As a business model, Disney’s years-long effort to re-capitalize its most iconic animated films of yesteryear into big-budget, live-action (or live-action-esque in the case of last year’s The Lion King) reimaginings has been nothing short of a financial masterstroke, not too far below the juggernaut success of their Marvel and Star Wars acquisitions just a decade ago. In some ways, Mulan represents both the highs and lows of Disney’s trip down memory lane, from family favorites like The Jungle Book to more critically shrugged replicants like Beauty and the Beast. Either way, Mulan is sure to leave some audiences clamoring for more, while others might end up feeling somewhat cheated by what could’ve been.
Part of that feeling of missing out comes in the form of Mulan’s unfortunate change of release schedule. This was originally expected to be Disney’s latest springtime success story, a box office run meant to emulate recent hits like Zootopia and Captain Marvel. This was also Disney’s clearest effort yet to produce a Western action-adventure film that could be simultaneously marketed in earnest to Chinese audiences, collecting hundreds of millions more than they could have ever wished for when it came to The Rise of Skywalker — since those movies have never quite taken off in China in the same way Avatar or some of the Marvel films have.
So now that Mulan is finally making its way to screens, albeit smaller ones on existing Disney+ accounts for an extra $30, it’s not really a surprise to see a film exactly as marketed by the trailers, posters, and most people’s expectations. It’s a more serious, action-minded epic compared to the 1998 comedy-adventure musical, but it repeatedly makes an effort to remind you of the original when it needs you to feel something in a pinch.
The set up is conceptually identical to its predecessor: the young daughter of an aging war hero disguises herself as a man in order to take her father’s place on the battlefield, right as an invading army threatens the entire country. Mulan herself is portrayed by Liu Yifei, a well-known actress in China who plays this leading role more like a superhero in the making compared to the more accident-prone version of the character because hey, it was the 90s. Director Nicky Caro (Whale Rider) and the film’s several screenwriters craft what is more or less an origin story for a naturally gifted warrior who has to rise above the systemic forces trying to keep her true self down, which is a far cry from the 90s film, which presented Mulan as more of an underdog who is shown to be brave precisely because she goes to war not knowing a thing about battle but pushes herself to become stronger because she can.
It’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but Mulan funnily enough provides an excellent case study in how generational attitudes have shifted toward pop culture heroes and the fictional obstacles they have to overcome. While ’98 Mulan was more about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and getting the job done, ’20 Mulan is more about dismantling oppressive and outdated power structures that hold you and your unique gifts back. In both cases, Mulan as a Disney character is still more of a reactionary one, a reflection of what the film studio sees as the current appetite of mainstream audiences. Anyone looking for a roguish take on the material or original Chinese folklore will only get it in aesthetics, and barely at that.
But again, it’s not like the cultural takeaways are what’s really being marketed in the first place. Unlike recent remakes like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, there’s an opportunity here to heighten the genre itself, which in this case is the action and adventure element. At times, Mulan is even a bit swashbuckling and seemingly old-fashioned in its battles, which rely slightly more on impressive stuntwork and choreography than green screens to provide visceral thrills (even though, yes, there is a lot of green screen in this). It’s not Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but for the most part, it’s trying to be.
The film also boasts an infectious cast. Tzi Ma gets little screen time, but he makes every moment count as Mulan’s world-weary father. Jet Li gets a chance to exude his regal presence as the Emperor. Even Donnie Yen takes up a rewritten role as the army’s commander, no longer the fresh-faced captain and love interest for Mulan, but now a seasoned commander and mentor. Even Mulan’s cohorts, notably Yoson An as Mulan’s fiercest rival, manage to sneak in some memorable moments in the downtime, despite tampering down the comedy a bit. There’s no “I’ll Make a Man out of You” montage that will inspire a generation of workout videos, but the film quotes that song and others enough to make you yearn for clicking on the animated version as soon as you’re done with the remake (it’s almost as if that was the plan all along with these movies).
In some ways, Mulan corrects the most egregious mistakes of previous Disney live-action remakes, while unfortunately tripping up on some of the fundamentals. Yes, it’s visually exciting to watch and manages to stand out amongst its fellow cash grabs, even if it does manage to edge a little too close to the screenplay for Wonder Woman. And it even nods to the original in just the right amount so that it’s mostly pleasant and nostalgic without making too many people crave watching the other movie, which to be fair might have something to do with the decision to leave out Mushu. The main villain is still a perfunctory plot point dressed in shady armor played (admittedly with effort) by Jason Scott Lee, but the story adds a more compelling shapeshifting villain known as Gong Li (Xian Lang), who like Mulan is considered a “witch” for daring to be a woman with power. The clash between these two is far more challenging and unpredictable than anything in the original.
But where Mulan stumbles is in its basic storytelling and emotional heft, specifically when it comes to the main character’s story arc. It repositions our hero as a “destined chosen one” with magical, innate qualities and her very own plot-contrivance phoenix, rather than a more believable strength birthed by her own willpower, wit, and hard work. It’s not like the original did the best job either when it came to getting this message across, but again, the training montage did basically 90% of the work in that regard.
For families and general fans of the original movie, 2020’s Mulan is certainly easy to recommend. The flaws are apparent, but not all that distracting. As mentioned before, the original is still right there on the same streaming service if you’re ready to have some extra fun and compare and contrast the two. And even though it’s easy to see where this new film might be a little lacking, it’s still far more joyful to think about and discuss than almost anything Disney has put out as a remake since perhaps Pete’s Dragon. It’s also a more confident film, relying less on the slapstick comedy meant to appease younger children in favor of a PG-13 fantasy romp through a variety of topographical locations that range from thematically stunning to blank stone vistas ripped from The Last Airbender. Sure, the bar was already a bit low for these live-action remakes, but if we’re going to keep getting more (which we will), taking a few cues from Mulan would bring honor to us all.
Jon is the co-host of Cinemaholics and author of two books: the novel Killerjoy and a book about Pixar called The Pixar Theory. His favorite movie is usually The Mask of Zorro (don’t ask).