Disney’s recent stream of live-action remakes of their beloved animated classics has been pretty hit or miss. Some have worked (Aladdin, Pete’s Dragon), while others not so much (Dumbo, The Lion King). Even fewer have surpassed the original in quality (The Jungle Book). But the one thing that seems to have no bearing on either the successes or failures of these remakes is how faithful they are to the originals. With the live-action remake of Mulan, this disharmony between fealty to the original and desire to become its own film has never been apparent, or jarring.
1998’s Mulan came about at the tail end of Disney’s most prolific decade of filmmaking, and has seemed to get overshadowed over the years by mega-hits like The Lion King, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast. Each year in the ’90s seemed to one-up the next – until they didn’t. But then 1998 saw the release of one of Disney’s cleanest narratives ever, essentially a war film that blended humor, intensity, and musical elements to create one epic result that stood out.
This live-action Mulan remake doesn’t carry over the tunes and is missing a pint-sized, wise-cracking dragon, but these changes won’t prove to be the downfall of the film. In fact, it works well without them, up to a point. As much as this remake wants to be its own film, it rarely taps into any of the charm or epicness that oozed out of the original, lowering the stakes until there are hardly any stakes left.
Based on the Chinese legend, the story should be fairly straightforward: Mulan, a young woman, disguises herself as a man in order to fight in a war to protect her country. The Emperor demands one man from each family to join the battle against savage invaders. But the only male in Mulan’s family is her father, an injured war veteran determined to join the cause regardless. Mulan steals his armor and races off to fight in his place. The stakes are high; if she’s caught, she will be executed for treason and her family dishonored.
Yet, Disney complicates things by lessening the risk in this version. Instead of an execution, if she’s discovered she’ll be…expelled and sent home? Doesn’t quite keep us on the edge of our seat in the same way.
Somehow the over-seriousness doesn’t plague the film until we realize that the lack of a sidekick may actually harm the depth of our protagonist. With Mushu, voiced by Eddie Murphy in the 1998 film, Mulan was given someone to talk to, letting us better understand her personality beyond her inner-turmoil. She doesn’t just remain prisoner to her conflict, but becomes much more than that. Here, we must apply subtext that isn’t there to a conflict that doesn’t seem all that serious.
Still, this “conflict” gets resolved with over 30 minutes left, leaving the audience to realize that we have no other connection to our main character. Mulan proves her worth to her peers with a fourth of a movie remaining, which is problematic by itself, but what’s worse is how easily her mission is accomplished, the resolution dangerously close to magic. Thousands of years of tradition and notoriously old-fashioned thinking (that largely exists today) can’t be unanimously undone without even a little resistance. The conflict resolution is never worked for; there’s no tension. This is the entire premise of the story, folks!
With a final act that’s routine and cookie-cutter, the audience is left uninvested and bored. Mulan has nothing left to fight for, so we’re just watching the plot go through the motions. There’s a small twist with an ancillary character on the antagonistic side, but most viewers should be able to telegraph her end result from emotional setups sprinkled throughout the plot. However, I didn’t hate it, but wish these scenes had been better assembled.
Fortunately the film, directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider, The Zookeeper’s Wife), doesn’t have to try all that hard to craft a mature and classy tone. The glorious sets and costumes, as well as impressive wuxia-inspired choreography, serve to establish a certain vibe early on. A vibe that actually doesn’t feel like a Disney film, which is nice. Content-wise, this film doesn’t improve on the 1998 version, but at least it visually adds some texture to the previously-animated world. This mise en scène actually carries much of the movie, immersing us temporarily in this exotic version of ancient China, and is enough to keep us entertained up until the narrative crumbles mightily towards the end.
The performances are solid overall, especially Liu Yifei (who, by the way, would never pass as a man) in the title role. Despite not having any depth to her character, she’s able to do as much as possible to almost make us forget that fact.
This new Mulan, ultimately, feels like a product of the current sociopolitical climate, almost too thoughtful, removing several important characters over conflicting views from different cultures and groups. With its filmmakers trying to appease all audiences, the movie leans too heavily on its themes and symbolism for depth rather than simply writing its title character in a way where we can see it for ourselves. Disney’s original Mulan was inspiring without having to try hard at all. The remake, however, tries way too hard and misses the mark because of it. Like many films with good intentions, there is such a thing as being too careful; where caution begins to alter creative decisions and harm the greater good of the movie.