Film Review: Mulan (2020)

Editor's Review
5
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 “Mulan has some nice ideas but never commits wholeheartedly to any of its creative choices and instead, it chooses to throw together too many conflicting elements.”

 

Director: Niki Caro

Writers: Riki Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin, Lauren Hynek

Starring: Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Li Gong, Jet Li, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An

 

Another year, another live-action Disney reboot… remake… reimagining? This time it’s Mulan that gets the sexy, shiny, realistic treatment. Niki Caro (The Zookeeper’s Wife, McFarland, North Country) takes on the monumental task of bringing one of the most stylistic and captivating Disney classics to a new generation.

Due to the ongoing pandemic, Mulan’s original theatrical release was pushed back and has instead launched directly on Disney+ for those subscribers willing to dish out a little extra for their viewing pleasure. It’s a bold move in this new landscape for theatrical releases but if any giant media conglomerate has the influence and foundation to lead a new way of things, it’s definitely Disney. With over 50 million subscribers as of April 2020, the choice to launch their latest blockbuster through the streaming service feels like a no-brainer.

The Premise.

In Caro’s rendition, the bones of the story are relatively similar to 1998’s original. Mulan is raised as a young Chinese maiden who disguises herself as a male soldier to save her elderly and injured Father from going to war. Despite the familiar premise, the writers have opted for a multitude of changes to bring our young heroine into 2020.

With great power comes great responsibili-chi?

We first meet Mulan (Yifei Liu) as a young reckless girl, living in a small community on the outskirts of China. After a fun chicken-chasing sequence, it quickly becomes clear that this version of Mulan has something a little extra about her. Yes, you guessed it… she has Chi, which by modern standards means she has superpowers. It’s an interesting twist, that ultimately creates some visually dynamic fight sequences however it does mess with the message that was so essential in the original. Instead of following a young suppressed girl who overcomes her obstacles through perseverance and skill, the script opts to make her the chosen one, who will save the day through her inherent talent. Despite her abilities, Chinese tradition forbids her from openly showcasing these traits and thus Mulan is encouraged by her family and community to hide her Chi and work towards becoming a traditional maiden as is expected of her. This, of course, goes against who she is and causes a great deal of emotional tension.

Silent Disco.

It’s refreshing that the writers and director opted against giving us a shot for shot, beat for beat remake. It’s important that these reboots bring something new to the table that feels fresh and original, whilst holding onto the core values of the source material.

There have been a number of creative changes. Firstly, the iconic musical numbers from the original have been replaced with an orchestral background score. On paper, this feels like the correct choice because it opens the film up to a more serious and grounded tone, however, once you realise how much less grounded the final film is, it begs the question as to whether eliminating the musical elements was a good choice. The music, after all, added to many of the most iconic moments and by taking them away you lose a lot of the charm and ecstasy that elevated the Disney classic. The orchestral score is sufficient enough, but it rarely raises the film.

Casting the cast.

Most of the significant changes are with the characters. Many characters have had their names changed, whilst new characters have been added here and there for the purposes of the story. Sadly Mushu does not return, which again is an understandable change for this live-action reboot, but it quickly becomes clear how important a role the little dragon played in the original. Not only did Mushu provide a springboard for Mulan’s emotions and feelings, but he was also the essential comic-relief, something this film severely struggles to replace.

Love interest Shang is now fulfilled by Honghui (Yoson An), who is a soldier of equal rank to Mulan, rather than her commander. Yosan An brings a natural charm to the role and his initial scenes alongside Yifei Liu are enjoyable to watch, but his character ultimately takes a back seat in proceedings.

Antagonist Shan-Yu has been replaced by the slightly less intimidating, slightly more motivated Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee). There isn’t too much difference between the two other than Khan’s mission to avenge the death of his father, whom he believes was killed by the Chinese Emperor (Jet-Li). It’s nice that Khan has a genuine motivation for his invasion of China other than just pure domination and his relationship with new addition Xianniang (Li Gong) gives the story a new dimension.

A powerful sorceress who has been cast out by society for being a witch, Xianniang is one of the more intriguing additions. Acting as the parallel to what Mulan could become if she continues to suppress her true identity, Xianniang uses her powers to help Bori Khan to invade China in exchange for acceptance in his new China. She’s a character with an intriguing story and plays a major role in how the story unfolds, although she feels more like a narrative device than a character that the writers fully explored. Li Gong naturally fulfils the role and it would have been great to see her given more opportunities to show the emotional and mental struggles of her character.

Yifei Liu is clearly capable of the physical demands of this film. She’s elegant and mesmerising to watch when she’s kicking ass, but her overall performance leaves a lot to be desired. The script offers few opportunities for Liu to really flex her acting muscles and as a result, she delivers an underwhelming and flat performance. It’s frustrating because there are small moments where we see Liu’s comedic and emotional capabilities, but these are few and far between.

Everybody was…

The fight scenes are a major part of the film, and rightly so considering the subject matter. Mulan’s special abilities provide the perfect opportunity for some acrobatic manoeuvres and Caro takes full advantage of this. Fight sequences are well-choreographed and dynamic, with lots and lots of epic slow-mo moments of galloping horses, it’s like an old-skool Guinness advert. Characters fully utilise their surroundings mid-battle which is very reminiscent of modern-classic kung-fu films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Hero (2002).  Mulan even shows off a few moves straight out of Shaolin Soccer (2002), of which Liu highly experienced from her previous roles in films like The Forbidden Kingdom (2008). But despite her natural flair on the battlefield, one of the main issues is that Mulan rarely finds herself in any genuine physical danger, masterfully seeing off enemies with ease, and never giving the audience a cause for concern.

There are also some issues with staging, particularly during large-scale battle scenes. On multiple occasions, Caro jumps or skips to a new location that doesn’t make geographical sense. One moment Mulan is speeding horseback towards a line of angry firing warlords, next she’s managed to appear behind a rock shooting arrows at their backs. It’s jarring and feels lazy.

Where’s the charm gone?

Overall the script has its heart in the right place, telling us that Mulan cannot truly reach her full potential unless she openly accepts her true identity. Unfortunately, the overall execution lacks genuine tension and any clear identity. It’s a story that is more concerned with reaching its conclusion than telling a compelling and engaging story. It’s unclear who it wants its audience to be, attempting to toe the line between being a children’s film and a war film with kung-fu elements, and failing at both. The subject matter instantly adds a seriousness that was counteracted in the original, partly because it was an animated musical but also because the characters, the settings, and the writing were colourful, energetic and well-paced. Caro’s Mulan lacks any of these elements. It’s bland and indecisive.

Final Thoughts

This version of Mulan has some nice ideas but never commits wholeheartedly to any of its creative choices and instead, it chooses to throw together too many conflicting elements. The cast is no doubt talented, but they are not given the opportunities to fully showcase their abilities and therefore lack any kind of charm. The choice to make Mulan a superhero type ultimately doesn’t work in the end because it removes her physical journey as a capable woman in a man’s world, and isolates her further from her comrades, removing any practical tension. Visually it’s a spectacle that flexes its multi-million dollar budget, successfully showcasing the vast and vivid beauty of China, and although a little too pristine at times, the costumes, makeup and props departments have outdone themselves recreating this world. Mulan is a visual treat, but it lacks personality and like it’s titular character is suffering from an identity crisis.

Mulan (2020) is now available to stream on Disney + for an additional cost*

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