spider crawled under it. Unfortunately, her fancy hairstyle causes her to slip up and break the tea set anyway, so the matchmaker rejects her. When she joins the army, her commander tells her that she must stop hiding her chi if she wants to be a truly great warrior. In other words, she was born with the innate ability to be a kickass warrior princess through no training or effort at all. The only thing holding her back was her refusal to be herself. This definitely harkens to modern films like Captain Marvel and Frozen, but I think older films like The Little Mermaid and The Princess and the Frog teach better lessons about how sacrifice and hard work are required to get what you want in life. Even the original Mulan had to train hard and use her wits to recover the arrow from the pole.

There were several new characters in this film compared to the animated version. Mulan's sister demonstrates that it is possible for a Chinese girl to follow cultural traditions and still be happy, which I think is a positive message since not everyone can be Mulan. Xianning, the witch, serves as Mulan's foil. Like Mulan, she wants to be seen for who she is, but she goes about it dishonorably by working for the villain, Böri Khan. I liked the idea of her character, but I hated how the way she was presented. Instead of showing us how she was ostracized for having magic, Khan explains her goals and motivations to her in a scene where he is clearly talking to the audience. For such a feminist movie, I was surprised by how many men had to spell out important plot points. It was narrated by Mulan's father, who was the worst actor in it. Every line sounded like he was reading it from a teleprompter with no context. If they couldn't find a better actor to play him, they should have at least changed the narrator to Mulan after hearing how he sounded.

Honghui, the new love interest, took over one of Mulan's most famous lines in the movie by defending her to the captain when she was unable to defend herself. Despite that minor transgression, I liked Honghui as a love interest, but I didn't the way Mulan treated him. She was rude to him from beginning to end, which seems to be another ongoing trend in live-action remakes. In the 2017 Beauty and the Beast, Emma Watson's Belle was extremely rude to Gaston when he acted nice to her and tried to take an interest in her book. The original Belle was nothing but polite to Gaston, even when she rejected him. That made us like Belle because she tried to be nice to Gaston no matter how mean he was to her. It was more difficult to like her in the remake when she wasn't nice to him even though he tried to be nice to her. In this remake, I felt bad for Honghui, who was nice to Mulan even when he didn't have to be and was met with a cold shoulder because Mulan was worried he might discover her secret if they got too close. I get that all princesses don't need to have a true love, but can't they at least be nice to people who are nice to them?

The only thing I liked about this movie was that the trailers were honest. They didn't try to get my hopes up for something that didn't exist. The bland, dull, and occasionally violent footage in the previews was a fully accurate description of the overall look and feel of the film. It had no humor and very little heart. I hope Chinese audiences enjoy this movie because it has very little to offer to fans of the original. The characters are boring, the action is unrealistic, and the script is lazy. It is the worst Disney remake I have seen so far. At least they still sang in The Lion King. The only good thing I have to say about it is that it might be a decent but forgettable movie if the original Mulan didn't exist. It's a shame the rigid restrictions of modern feminism and attempts to appeal to Chinese audiences prevented them from taking the story in a fun new direction like they did with Aladdin.


Hope35 said…
Also the Aladdin live action remake handled modern feminism way better than the new Mulan seems to have it (I'm on internet spoilers until I can rent this movie outside of Disney Plus).

Like Belle in the original Disney animated BATB Jasmine was not really rude to anyone during the film, really not even that rude to Jafar after he turned on her & her family near the end of the movie, she stayed respectful throughout the whole movie & it showed why she was promoted to being her country's version of a King/Queen at the end of the movie & why she will be an incredible ruler for her country.

It shows a level of class & maturity that makes them good role models for little girls growing up & starting to learn about the ways of the world that they will carry with them once they're grown up & living on their own.

I'm also a big fan of the original animated Mulan too & seeing the clips for the new movie made me want to see the original & it looks like even seeing this movie in the future may make me just want to watch the original again.

Also Disney REALLY NEEDS this movie to be a big hit in China but it may be lucky to break even there. According to some reviews I've seen at least some Chinese viewers of the movie also disliked it, not liking Mulan's Chi powers either among some other concerns. & that doesn't include the numerous Chinese people who will be boycotting the movie due to the lead actress' political views.

So between potential bad word of mouth in China & the boycott well I won't be surprised if this movie is made available for me to give it a cheaper non-Disney Plus rental by the end of November because Disney needs to get as much $$$ as they can for the movie ASAP.
Lisa Dawn said…
Hi Hope,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I loved the way they handled Jasmine in the Aladdin remake. She was strong and kind, and they gave her a great new song. I don't think Disney is going to release Mulan from Premier Access early because December 4th is soon enough already, and they need every extra penny they can get from people to make back what they spent on the movie. I've already seen some criticism from China as well. This review is pretty through:

Have a lovely day!
Philip said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Philip said…
Honestly, they should have just forgotten about pleasing Chinese audiences.

All the "chi" stuff was supposed to appeal to Chinese viewers, but they got it completely wrong.

Yes, chi does make you powerful... but in the same sense that drinking eight glasses of water a day gives you strength.

Disney wanted to please everyone. Now, we have a world-class flop. One of my Chinese friends remarked, (I'm translating) "It's the kind of movie that makes you wish that China had been conquered by the barbarians."

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