‘Mulan’ Breathes Exhilarating Life Into An Old Story

Courtesy of Disney

The Disney live-action remakes have obviously had success of varying degrees. But one thing that’s been consistent in all of them is they’re all following a very strict formula of essentially hitting all of the fan-favorite plot beats fans of the original properties love and have come to expect. The most egregious offender of the doing-the-exact-same-thing-and-nothing-else problem is of course, 2019’s The Lion King, which is a lifeless shot-for-shot exoskeleton of the beloved animated classic that is still somehow still 30 minutes longer for no reason. Well, I sure can’t say that about the new Mulan.

Mulan (Yifei Liu) is an adventurous young woman who lives with her family in Imperial China and is resigned to the fact that her family plans to hire a matchmaker and marry her off. After their home is threatened by war, it is decided that each family in their village is required to send one man to fight. Her father (The Farewell’s Tzi Ma), a famed but now frail war veteran, has decided to go off and fight because he has two daughters and no son to send in his place. Mulan doesn’t accept this, and runs off to fight in his place, risking her own life and boldly going against generations of tradition.

The first thing I want to talk about is the deeply depressing situation regarding the release of Mulan. Mulan was supposed to be released in March. Critic screenings and the world premiere had already taken place. Of course, in the weeks after the COVID-19 shutdowns happened, Disney pushed the release date several times before deciding that Mulan would serve as a test subject for a new release model. In September, Mulan debuted on streaming platform Disney+ as a ‘premiere access’ title, only viewable if you have a Disney+ subscription, with an added fee of $30. I’m really hoping this experiment crashed and burned because I never want Disney to release a movie like Mulan this way ever again.

Mulan was always bound to be divisive, as it’s the first Disney live-action remake to deviate from the source material. The musical numbers are gone, the wisecracking talking dragon Mushu is gone, the character of Li Shang is gone, or just split into two different characters now. And I feel like the film still hasn’t lost anything because what we have in their place is quite exhilarating. Mulan is kind of a war epic now, but it keeps the Disney magic in crucial ways. 

I’ve seen criticism surrounding Yifei Liu’s performance, claiming that she can’t handle the more emotional scenes. I did not find this to be the case. In disguising herself to fight in this war, knowing that not only her life but the honor of her entire family are at stake, Mulan puts on a façade of steeliness and never-let-‘em-see-you-flinch bravado and Liu handles the physical demands of these scenes incredibly well. Also, this is such a stunt-heavy role and one that clearly involves a lot of wirework, and when we finally see Mulan fight as herself (not a spoiler, this is in the trailer), it’s incredibly exciting to behold. 

Donnie Yen plays a new character, Commander Tung, the leader of the Imperial Army and Mulan’s mentor. Yoson An plays Chen, another soldier who becomes her love interest. In the 1998 animated film, having Mulan fall for her much older mentor perhaps didn’t feel as icky as it does today, and splitting up Li Shang into two characters seems like a particularly perceptive decision. Also, we have the magnificent Gong Li as new character Xianniang, a witch who has the ability to shapeshift into a falcon, and she’s so much fun to watch. She’s probably the best part of this film.

I’m so disappointed I wasn’t able to see Mulan the way it was meant to be seen, projected on an enormous screen with great sound, preferably in a Dolby screening room. Especially given the fact that this is about as gorgeous as movies get. Every aspect of this production is pristine and visually intoxicating. The costumes from Bina Daigeler are striking and gorgeous and the score by Henry Gregson-Williams includes a lot of musical elements from the original without including the actual musical numbers.

It’s well known that the choice to deviate from the Disney live action remake formula and for Mulan to not be a musical at all is due to Disney’s desire to appeal to the Chinese box office, which is historically unfavorable towards musicals. That seems like a waste now, only because of what happened with the film’s release, but I truly believe that the missing elements of the original film – the musical numbers, Mushu, etc. – would have hurt this version of it. The reason it works is because it’s so different. It feels like a fresh retelling of an old story in many ways.

Now, there are some elements that don’t work and a lot of daring choices that seem out of place. Starting with the fact that Mulan is basically a superhero now. It’s established early on that ‘her Chi is strong,’ which lends itself to Star Wars/Force comparisons. At one point about halfway through, she finds a soldier dead on the battlefield, she puts her hand on his heart and suddenly he’s breathing again. Mulan can bring people back from the dead now! It’s exciting when it happens, but kind of lessens the stakes moving forward. While I like a lot of the realistic aspects about gender roles and the horrors of war, those elements are at odds with the whole Mulan is A Superhero Now thing.

Disney’s decision to release this particular tentpole as a streaming-only title particularly hurts because of what this film represents. This is the most expensive film to ever be directed by a woman, and one of the only American films to be produced by a major studio with an all-Asian cast. Seeing this film projected on a giant screen could be a defining moment for young viewers who have never seen themselves represented that way before. Mulan has since faced criticism and requests for boycotts surrounding details of where filming took place, so maybe that’s why Disney decided to bury this film, but there are plenty of reasons why this film deserved the theatrical experience.

It’s unclear how many of the choices here were director Niki Caro’s vision and how many of them were studio notes, but ultimately it feels like it worked because this is one of the strongest Disney live action remakes we’ve seen so far. While some of the fun of the original is gone, we have a stronger emphasis on emotion and empowerment. And we have a setup for a sequel I doubt we’ll see now, and it’s a shame. I’d love to see this story continue. Mulan breathes remarkable life into an old story, and could not be more dazzling and thrilling.

Is it worth the $30 price point on Disney+? I would say no. Don’t support this venture. I watched it due to a friend’s generosity and would not have supported this on my own. Disney released it this way so they could claim every dollar of revenue made by this film, and this is harmful not only for theatrical distribution, but also for ancillary sales. But the consumer can decide who to give their money to. Don’t let Disney release a big film this way ever again. It will be included at no additional cost with your Disney+ membership beginning in early December, and I’m sure it will be available on Blu-ray and digital platforms outside of Disney+ even before then. Mulan is a total spectacle and is absolutely worth your time, but choose the way you watch it wisely.

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