MULAN – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Yifei Liu (The Forbidden Kingdom), Donnie Yen (Rogue One), Tzi Ma (The Farewell), Jason Scott Lee (Lilo & Stitch), Gong Li (Memoirs of a Geisha), Yonson An (Mortal Engines), Jet Li (The Expendables),

Director: Niki Caro (Whale Rider)

Writers: Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and Lauren Hynek & Elizabeth Martin (Christmas Perfection)

Runtime: 1 hour 55 minutes

Release Date: 4th September (Disney+)

Another year, another live-action remake of a Disney animated classic, and 1998’s Mulan is an obvious yet dicey choice for the makeover treatment. Its wartime period setting immediately sets it up for action spectacle, its themes of female empowerment are just as timely as ever, and from a business perspective it’s a no-brainer to appeal to the lucrative Chinese box office. However, aside from maybe the occasional pop culture reference courtesy of Eddie Murphy, the original film still holds up incredibly well, and so remaking it only risks turning it into either yet another note-for-note rehash like The Lion King or some bizarre recontextualization like Dumbo. Luckily, it seems Disney has managed to hit the bullseye for the first time since 2016’s The Jungle Book, delivering a retelling that perfectly balances respecting its inspiration whilst forging its own identity and purpose.

Mulan (2020) - IMDb

The core plot structure of the 1998 film has been retained for the remake, though the first and third acts of the film have been expanded and altered to give the story a grander scope. Those familiar with the original will certainly find the film faithful in spirit, though reinterpreted through a modern and more serious lens. This is easily the most tonally mature of the Disney remakes so far, abandoning much of the light-hearted humour and giving the story a much more mythic feel. It clearly takes influence from wuxia films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers, along with western war epics like Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, but at its core the film Mulan clearly aspires to be compared to is Wonder Woman. Like Patty Jenkins’ superhero epic, it very earnestly takes to heart the core themes and ideals of its protagonist, leaning into the power fantasy of its premise whilst still giving it due respect and pathos.

Unlike Disney’s recent iffy attempts at integrating feminist messages into their remakes like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, they’ve managed to take a story that already had solid female empowerment and find ways to subtly improve on those ideas. Through just a few slight but significant changes to Mulan’s character arc and the introduction of the new sub-villain Xian Lang, the film bolsters the already-present themes of identity and family into something that feels fresh and contemporary; it’s very clear that this is a film made by women. Ultimately, what makes Mulan work is that it doesn’t try too hard to either copy the original or drastically set itself apart, finding a comfortable balance in the middle. It is a fantastic companion piece to the animated film, but also stands up as a great action movie on its own.

Mulan: 5 Things Disney's Remake Is Keeping the Same, and 6 It's Changing -  IGN
(from left to right) Jason Scott Lee as Bori Khan and Gong Li as Xian Lang in MULAN (2020, d. Niki Caro)

Where the decision to darken the film’s tone doesn’t work in its favour is in its characterisation. Yifei Liu’s Mulan is a far more distant and less charismatic interpretation than Ming-Na Wen’s from the animated film, though on the page that seems intentional. The new film positions Mulan as far less confident at first, her boisterous personality and longing for adventure forcibly supressed in order to fit in, and so understandably she comes off as nervous and scared to exert herself. Unfortunately, even once she finds her confidence as a warrior, her character remains somewhat bland. It’s unclear how much of this is down to Liu’s performance or the screenplay, but it’s a bit disappointing that the weakest part of Mulan is Mulan herself. Luckily, what this version of the character lacks in charm, she makes up for on the battlefield.

The film’s supporting cast is full of great Chinese acting talent and, though many of them don’t get the screen time they deserve, they all do a fantastic job with what material they’re given. The easy standout is Donnie Yen as Commander Tung, who is immediately captivating and badass from the moment he walks on screen. Fulfilling half of the role of Li Shang from the original film (with his companion and potential romance duties being given to Yonson An’s Chen), he carries much of the film’s charisma entirely on his shoulders. Tzi Ma is also fantastic as Mulan’s father Zhou, giving the film a much-needed sense of gravitas. Jason Scott Lee does a solid job as Bori Khan, the film’s reinterpretation of Shan Yu, but the character can’t help but be a somewhat bland villain. Thankfully, Gong Li as the witch Xian Lang more than makes up for this. She serves as a perfect mirror to Mulan and her desires, and gives us a villain motivated by far more than just power and revenge. Even though it’s interesting to see him get involved in the action this time around, Jet Li feels a bit underutilised as the Emperor, whilst the film’s new versions of Ling, Chien-Po and Yao are mere shadows of their original characters.

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Yifei Lui as Hua Mulan in MULAN (2020, d. Niki Caro)

Where Mulan unquestionably shines brightest is in its presentation, practically showing off just how expensive the film was in every frame. Mandy Walker’s cinematography is jaw-droppingly beautiful throughout, bursting with colour and capturing striking imagery rarely seen in western productions. The production design, costumes, and make-up are all on-point, bringing this heightened version of Ancient China to life that perfectly balances the theatrical with the realistic. Much criticism has been aimed at the decision to excise the musical numbers of the original and, whilst they are missed, they absolutely wouldn’t have meshed with the film’s new aesthetic. However, the melodies from those songs are often integrated into Harry Gregson-Williams’ score, turning “Reflection” from a touching ballad into a fist-pumping moment in the heat of battle. Speaking of, the fight choreography on display is absolutely fantastic. The wuxia influence here is especially felt as characters run up walls or balance on spears, and it all flows together so well whilst the camera wisely pulls back to capture the action in all its glory. There are a few odd editing decisions here and there, but otherwise this is a technically outstanding film that meshes eastern and western cinema traditions into a magnificent package.

The new Mulan is an exciting and gorgeously executed reimagining that finds strong but subtle ways to improve on its inspiration. It may lack the approachable charm of the animated film, but it’s very clear that it isn’t trying to be. This is an action movie first and foremost, and as one it succeeds in delivering awesome set pieces and stunning visuals, whilst also adding some welcome nuance and updates to the film’s messages of female empowerment. The tonal shift and lack of songs may upset purists looking for a more faithful retelling of the original, but a beat-for-beat live action remake would have been redundant when the 1998 film is great as is. By taking the film in a distinct direction, it avoids this problem and creates a fresh experience for both fans and newcomers. If you like your Mulan with all the music and Mushu intact, you can watch the original. However, if a version that’s essentially a superhero movie as directed by Zhang Yimou sounds interesting to you, Niki Caro’s Mulan is well worth a watch.


Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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