By Hector Valverde
Disney’s Mulan from 1998 is arguably the best of its entire animated collection. It’s a beautiful, lovingly animated story told with a powerful message, one only made better by an impeccable soundtrack ranking amongst the studio’s greats. In 2020, it was only a matter of time before the film got adapted into live action. How has it translated? Well, I just burned $30 on premium VOD to be able to tell you you definitely shouldn’t.
Despite adding and subtracting several characters and plot elements, the Mulan remake largely tells the same story as its animated counterpart, itself based on a centuries-old legend, the Ballad of Mulan. With an invasion from bandits on the horizon, the Emperor of China issues a decree for every family to present a male warrior for his army. Fearing for her frail father’s life and with no other man to represent her family, Hua Mulan disguises herself as a man to join the army in his stead.
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I hate to sound like a broken record, but Disney’s shoddy trend of remakes leaves me no other choice: this live action Mulan is worse in every way to its sister animation. Like the studio’s other adaptations, it mixes up some of the supporting framework in its characters and side stories, but it’s all empty posturing.
Mulan only goes through the motions, clumsily skipping over the masterful beats that make the cartoon so wonderful. The film presents itself as a deathly serious war epic, but hurts for cutting out pivotal characters such as Captain Shang and Mulan’s ancestors and its songs (whose lovely melodies occasionally echo through the instrumental score).
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While these cuts are done in a respectable effort to distance the film from the animation, the crucial moments and dense development given to its characters during the film’s songs are all gone with nothing to compensate, one notable new character aside (more on her later). It’s as if the music, supporting crew, and all the content concerning them are blindly axed from the 90-minute original, with the areas surrounding them being stretched out in tedium to spit out a two hour movie.
As a result, you never get that personal, investing connection to Mulan. Her growth into a leader and warrior doesn’t feel active and natural, but like a recreation that expects you to fill in the missing development by having seen the gorgeously empowering animation first. It doesn’t help that lead star Liu Yifie is too uncharismatic and blank-faced in an attempt to look stoic. And, her lack of acting aside, Yifie’s shameful stance on the police and violence that’s been erupting in Hong Kong in the current sours Mulan just that extra bit more.
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Gong Li’s performance as Xian Lang, a witch allied with the bandits from the north, is the only interesting character in the movie. Funnily enough, the new character’s arc is almost entirely Mulan’s from the animation, making her feel, while one of the better parts of the film, pretty much redundant.
As with the majority of Disney’s other live action adaptations, Mulan does excel in one area: its visuals. Picking up on the accomplishments of last year’s Aladdin, Mulan is wrapped in colorful costumes and production design that beautifully honor the 600 AD Tang Dynasty region it’s set in. Mulan’s home village is particularly eye-catching, and as the film progresses through snowy mountains, grassy fields bathed in golden sunsets, and striking Chinese architecture, it’s almost always a visual treat. The heightened wire-work action incorporated into the film’s set pieces, though sparse enough to make you pine for more, is also thoroughly stunning and one of Mulan’s true accomplishments. In the uninspired story it’s all set in, it’s just too little, too late.
Mulan is one of the worst live action adaptations coming from Disney’s ten-year cash-grabbing streak. It fails its protagonist, her journey, and everything else making the animation great in a choppy, half-hearted attempt to make something new.