As the live-action adaptation of the 1998 animated film, Mulan is, like most every Disney remake, a shallow, empty shell of its animated counterpart. The changes made to the narrative, rather than enhancing it, strip away its subversive take on gender and feminism, leaving us with a basic, watered down version of an inspiring heroine.
Mulan is indicative of the continuing issues in Hollywood and with Disney in particular. Last year’s Aladdin remake could’ve been so much better if the studio had hired Middle Eastern talent to lead the way behind the camera. Mulan suffers the same fate, with its onscreen representation belying the fact that the creative team — director Niki Caro, writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin, and Lauren Hynek, and even costume designer Bina Daigeler — is white.
Setting aside these issues, the film itself is a disappointment all around and also so very boring. Hua Mulan (Yifei Liu), a free-spirited young woman, must hide her chi from the world and know her place. In this Western definition, Mulan’s chi is presented as a supernatural power and a chi is for warriors, not women. When the Rourans and their leader, Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), invade China as vengeance for the emperor’s (Jet Li) expansion, the imperial army drafts one man from every family to fight them. Mulan’s father, Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma), fully intends to fight in the war despite his injury, but his daughter takes his place instead, pretending to be a man to protect herself and her family from dishonor.
Mulan takes literally everything that worked for the animation and throws it right out the window. There’s no soul, no heart, no humor. Devoid of these things, the live-action attempts to pull its conflict and stakes out of thin air and fails miserably in the process. Mulan has almost zero personality. Gone is her light, her passion, and her strength of will. These attributes are replaced by her chi, which dictates that she is special because of her supernatural abilities and not because of who she is as a person. Things happen to her and not because of her, and this is exemplified by the avalanche scene wherein she saves Honghui (Yoson An, who’s basically Shang’s replacement).
In the animated film, it’s her idea to cause an avalanche to defeat Shan Yu and his army. Everyone thinks she’s lost it, but it earns her comrades’ respect. More importantly, it showcases her quick thinking and her courage in the face of uncertainty and chaos. However, this scene serves as a meaningless reenactment in the live-action. And that’s ultimately what this film is: meaningless. Mulan can fight well because of her chi. Great, but that also means that nothing in her story is earned, nor does it allow Mulan the space to find out who she truly is and what she’s capable of on her own. The incorporation of the chi ultimately cheats Mulan out of her own character development, leaving her with little substance outside of it.
What’s more, there’s zero camaraderie between Mulan and her fellow soldiers. Reciting the lyrics of the animated film’s songs in conversation is pointless and doesn’t add anything to the characters’ relationships; neither does giving Mulan a sister. One scene reveals how little her mother has to worry about Mulan’s younger sister because she is agreeable and fit for marriage. However, the scene is merely a reminder that Mulan would rather give us lazy exposition than put in the work to establish its themes and characters.
“Loyal, brave, and true” is an oft-repeated message as well, but the words fall short of its intended power. And it’s honestly insulting to watch as the original’s feminist message and Mulan’s personal and emotional journey take twenty steps backwards. Asking twice for Mulan to join the imperial army as an officer (and the narration tells us she eventually agrees) undervalues the entire point of Mulan joining the fight to begin with. The music is also doing too much, overpowering the emotions that are meant to be conveyed onscreen and never are.
Disney keeps making these shot-for-shot remakes and expecting everyone not to care or notice that the magic, themes, and character development that made the animated Mulan iconic are completely missing here, and that no amount of visually stunning cinematography can save it.