Director: Niki Caro
Writers: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek
Cast: Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Li Gong, Jet Li
Cinematographer: Mandy Walker
Editor: David Coulson
Streaming on: DisneyPlus Hotstar
In shedding many of the elements that made the 1998 animated Mulan so memorable — and failing to find any worthwhile substitutions — the live-action remake only makes you miss them more. The DisneyPlus Hotstar film opts for a deadly seriousness over its predecessor’s whimsy. Any ounce of fun, from the wisecracking side characters to the songs, has been excised from the material in favour of crafting a by-the-numbers action film. At one point, the characters laugh uproariously and too long at a joke that isn’t funny — you almost sympathize with their desperation to latch onto a fleeting glimpse of humour amid the bleak landscape. It’s a beautifully composed and shot landscape, which must be said, just devoid of any feeling.
The beats of the story are the same as the animated version. When an elderly Chinese man is conscripted into the army to ward off an impending invasion, his daughter Mulan steals his armour, disguises herself as a man and signs up in his stead. The new Mulan, however, distrusts the idea that the characters from the original are strong enough to stand on their own and so overcompensates to the point of overkill. The invading Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and his hordes are menacing figures, but now they’re also aided by a sorceress that can possess others and transform into a hawk. Mulan (Yifei Liu) is no longer an ordinary village girl who acquires combat skills through sheer willpower and training, her skills are attributed to her being born with a powerful chi, or life force, that energizes her. Several scenes exist only to show off her complex martial arts moves. While they’re intricately choreographed and inject thrills into the dull narrative, they flatten out her character arc. By starting out at the finish line, there’s no longer room for her to grow.
Not only does Mulan not have anything new to say, it turns the inspired ideas of its original stale. The glaring lack of reinvention is most evident in a scene in which the army recruits are tasked with climbing up a hill while carrying two buckets of water. In the original, the task is retrieving an arrow lodged atop a tall pole, which recruits must do while carrying two heavy medals. They struggle until Mulan hits upon the idea of interlocking the medals’ ribbons around the pole to pull herself slowly upwards. There’s no ingenuity on her part in the remake, she simply gets strong enough to carry the buckets while the rest look on in awe and the music swells.
When the film does draw on the original, the contrast between both films becomes even more stark. Shots taken directly from the 1998 film can’t replicate their magic. Since there are no songs in the film, the characters use a few of the lyrics as dialogue, which sounds clunky.
What’s troubling is that the misogyny is also cranked way up. While the clumsy Mulan inadvertently embarrasses her family in the original film, they still treat her with love and acceptance. Here, at every turn, she’s reminded that she must learn her place or she’ll bring shame to her family. “They’ll call her a witch,” she overhears her mother saying about her as a child. That Mulan is successful in her fight to have women be seen as equal by the end makes the decision to have her story narrated and contextualized by a man particularly jarring. Why tell a story about a woman’s struggle to make herself heard if the narrative still isn’t interested in listening to her?