When the coronavirus pandemic forced theaters across the United States to close, Disney’s much anticipated remake of Mulan was less than 2 weeks from releasing. Just one week before it had premiered to LA critics and mildly positive reviews. As is the case for most of us, 2020 has become an unmitigated disaster for Mulan.
On one hand it’s disappointing. With Mulan, Disney was signaling a desire to branch out from its recent remake strategy. This adaptation promised to take it’s animated muse as simply that — a muse — to tell it’s own, more historically representative tale. As it turns out, Mulan was the wrong film to try this with.
This year has been tough, but the road for Mulan was never smooth. Disney received backlash from diehard fans of the animated classic when it announced, out of cultural sensitivity, the film would not feature Mushu the dragon or performances of the original songs. In late 2019 Liu Yifei, Mulan herself, tweeted support for the Hong Kong police in their crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, a move that prompted calls to boycott the film. Geopolitics were always going to be an issue for a film set in China. These we just the pre-COVID problems.
Theaters shuttered on March 16th and Mulan entered a nearly 6 month purgatory. Release dates were pushed back and back and back until finally Disney cut bait and released the film as a premium purchase on Disney+. Even this decision drew the ire of fans who scoffed at the idea of paying $30 to watch a movie on a platform that already costs them a monthly subscription. When it did finally release, Mulan whipped up a firestorm for filming parts in Xinjiang province, the site of an ongoing cultural genocide of Uyghur Muslims.
Early returns from the international box office have been dismal and it’s unclear how many have purchased Mulan on Disney+, especially given that the film will release free to the service in just 3 months. Mulan has been a financial and PR nightmare, and thats before even a mention of the film’s quality.
Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) deserves some credit for attempting to diverge from the animated Mulan. Her film features some of the iconic lines, characters and is even scored by instrumental versions of the beloved songs. But rather than trace, beat for beat, the 1998 version, this Mulan attempts a radically different tone. It doesn’t work, but the effort is appreciated.
Much of the reason why the new Mulan fails lies in it’s decision to go from fable to war film. This time around, our protagonist isn’t a rebellious, brave young nonconformist, she is a natural born, near mystical warrior. Choosing to make Mulan a magic, chi fueled, warrior removed from the original formula something more important than spirit dragons or musical numbers, it removed a moral.
This is no longer a film about courage and female empowerment. In 1998 any girl could be Mulan if she was brave and clever. Now Mulan is something just shy of a superhero, a unique heroine that has some mystic power that makes her the only person who could save the empire. This divergence is never more clear than in the two versions’ respective training montages. In the original “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” scene, Mulan uses her wits to overcome a seemingly impossible challenge: climbing a post with weighted medallions. Now, the challenge is one of pure strength, Mulan must ascend a mountain carrying pails of water.
Bafflingly, Mulan’s MPAA rating went from a ‘G’ in 1998 to a ‘PG-13’ today. Many scenes consist of sustained violence, enough that Mulan is not a film for kids. Yet it’s still Disney, so the violence is muted and the story is muddled with magical nonsense, enough that Mulan is not really for adults either. Seemingly, it’s a film that only exists to profit off the nostalgia of older millennials and the the Chinese box-office.
Therein lies the problem with Mulan and all of these live action remakes Disney has made. There is no mandate for their existence beyond corporate greed. If you grew up on and love Aladdin, Mulan or The Lion King you can watch them, right now, on the same streaming service as new Mulan without paying an extra $30. Nothing is gained, but every ounce of charm is lost by adapting these beloved films.
Maybe it needed that big screen experience? Mulan, it’s real world issues aside, is not a terrible film. It isn’t all that good either, but the action is interesting and the culturally appropriate casting is a welcome change from Disney. There are pieces of a worthwhile film here, they’re just layered in between gratuitous nostalgia. Certainly there is a way these live action films can work, its why I keep going back to them. Disney just needs to let their creatives be creative.
4/10. Mulan, like its adapted predecessors is nothing more than a corporate cash grab from a company who has long since abandoned the idea of originality.