Out of all the animated features that graced the 90s Disney renaissance, Mulan was the most intriguing. The film proved to be an interesting inversion of the Disney formula: justifying the existence of its central sidekick (Mushu) by paralleling his plight with that of the main character. The narrative also existed as a post-modern commentary and subversion of Disney Princesses (namely their place in society and the movies at large). By comparison, the 2020 live-action remake is a resplendent war epic that is allowed to soar by leaning into the realism and genre conventions of its premise.
Mulan (2020) tells the story of a young woman who is expected to bring honour to her family by being a dutiful suitor to an aspiring husband. However, Mulan (Liu Yifei) has always had boundless energy (Qi) that she’s had to suppress to conform to her station in life. However, when the Chinese Emperor (Jet Li) issues conscription for every family, Mulan takes her ailing father’s place by masquerading as a man to fight in the upcoming war. China is under threat from a vengeance filled warrior known as Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), who is allied with a witch called Xian Lang (Gong Li). He seeks revenge on the Emperor who killed his father.
Despite being stripped of the musical element, comedic sidekicks and occasionally goofy tone, the live-action remake proves to hold its own. This is partly due to its change in emphasis. If the original was about a woman trying to bring honour to her family in an unconventional manner, then the new movie is about what happens when society discourages potential.
This is most clearly drawn in the relationship between Mulan and Lang. The female antagonist is a dark reflection of Mulan insofar as her path shows what could happen if Mulan is rejected by society because of revealing her full self and skill as a warrior in battle. Lang’s realisation of trading societal subjugation for a loss of personal control is when Mulan’s screenplay is at its best.
But the film does manage to retain some of the original’s spirit. Harry Gregson-Williams’s score gives the tunes of the animated film an orchestral makeover that provides some of the film’s most emotional moments. And the film does lean into the ickiness that Mulan found with spending time with the male soldiers (via a recurring physical comedic joke).
As the title character, Yifei proves to be a versatile actress who is able to admirably balance the comedic awkwardness of her predicament and the dramatic moments of internal strife. Gong Li is a striking presence with her bird-like physicality and imposing costume design. Meanwhile, Donnie Yen and Jet Li add prestige and gravity to their brief roles.
At times, the film staggers into the overwrought territory. There’s an overabundance of narration from Mulan’s father, which seeks to over-explain aspects that the viewer is pretty clued in on. There’s also a magical realism motif in the form of a Phoenix who follows Mulan throughout her journey. The metaphor and continued use of the creature prove to bludgeon the audience senselessly, particularly when a character uses it as a motivational tool in the last act.
Mulan’s greatest strength proves to be a double-edged sword. Visually, the film is a sumptuous effort with some epic vistas where the characters appear like microscopic specs in comparison with the looming portrait of nature. One moment that particularly struck me was a scene when Mulan is looking at her horse on a mountain amid the backdrop of a beige twilight. The frame is engulfed with the mountainous terrain and you almost have to squint to notice the character in the top left-hand side of the frame.
Director Niki Caro also employs some breathtaking sweeping shots, quaint stop motion photography and bird’s-eye shots to cement the film’s war epic status. The imagery and filmmaking actually solve a problem that’s plagued previous live-action remakes, which is making the visuals as imaginative and absorbing as their animated counterparts.
With its striking cinematic moments, Mulan is made to be seen on the silver screen and the film loses power at home. In this way, the film is akin to a West End production, awkwardly shuffling on a small and cramped high school stage.