Hi, everyone! Frequenters of this blog might have noticed that I have a bone to pick with Disney. It’s quite a large bone, and I wrote 4 blog posts detailing why any fondness I had for this company has dried up like a wrinkled old raisin and crumbled into dust. I refuse to pay a dime for their new movies, but when I saw the trailers for the new Mulan live-action remake, I felt my convictions faltering. It looked exciting, vibrant, and dare I say, good?
Luckily for me, there are other ways of watching a movie these days that don’t require shelling out dough to a soul-sucking multinational corporation, so last night, I finally got to watch Mulan. And boy, did it disappoint. From the uninspired story, to the paper-thin characters, to the insultingly generic music, Mulan failed in every way. It was a $200 million exercise in mediocrity. But why am I surprised? Mediocrity has become Disney’s lifeblood.
The reason for Disney’s earlier animated successes was due to its tried and true equation: Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey + catchy original music = Hollywood gold. The original Mulan was no exception, featuring an awkward protagonist desperate for societal acceptance who goes on an epic journey, learns to value their unique strengths, and finds their place in the world, all scored to some of Disney’s best hits. When approaching this live action remake (which we all know never should have been made in the first place), they had two viable options: do a copy and paste and make a movie in the same vein as the original, or throw out the recipe book and make something completely original. Disney did neither.
Instead what audiences got was a hazy imitation of the original that was stripped of all of the humor, warmth, and creativity of the first movie. The problem lies in three main areas: the story, the characters, and the music, which I’ll detail below.
The story: All good movies need a satisfying arc. While there are some notable exceptions to this rule, there’s a reason that pretty much every story we see follows this same formula, because it works. The original Mulan was about an unorthodox teenage girl who can’t find her place in a conservative society, but whose bravery and ingenuity allowed her to carve out a place for herself anyway. It was incredibly satisfying to watch Mulan struggle and fight her way to societal acceptance, and the ending is one of the most heartwarming of any Disney movie because she finds this acceptance without losing any of her unique qualities.
But imagine that Mulan was not an awkward teenage girl, and instead a super-powered warrior whose abilities are so impressive that people in her village whisper about her being a witch. Imagine that she doesn’t crave societal acceptance at all, and instead rankles against her father’s warnings that she keep her powers hidden. And imagine that instead of having to struggle to prove her worth to her fellow soldiers, she has to struggle instead to keep her incredible superiority a secret, and once it is revealed, she is lauded and adored by her whole regiment. Even when she reveals her true sex, by choice this time, barely anyone bats an eye, and it’s only after one scene of soul-searching that she’s accepted by the Chinese military (perhaps one of the most conservative organizations ever) and made into a leader.
There’s no need to imagine how unsatisfying this “arc” would be when all you have to do is watch the new Mulan. It’s a film that pretends to be more culturally sensitive and authentic than the original film, yet blissfully ignores the realities of a conservative culture in favor of “empowerment.” One of the things that the original Mulan got right was the idea that Mulan’s gender-bending was a life-or-death secret. If she had been found out earlier in the film, before she saved Shang’s life, she would have been executed. But this version of Mulan treats this like a joke. Not only is the actress Liu Yifei so feminine looking that her masculine disguise is hilariously inadequate, but the filmmakers have her reveal herself with no real weight to her decision. The filmmakers could have a cast a more androgynous actor to fix this problem, but they could also have fixed it by writing a plot that gave proper weight to the strict rules governing gender politics in ancient Chinese culture. Watching all of these Chinese men publicly declare their allegiance to Mulan after she reveals herself to be a woman was more unrealistic than the idea of a talking dragon in the original.
By ignoring the cultural context that forced Mulan into disguising herself as a man, the same cultural context that would ask an injured elderly man to go into battle to preserve his honor, the film loses any semblance of emotional resonance. There are no real stakes, because while in theory Mulan has a lot to lose, there are no real consequences to her actions.
The first sequence demonstrates so much about Mulan, her relationship with her femininity, and her relationship with her family, with only a few words. The imagery is striking and loaded with emotion, and the music supports it beautifully. Now compare that to the 2020 remake, which lacks all of that. It’s shallow, the imagery is weak, and the emotion is gone. Every scene in the 2020 remake is like this: a lame imitation of the original without beauty, substance, or feeling.
The characters: Like I said earlier, the reason it was so exciting to watch the original Mulan was because of her arc. She starts out as a lonely outcast dreaming of a place for herself and to make her family happy, but by the end of the film, she’s found happiness and acceptance. This version of Mulan has no clear wants or desires. We gets hints of what she might want, such as a desire for freedom, or to make her family proud, but nothing concrete. In my eyes, the only reason she has any characterization at all is due to what we know about her from the original movie, which this remake uses like a crutch. It doesn’t help that actor Liu Yifei’s delivery is wooden and stilted, which makes Mulan into even more of a cipher.
If you’re expecting a band of merry men similar to Yao, Po, and Ling, then you’ll be in for a disappointment. Although Mulan’s friends have some of the same names, they are mere cardboard cut-outs of the former, caricatures with none of the depth of the original characters. Their attempts at humor and camaraderie only serve as a shining light on how annoyingly serious this film is. And then, of course, there is the conspicuous absence of Shang, every girl’s first crush. Where Shang was a a scene-stealer in the original, a perfect match for Mulan, and just an all around dynamic character, here the love-interest is kind, but about as interesting as wall-paper. It’s not actor Yoson An’s fault that his Shang stand-in pales in comparison to the original, but he’s just another reminder of the movie’s weaknesses.
The music: Harry Gregson-Williams has failed me. This man, who has composed two of my favorite OSTs ever (The Chronicles of Narnia and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas), has composed a generic, Marvel-esque piece of mayonnaise for this film. I know it’s not his fault, and that it’s Disney’s insistence on milquetoast art that caused this, but damn if it didn’t hurt to hear a soundtrack that was begging to be forgotten. And don’t even get me started on the fact that they weaved the “Reflection” theme into the climactic sequence when it didn’t even show up anywhere else in the movie! That’s not how themes work! That’s not how theme’s work at all! They should have just brought Jerry Goldsmith back and let him work his magic so we could get some bangers like this:
The 2020 Mulan in 3 words? Boring, bland, and disappointing. It’s not even worth the effort it would take to pirate it. Just watch the 1998 version instead.