The Disney remake train has hit its stride and shows no signs of slowing down. While the remakes for Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King left me disappointingly numb I still had the new version of Mulan to look forward to. Early marketing painted it as a Wuxia-style film, a genre focusing on Chinese martial heroes displaying wild feats of physical fury. The film delivered a pretty decent version of that, but it suffers from some script problems that are slowly becoming recurring issues in the Disney catalog.
Mulan follows Hua Mulan (Yifei Liu), a folklore hero known from the story “The Ballad of Mulan.” When villainous warrior Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and witch Xianniang (Gong Li) begin attacking garrisons on the Silk Road, the Emperor (Jet Li) orders one man from every family to join the military. Since Mulan’s father, Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma), is the only male in his household he accepts despite his physical limitations after the previous war. Mulan steals her father’s gear and joins the army, training under Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) to become a warrior that can stand against Bori Khan and save the country of China.
Oh, and there’s a lot of lore about chi this time around.
I was promised a Wuxia epic, and I was not disappointed in much of the outstanding work. This is a genre of film that invokes a desire to see the wires, the tethers, the harnesses. When Jason Scott Lee jumps and runs up the side of a fortress wall I want it to feel like a well-executed practical stunt and it pays off in spades, but that doesn’t carry through the entirety of the rest of the movie. Hua Mulan is painted with a lot of CGI, both as a child and an adult, all of which looks rough. This film was delayed by months and went through a lot of post-production work, leaving me curious as to what they spent all of that time on. Each movement doesn’t look held up by wires (which I’d prefer) but rather by a computer and a green screen. It feels similar to Cats, a film where we don’t see the performers’ feet touch the ground.
Despite that specific issue the film works when you get beyond that. Moments of victory feel cathartic and instances of defeat feel devastating, something most of the modern remake trend has struggled with. It’s helped by a stellar cast, even one with this much controversy surrounding it. Donnie Yen is given little to do, but he makes a meal of each moment. Jet Li does the same, as does Tzi Ma. Yifei Liu is stunning as the titular character, though I was openly distracted by the controversy surrounding her open defense of police brutality in Hong Kong. The film is a hall of fame gallery of Chinese performers, but sometimes that isn’t enough to carry a film.
I’m going to calmly list things about the film that I like now.
- Jason Scott Lee running up that wall like a badass.
- Cool usage of curtains and fabric as weaponry
- The appearance of Ming-Na Wen, the voice of Mulan in the original film
- Jet Li catching arrows with his bare-goddamned-hands
- Every instance of swordplay in the film
- All of the business surrounding spiders, including and up the hilarity that ensues
- The safe, online release during a pandemic
And now I will calmly list things about the film that I dislike.
- The $30 price point. My girlfriend, who cites this as her favorite Disney animated film, still thought this was a matinee and not worth that price
- The lack of Mushu. I can see why people are frustrated about losing him, as this film is desperate for comedic relief
- Removing Shang-Li from the film. I get it, because having Mulan fall in love with and enter a relationship with her superior is problematic on many levels, but the character was also a wonderful icon for the LGTBQ community and the replacement character (Chen Honghui, played by Yoson An) doesn’t measure up
- Mulan is apparently only cool because she was born with an unusual connection to chi, not because she’s just a badass woman
I want to address that final point. “Chi” serves as The Force in this film, an energy that allows warriors to be cool and do wild fight moves I guess. Mulan has a natural attachment to it, one that allows her to kick arrows and right with spears/swords despite a lack of training. These are the same issues I had with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Rey was more interesting when she was a nobody, someone that just came up in a hard life and learned how to use The Force. Mulan, like Rey, is born with natural ability passed down from a previous relative. I just…no. I don’t dig that, and I don’t really respect it as a trope. Let these women be wonderful because it’s who they are, not because genetics left them predisposed to it.
I do want to highlight the score. See, composer Harry Gregson-Williams is a journeyman. These composers and directors are those that just take a job for the sake of having work. When I heard that the original musical numbers were being removed and incorporated into the score I got worried. Turns out I was afraid for nothing, because after listening to the music isolated I wound up finding it very charming. It’s heavy-handed, but that’s what I want from something like this. Don’t hide these songs from me; celebrate them in ways that keeps their spirit intact.
And don’t let Christina Aguelara sing the redux of the song “Reflection.” That was painful.
Look, odds are this is going to play well with most people. The biggest issue I see is the price point. While many think about paying $30 for a family outing as a bargain, they’d be annoyed with that as the price point at home. The film itself is a fun matinee, but we’re not going to movie theatres right now. You have to decide for yourself whether or not it’s worth your time. Me? I don’t think I’d have paid $30 for this if I knew what I was getting. I want something awesome after the year we’ve had, and what Disney offered is something aggressively okay. For some that may be enough. Me? Nope.