One is unable to discuss Disney’s new live-action remake of Mulan without at least briefly mentioning the divisive decision to drop the film straight to Disney+ in favor of simply delaying a theatrical release. However many of us might feel about the controversial media conglomerate, it is undeniably true that today’s cinemas rely greatly on the studio’s output to survive (their films took a market share of almost 40% in 2019). Given the current circumstances, delaying it would’ve been the right thing to do.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the fact that the film was so clearly designed for the big screen, drenched in spectacle and just begging to be experienced in a crowd. Unlike the majority of Disney’s lackluster remakes, Mulan is prepared to step away from simply copying the 1998 original and actually try something new. In fact, this version is essentially a wuxia film (it’ll remind viewers more of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon than of the Disney classic); more of a modern interpretation of the Chinese legend than ‘just another remake’, and the spectacle of that vision feels completely wasted on a television screen.
Gone are all the elements that we know and love; there are no songs, love stories or talking animals, all of which are pushed aside as the story instead leans into themes of family, honor and trust.
It’s almost admirable that the film strays so far from the original text on which it’s based in favor of new ideas, and it certainly shouldn’t rub people up the wrong way quite like previous remakes have done, as it doesn’t fall into the same traps. In fact, Mulan has all the elements to become something brilliant… so why doesn’t it?
The answer to that is simple: it’s Disney. The studio’s model thrives on creating movies for mass appeal; ones that can rarely be called ‘bad’, since there almost always competently made and well-acted, but that are hardly ever bold enough to become something great. With very few exceptions, they’re usually what one might call ‘pretty good’ or even ‘just fine’, and that’s because that’s precisely what they’re designed to be; movies that neither offend nor blow anyone away.
The reason Mulan never becomes more than ‘fine’ is because it’s unwilling to fully embrace the ideas at the heart of it. A fully Chinese wuxia movie that focused more on the mental strain of Mulan’s actions and on her interactions with those around her would’ve been far more interesting than what we got: essentially, a Marvel movie. It follows the same basic structure and is every bit as formulaic as any MCU release.
In fact, Hua Mulan herself is now a superhero. This new interpretation of the character has the power of chi, and once again, that could’ve been interesting had it been handled creatively, but Mulan is introduced as the perfect fighter from the very beginning. She attempts to conceal her skills from fellow soldiers, but never from the audience, so it’s pretty difficult for the combat sequences (however pretty they might be) to have any real tension.
In the end, while Mulan isn’t as problematic as many other Disney remakes, the principle remains the same: thinking these films will be equal in quality is ignorant of what made the classics so special in the first place… the animation itself. Much like most others, Mulan worked better as an animated film because it was purposefully created that way; it’s how the story was supposed to be told, and although this remake has a more respectful approach than most, it’s still devoid of any of the charm that made the original so beloved.
It’s visually stunning, the action sequences are terrific and Liu Yifei is fantastic in the lead role, but it lacks the magic, heart, character or life of its animated counterpart. In short, it’s ‘just fine’, and you’ll likely feel just as you did after Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King: wishing you were watching the original.
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