As Disney continues its recent trend of rolling out live-action adaptations, “Mulan” (2020) has finally taken its turn to retell the story of a beloved 1998 original animation. While previous live-action adaptations such as “Lion King,” “Aladdin” and “Beauty and the Beast” have stuck close to their predecessor’s storylines, director Niki Caro aimed to retell Mulan in a different light — cutting most of the emotional and familiar beats of the original film.
The plot is largely the same — a young woman, Mulan (Liu Yifei), poses as a man in order to enlist in the army in place of her older, ailing father when the Emperor calls for an army. Some scenes mirror the original cartoon, such as the training and war scenes, and there is an enemy similar to Shan Yu: a nomadic leader named Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) with a grudge against the emperor.
Other than that, Caro aims for a completely different tone. By cutting out the beloved soundtrack and Mushu, the chatty, jokester dragon, the film loses a lot of its original light and humorous tone. Instead, it has a more serious and reflective focus — carried by Mulan’s strong, independent character, more fleshed out villains, and magnificent battle scenes. Caro adds another villain, an alluring witch (Gong Li), and emphasizes more fluid and magnetic fight scenes.
From the start, it’s clear Mulan’s themes are rooted in equality and empowerment and echoes feminist ideals. As shown in her childhood scenes, Mulan possesses “chi,” an energy that allows her to defy the rules of gravity and possess greater control over energy flow. She encompasses this by performing elaborate stunts and martial art moves, but is immediately told from a young age that using her chi is not proper as a female. She suppresses this power and, in turn, performs poorly in the army — only turning into the epic hero she’s known for once she embraces her natural abilities and self.
Although the idea of chi adds a magical element that makes stunts within the film more appealing, it felt diminishing to the iconic Mulan’s natural abilities and what she is renowned for: a cunning, quick and persistent mindset. Adding this element makes her more of a lucky, “chosen one” over one whose attitude and character really drives her success. Suddenly, she becomes somewhat of a superhero, rather than the strong-willed character we know from the classic animation and Chinese folklore — dampening the awe that should come with such an epic tale.
The film continuously pushes the notion that Mulan’s strength is within herself, putting her on equal footing with her romantic interest, Honghui (Yoson An), unlike in the 1998 animation where Li Shang was her commanding officer. This helps push the film’s agenda to prove a woman stands well on her own and doesn’t need a man, a departure from classic Disney tales. Furthermore, Gong Li’s antagonist character is utilized to reflect the consequences of inequality. Motivated by her own suppression of chi, Li drives a compelling story and captivates the audience anytime she’s on the screen.
Overall, “Mulan” starts off with multiple choppy scenes as it weaves through the set-up of the film, but quickly falls into a natural flow. As the film progresses towards the training and war sequences, the audience comes to the edge of their seats. The fights are reminiscent of “Game of Thrones,” but without the extreme gore, giving it an edge that is new to Disney’s style. With beautiful shots and elaborate, fast-paced and colorful battles, the war sequences become the most interesting part of the film.
Overall, “Mulan” is a completely different take on the Disney original. While it cuts a lot of the humorous and musical aspects of the animation, it undoubtedly serves more, with deeper motivations, brilliant shots, and captivating stunts and action. To truly enjoy the new live-action, we must not expect it to be close to its predecessor.
I definitely enjoyed the film’s take, but came out of the home theater feeling just satisfied and a wish for more plot and emotional depth. It was a great movie, but it didn’t live up to the hype leading up to the film. In fact, most of the publicity after the movie’s release is related to criticisms surrounding human rights issues and the making of the film. While a hopeful “Mulan” sequel could better explore the film’s character development and relationships, this live-action delivered an action-packed and intriguing ride. It’s definitely a milestone for Disney and a refreshing new take on the classic tale.
Photo credit: Film Frame © 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc.