Disney has lifted their $30 paywall on Disney Plus for their “Mulan” reboot and wow, I really feel bad for those who paid full price to see this. I get that this was a ludicrously expensive movie to make (it had a $200 million budget), but asking for triple the amount a normal theater ticket costs on top of the monthly $7 Disney Plus fee was a lot to ask for, especially considering the controversy surrounding this film being shot close to Uighur interment camps, and the questionable creative choices it took.
“Mulan” 2020 follows the story of Hua Mulan (Yifei Liu), who enlists illegally in the Chinese army after The Emperor (Jet Li) of China decrees that every family must send at least one man to enlist to fight off of the nomadic Rourans, who are led by Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), whose father The Emperor killed. The Rourans have a shapeshifting witch named Xianniang (Gong Li) who can massacre swathes of soldiers. Mulan takes the place of her father, as he would have otherwise been forced to serve because he has no sons.
“Mulan” 2020 takes elements from the 1998 Disney animated film and the original Chinese tale the “Ballad of Mulan” in an attempt to pander to Western and Chinese audiences alike, and what we get is this weird in-between of the two that satisfies no one. I understand Disney’s position; they wanted to make their adaptation of the 1998 film more realistic by adding more from the actual “Mulan” tale, especially if it meant being able to tap into the large Chinese box office. But it turns out “Mulan” is a fairly recognizable figure in China, meaning what Disney wanted — to both adapt their 1998 film and the original tale it was based on — simply couldn’t work, as the 1998 film was purposefully westernized to make it work better for Western audiences, and any inconsistencies between the cartoon and the original that they absolutely had to include spoiled the film for Chinese audiences. The New York Times wrote a great piece that I recommend you read on how China received the film, as it explains a lot of the bizarre creative choices.
To put it simply, this in-between strategy results in a film that is boring and dragged out for Western audiences, and cartoonish and historically inaccurate for Chinese audiences.
It’s a shame, because there are plenty are examples of good cinematography and plenty of good sequences, especially leading up to the first battle Mulan’s regiment has to fight in. The film is at its best when it’s allowed to just be a war film, and I was genuinely invested in it up until the conclusion of the first battle, in which Mulan reveals her identity as a woman, as the movie pretty much stops everything it has set up to that point to force the story to hit a checklist of plot points it needs to make, including Mulan’s brief exile and return, which the film treats like chores.
It’s frustrating, because there could have been a decently entertaining film here had it been allowed to be its own standalone thing that took inspiration from the 1998 film and the original Chinese tale, but was allowed creative liberty as it saw fit. The film lacks personality, and unfortunately this does translate to its cast. Other than Mulan, The Emperor, Khan and Xianniang, I cannot describe the characters of any of the main cast, as they all meld together. Yao (Chen Tang), Ling (Kimmy Wong) and Chien-Po (Doua Moua) — Mulan’s army friends who were in the 1998 film — are in this, but they have almost none of the personality and charm of their animated counterparts, and pretty much could have been written out of this film because they do nothing of importance.
Mulan sort of has a character, and she certainly has goals, but she lacks enough vulnerabilities and personality to make her relatable. She ends up being a character we follow, but don’t really know.
Khan and Xianniang are presented as generically evil villains, but they end up having far more sympathetic backstories than The Emperor himself, who we’re supposed to root for. Khan wants riches and revenge, and it’s alluded to that he might also want to take back lands China took from his people. Xianniang serves Khan because the Rourans are the only people who will accept her.
The Emperor just wants to preserve his kingdom, and the film unfortunately looks at him far too uncritically. His character is brutal, and his actions instigated the conflict with the Rourans when he killed their leader. We see so little of him, he’s almost a non-character. We’re supposed to respect him because everyone else does in the film, but he’s portrayed more as a leader we need to respect because he’s at the top of an authoritarian hierarchy rather than someone who demands that respect through his own merits.
There’s a point in this film where Mulan is offered to join Khan’s side, but she refused, and I legitimately had to wonder why, given that she singlehandedly saved her entire regiment, and that still wasn’t enough to prove her worth. While he kills and loots, Khan is presented as no better than The Emperor, who does what is necessary to protect his people, but is brutal in his own way.
The animated version cemented Mulan’s motivation in one powerful scene in which her regiment discovers a destroyed village with a single, sad doll, communicating that the Huns (the 1998 film’s villains) had no honor, and would destroy everything, even going so far as to harm children. In addition, while the 1998 film’s emperor is presented as ignorant, he is also wise, and capable of learning from his mistakes and changing tradition as necessary, and he cares deeply about his people. So despite the fact that she faces execution and prejudice in the animated film, she fights for her kingdom because there’s more on the line than just her life.
We don’t get any of that in “Mulan” 2020. In fact, the Rourans seem to have the moral high ground for most of the film, as they demonstrate that they will take in outsiders if they prove their worth, even if they’re women, and they have legitimate grievances towards China. There are scenes where they mention the Rourans left no one alive during some battles, but they breeze by too quickly to make an impact and again, there is no indication to suggest the Chinese army was any better towards the Rourans (it’s also worth mentioning that it’s pointless to try to apply 21st century senses of honor and combat morality to a film that takes place between the 4th and 6th centuries, but I digress). This makes the film not really about a perceived good versus evil, but rather one of warring people, which, while it’s probably more realistic, it’s far less compelling as a story.
“Mulan” 2020 is a film that had no hopes of earning its budget back because of the pandemic, but because of everything I’ve discussed, I’m not convinced it would have been the breakout hit Disney had hoped for even during normal times. It’s obvious Chinese audiences did not like it, and unlike Disney’s previous live action remakes of its animated films, “Mulan” 2020 doesn’t share enough stylistically with “Mulan” 1998 to capitalize off of people’s nostalgia.
It’s a film that tries to please everybody and ends up pleasing nobody fully.
“Mulan” 2020 gets a 4/10