(Photo courtesy of Disney)
The 2020 remake of the Disney animated classic “Mulan” had an incredibly troubled rollout, with plans for the movie starting as early as 2010. Hope for the project began resurfacing in 2015 when director Niki Caro joined on, and momentum finally picked up when Yifei Liu was cast in the lead role as the titular character in late 2017.
Production chugged along, but it had to be delayed multiple times due to COVID-19 until it ultimately hit Disney+ on Sept. 4, where they controversially charged $30 for the movie on top of the subscription premium. The movie has also gained significant controversy for Liu’s support of the Hong Kong police and alleged support given to the Chinese government by Disney while filming in Xinjiang.
With such a troubled rollout, one might have expected a better final product. While “Aladdin”, “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast”, among other Disney live-action remakes, follow the script of the original very closely, other than an occasional new subplot, “Mulan” deviates heavily from the story of the original.
The lovable dragon Mushu was cut and replaced by a characterless phoenix. General Li Shang was scrapped for a new soldier side character named Chen Honghui (Yoson An) replacing him in the romance sector, albeit much less successfully due to the stoic personality of Mulan and the underdeveloped character of Honghui and their love arc. Additionally, the songs featured in the animated version of Mulan were all cut in favor of orchestral remakes of a few songs playing as background music, which is perhaps the most impactful change to the movie.
While these changes helped make “Mulan” a possibly more interesting endeavor than other Disney live-action remakes, the payout was ultimately underwhelming. The changes made turned “Mulan” from a lovable, endearing, fun animated classic into something a bit colder and corporate. The acting is mostly unengaging with little charisma from the main cast beyond An’s character. While Mulan’s story itself serves as a motivational feminist piece, Liu’s cold acting brings little life to the character and is nothing but a figure on the screen. The surrounding story does much of the heavy lifting in this regard.
Admittedly, the worst part was the decision to remove the musical aspect from the film. While the orchestral pieces are stunning, the soundtrack of the original “Mulan” was arguably one of the best of the Disney animated classics. “Mulan” without “Reflection” or “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” just does not feel like the film that many people came to know in the animated version.
The plot points, outside of the character additions and removals, remain very similar. This is one of the most redeeming aspects of the story, thanks to the strong themes of self-discovery, carving a path for oneself, family duty and honor. In some story beats near the end, the film actually makes a case for having a more unique and interesting direction than the original “Mulan”, even if not necessarily better.
As a standalone movie taken separately from the original, it does a lot right on a technical basis. The directing, cinematography and the set and costume design are all wonderful and paint a captivating setting for the movie. The action sequences’ choreography is easily the best and most engaging of any Disney live action remake, which makes the film almost worth the time investment, although it is not worth the financial investment.
With a stronger cast and a bit more of a focus on character, “Mulan” could have been the best live-action Disney remake to date. Any of the changes from the original could have been passable if the final product was ultimately better. However, the changes made to the original, when compounded with the bland acting and lack of characterization, makes “Mulan” a cold, and mostly unengaging watch despite the gorgeous cinematography and interesting plot.