Review: Mulan (2020)

Mulan. Directed by Niki Caro. Disney, 2020.

Premiere Impressions

            Let’s get this out of the way: it’s impossible not to compare the live-action Mulan (2020) [now available through “premier access” on Disney+] to its animated predecessor, Mulan (1998). (Does it make me feel old and decrepit to think about the original coming out 22 years ago? Sure, but let’s save that for my therapist.) It’s important to note this upfront because every line of this review is in some way a comparison to the original. Even if I tried to separate them from each other, the film itself constantly wants to remind you. For example, each large-scale emotional moment is highlighted by instrumental themes from “Reflection,” one of the many songs popularized by the animated classic’s soundtrack. That being said, the elements Mulan brings in to try and distinguish itself from the original are mostly successful, albeit clumsily assembled.

            Mulan focuses on the journey of Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei), a young woman with extraordinarily strong chi—don’t worry, I’ll come back to this—as she takes her father’s (Tzi Ma) place in China’s battle against a Rouran war leader, Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee). Khan, guided by a shapeshifting witch (Gong Li), plans to kill the emperor (Jet Li). Mulan must train to become a warrior and defeat Khan without the army discovering that she is posing as a man.

            At various stages of Mulan’s journey, the characters break into fantastic musical num—oh, wait, there are no songs. After watching the film, my assumption is that the musical elements of the original were cut to keep the film more “grounded” and “realistic.” That being said, the film is neither of those things. The film draws influence from war epics, but there is a specific lighthearted, well, Disney-ness, to the proceedings that prevent it from being a realistic, grounded war film. I might be bias, I do study musicals, but this was the only major element from the original that’s absence is felt throughout the film.

            Other than the absence of musical numbers, many of the film’s revisions are successful, if for no other reason than being attempts to adapt from the animated version. Each year, Disney’s live-action remakes move closer and closer to replica rather than reimaginings (just compare Cinderella [2015] and The Lion King [2019]). It is definitely a nice change of pace to see Mulan try something new. The two most important new elements are the inclusion of chi and the new character, Xian Lang, the aforementioned witch. Let’s start with the chi business. In this film, chi is a spiritual force that all beings hold. Some have stronger chi that allows them to have some form of extra power, though what that really means is not well-defined. Basically, strong chi seems to allow for greater control of the body, balance, and senses. Essentially, chi is The Force for Mulan. The opening sequence, where we first see Mulan as a chi-sensitive child, makes the film feel more “chosen one” than the “female empowerment” tale of the original. That being said, the film’s use of chi grants us fight sequences that occur in “chi-time,” which definitely add a bit of pizazz to the action sequences (all of which are quite exciting). The biggest negative of the chi element is that the word “chi” is said approximately nine hundred and forty times throughout the film. Seriously, if one of my students turned in this script, I would have made them CTRL+F the word “chi” and find other ways to say the same thing.  

            Without question, the most exciting and interesting element of the film is Xian Lang. I remember when I saw the Mulan trailer and my friend lamented, “why do they always have to make a female villain to fight a female hero.” I, too, assumed Lang was brought in exclusively to make a female counterpart for Mulan, but she is much more than that. As is present in many origin stories, Lang serves as Mulan’s uncanny double. She is the only character in the film with more powerful chi than Mulan, which she uses to fight back against the men who would not accept her as a warrior. She is far less a villain than a rogue, and she exists to guide Mulan, rather than just to fight her. As the only character with actual supernatural powers, Lang is the most fun character to watch and the most exciting to see fight. Also, look at her costume. What a queen.

            Overall, the film is enjoyable, but rather clunky, mostly because of several distracting elements. The pacing of the film is unbalanced. The sequences of Mulan as a child feel overlong whereas the emotional and physical struggle of Mulan’s training is quick and understated. Some sound effects are poorly mixed, which makes moments in the action sequences feel a bit goofy. The score features some stunning instrumentation, but also includes the cheesy score often used to indicate gentle comedy. In the end, I am left wondering if I would have enjoyed this more on the big screen. Certainly, the scale and spectacle of the film would have had more of an impact, but would these distractions stand out even more?

Post-Screening Snippets

  • Mulan earns double points for blessing us with two Xtina ballads
  • This film wins the award for most unnecessary CGI rabbits
  • Surprisingly, I didn’t mind the absence of Mushu – replacing the animal sidekicks with a spirit guide actually worked for me
  • With more time, this would be a great film to examine for the queerer elements associated with gender-bending
  • I think Mulan is my favorite Disney princess because she straight up kills people
  • Someone buy me Jet Li’s final hat ASAP
  • “You know, it’s really Christina and Mariah that can do all of the soft signing and the big belting” – I have nothing left to teach my father

The Final Tea

             In the end, it’s impossible to discuss the final tea without discussing the “premier access” platform of its release. Here’s the thing: $29.99 sounds like an insane price to stream a film. I get it. Even I made sure to watch every single second of the credits to get my money’s worth. If you break it down, though, the price point makes sense. If the average movie ticket in your area is approximately ten dollars and there are between 2-4 people watching the film for each Disney+ account, then you’re paying just about what you would pay to watch the film in a theater. Now, does that mean the price is worth it? Not necessarily, it just means the logic behind the price is sound. Watching a film in a movie theater is a completely different experience than watching the movie at home, no matter how big your television screen is. It will take some time for the studios to figure out the pricing structure for the world of New Distribution. For right now, the real question is, “Is the new Mulan worth the price of premier access?” My recommendation would be to skip the “premier access” cost and watch the animated version a couple of times before you can stream the live-action film in December.

GRADE: B

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