Mulan tells the story of a young woman who defied the expectations society had laid out for her, risking death and disgrace to save her family and defend her kingdom. But where Mulan, the character, ultimately triumphs in both being her most authentic self and earning the respect and approval of her community, Mulan, the new movie, is less successful in squaring that circle. It’s a remake of the 1998 film that reaches for bold choices, but feels too timid to ultimately make them worthwhile.
Credit where credit is due: The 2020 Mulan is not one of those Disney live-action remakes that settles for a painstaking beat-by-beat recreation of the original. Director Niki Caro and her team reimagine the narrative from the ground up, in a wholly different style and genre, with new characters and subplots and themes, and without some of the most beloved elements of its predecessor (namely, Mushu and the songs). You can’t say it’s not trying to do something new.
And some of what it’s doing works quite well. For starters, the film is extremely pleasant to look at. The colors pop, the landscapes stun, the detailing on the costumes and props are so exquisite I’d probably buy an entire collection of Mulan-inspired housewares from Urban Outfitters. The wuxia-inspired action sequences are unlike anything we’ve seen in other Disney blockbusters, and add a touch of unpredictability to an otherwise staid picture. And lead actor Yifei Liu radiates strength as she charges into those scenes, a shiny blade in her hand and a look of grim determination on her face.
Indeed, Mulan is so gorgeous that it’s a shame the pandemic has sent it straight to Disney+. It feels like a film designed for the grandeur of a proper cinema, and having first seen it at the Dolby Theatre back in March, I can confirm it works better when it’s bigger. It’s easier to get caught up in the epic sweep of the war and the splendor of its settings, and against that backdrop it’s also harder to miss some of the human-scale moments and details. Rewatching it at home, I realized that what played as subtle yet clear in the theater, like Mulan’s sense of humor, her affection toward her father (the always welcome Tzi Ma), or her romantic tension with a fellow soldier (Yoson An), comes off as practically nonexistent on my living room TV.
Leeched of that warmth, Mulan feels impeccably crafted and unimpeachably dignified, but also too cool and remote to connect with either younger audience members looking for fun or older ones hoping for depth. Liu’s Mulan is as loyal and brave and true a Disney hero as one could possibly hope for, but that’s all she is; the joy and yearning and playfulness of her predecessor are sorely missed. This is a Mulan to admire as a role model, not one to recognize and relate to as a flawed fellow human, or simply enjoy as someone entertaining and interesting to be around.
And in that unforgiving light, Mulan‘s other flaws and inconsistencies become plain to see. Such as: What is this movie trying to say, exactly? The script, credited to Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and Elizabeth Martin & Lauren Hynek, goes all in on vague ideals about honor and familial duty and being true to oneself and finding one’s place in the world. Mulan is even sent a foil in the form of a witch (Gong Li) who strayed off the noble path when society rejected her for being, much like Mulan, a woman who couldn’t or wouldn’t restrain her chi (power). The witch’s anger and cruelty throw Mulan’s righteousness into sharp relief.
What honor means to Mulan personally, however, whether she has any conflicting feelings about her family duty, how she might be her real self in a society that threatens her with exile or execution for being who she is, what it means to try and find a place in a society like that, why she shouldn’t, at this point, just burn it all down and join forces with a witch who gets it — these are all questions Mulan delicately tiptoes around.
The new Mulan forgets to remind us why she’s a girl with fighting for in the first place.
As is, noticeably, whether Mulan is even fighting the right fight to begin with. In recent years, a growing number of Disney heroes have tried to reckon with their own homelands’ dark pasts, and set about trying to rectify them. Mulan bucks the trend by having its protagonist never once question what her military is fighting for, or whether the invading enemy forces might be justified in being ticked off that the Chinese once invaded their homelands and killed their leader. It’s a privilege for her just to get to express her patriotism as a faithful soldier, and never mind what that patriotism is for.
The new Mulan is enough of a rebel to reject a life of compliance and submission, enough of a thinker to prove herself a brilliant military strategist, enough of a fighter to stand for what she believes in even at great cost to herself — but not, as far as we can see, someone capable of seeing a bigger picture that involves questioning the status quo or envisioning a new way forward.
Likewise, her movie is ambitious enough to reimagine the Mulan story for a new audience, to cast it in a new light for those who grew up on the ’90s version or those who never cared for that one to begin with. This version of Mulan is rich in visual detail and strenuously respectful in tone, too serious to bother with childish flourishes like a jokey musical number or a comic-sidekick dragon. But it’s not curious enough to delve into the complications of its hero’s heart, or venture into the thornier territory suggested by its themes.
In straining to win over everyone who might see it (or at least avoid offending anyone who might), Mulan forgets to reminds us why she’s a girl with fighting for in the first place.
Mulan premieres Friday, Sep. 4 on Disney+.
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