If there’s any silver lining to Mulan – and there are not many – it’s the decency to experiment with the source material, 1998’s animated Mulan (better in almost every conceivable metric, unsurprisingly). This experimentation ends up flat and arbitrary, but at least it does something, even if that something isn’t good. But when we’re this deep in the throes of Disney’s live-action remake cycle, at this point a rather striking display of extracting every ounce of charm for cash, almost elegantly so in its factory-esque efficiency, we take what we can get.
Because let’s not kid ourselves, friends: 2020’s Mulan is not great. Dare I say, it’s bad. Fine on a technical level, sure, but remarkably inept on an emotional and soulful level, taking the power of the “Ballad of Mulan” legend – a simple story that lends itself easily to resonance – and addressing it with all the grace filmmakers absolutely rushing through said story can bring.
Which is a funny thing, given 1998’s Mulan pretty definitively laid the blueprint for soul here (within the Disney paradigm, anyway). Yet, Mulan is interested in eschewing the lightheartedness of yore in favour of something a little more serious, and you see attempts of this everywhere: aside from choice sequences, the film’s palette is bleak, relying on neutral colours and grey hues; sprinkles of light comedy are few and far between; the creature sidekicks are gone, save for a gaudy phoenix representation of Mushu (once portrayed by Eddie Murphy, now infrequent window dressing); and everything, generally, feels dourer. So imagine the dissonance when Mulan hurls these efforts out the door by making Mulan (Yifei Liu) herself a fucking superhero. The first time we see her, as a child (portrayed by Crystal Rao), she’s parkouring down rooftops and as an adult she’s doing all sorts of gymnastics, mincing through enemy armies with complete ease.
Shifting Mulan into a Mary Sue role does zero good, robbing her of any meaningful progression or character. Where Mulan ’98 is a good fighter, this isn’t innate, and her success stems from perseverance. Mulan ’20, uh, does not share this. Where Mulan ’98 learns lessons about fighting for and staying true to what you believe is right, Mulan ’20 doesn’t learn any lessons at all: her shame about avoiding “truth” is entirely predicated on lying about being a male soldier, which fundamentally misunderstands the internal conflict Mulan ’98 perfected. A lot of the dull characterization can also be attributed to Liu’s terrible performance, poker-facing the entire movie and regurgitating lines about loyalty, family, etc. with a stunning lack of emotion (personal favourite moment: Mulan trying to motivate her colleagues before heading into a grisly battle, which Liu starts by flatly stating “listen to me”). You could argue this is due to a language barrier, and that’s reasonable on paper, but she’s won the Chinese Razzie Award equivalent in 2012, 2013, and 2016, so you do the math.
The majority of Mulan‘s supporting characters are so non-specific that it doesn’t bother giving them much time of day (the musical numbers are sorely missed, particularly their ability to quickly and nicely establish characters) – except for Xianniang (Li Gong), a bird witch who really adds nothing in the end. Mulan sets up Xianniang as a foil to Mulan, presenting a scenario of two powerful women putting their lives on the line for people who will never accept them (in Mulan’s case, the “good” army, and in Xianniang’s case, the “bad” army) – the “good” army threatens to execute Mulan upon discovering she’s female and yet she stays with them (plus they accept her literally two scenes later), whereas Xianniang betrays her army, clashing with the movie’s endless mantra of loyalty, and we’re just like “oh… okay.” Xianniang’s story never connects with the broader themes the movie aims for (you could cut her out of the movie and nothing would change), meaning we’re left with a needless character who takes screentime away from those who desperately need it, like Mulan’s various army colleagues and awkward kind-of-but-not love interest Honghui (Yoson An). And Xianniang’s the most prominent supporting role, so it’s needless to point out the character situation in Mulan is dire, to say nothing of Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), the film’s villain, who just flashes crazy eyes and dumps exposition.
The bare minimum Mulan could achieve was looking nice, and thankfully it does accomplish this (with caveats). Mandy Walker’s cinematography does an excellent job with the occasional bursts of colour on offer, with her best work in the opening scenes, which look warm and very inviting, as well as the fireworks scene towards the end, which is just lovely spectacle. The rest of the movie is surprisingly grey, as mentioned before, and I get they were going for the juxtaposition of the Imperial Army’s red costuming against the grey of bleak war, but those reds don’t pop as much as they could and those greys command the palette. And the movie’s kind of a slog as is, so being a slog and depressing isn’t a compelling combo. On the costuming, a lot of it is merely okay, some of it is strangely bad, like an early scene with Mulan riding a horse and it looks like she’s wearing an artisanal autumn coat from Etsy. Grant Major’s outstanding production design picks up much slack (especially the circular living hamlet Mulan and her family reside within, it’s so good) and none of these sets look artificial, instead taking on liveliness of their own.
None of this is helped by David Coulson’s pretty awful editing. We’re frequently yanked from one scene to another with little regard to rhythm, posing two net effects: a) scenes aren’t allowed to breathe since the movie’s so eager to plow through to the next, stripping them of any emotional resonance; b) the action scenes are not fun and we’re often lost in time and space. Though, to be fair, these action scenes aren’t great to begin with, as Mulan is eager to take a pastiche of Asian action movie tropes (think kung fu movies with a touch of Bollywood) and… that’s it. There’s no real grace to the choreography, almost as if the movie is content to be like, “Hey, we did this thing. We didn’t do it very well, but we did the thing, so that’s cool on its own! Right? Hello?” It speaks to Mulan‘s tendency to want different things – a stirring story about a daughter honouring her family, a fun stylized action-adventure, an update that celebrates Mulan ’98 and the original fable – and its inability to put in the effort to actually achieve any of these things.
It’s worse off given the movie wants to take after the Ballad of Mulan more so than Mulan ’98, but it clearly derives its power from Mulan ’98 – hitting more or less the exact same plot beats, relying on the viewer’s nostalgia and knowledge of the animated Mulan to inform certain scenes because this one sure as hell isn’t interested in doing it, like Mulan taking her father’s sword, which in Mulan ’98 is pensive and empowering, but here she just takes the sword and that’s that (if I were playing stupid and wasn’t familiar with Mulan ’98, I would struggle to figure out what really drives Mulan here). And when you have to rely on another movie to provide your movie’s soul, your movie has no good reason to exist. Add in the deeply unfortunate associations with Xinjiang – including a shoutout to the government bodies responsible for the internment of millions of Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps – and overall there’s precious little to redeem Mulan, and even fewer reasons to recommend it.