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Dept. of Sino-American Relations


There is a scene towards the end of the second act of Mulan that speaks to everything that is wrong with this movie. It is a recreation of that epic snowbound battle from the animated film. Mulan’s cohorts are under attack by the witch Xianniang who has shape-shifted into a swarm of really aggressive CGI. They pull into defensive positions, creating a barrier with their shields, and walling themselves off from the attack. They are blind to everything that’s happening around them. They are sitting ducks.

While this is happening, the evil Ruoran forces use trebuchets to throw giant flaming fireballs at the cornered battalion, decimating them where they stand.

Seeing her comrades in trouble, Mulan, now in full female form, eyeliner, lipstick, and all (“Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s Maybelline”), jumps on her horse, magically appears behind the attacking hordes, and tricks them into firing at her, triggering an avalanche that proceeds to crush the bad guys.

The problem here is that no one actually sees Mulan perform these heroic acts. None of them have any reason to believe that the person who had been lying about her identity was, in fact, the one who had just saved all of their lives.

It was spectacle for the sake of it. One that served no real narrative purpose. It told you absolutely nothing new about these characters and did absolutely nothing to progress the plot. Watching it play out, you can’t help but feel that you’ve already seen a better version of this before. And you have.

Those four or so minutes in the animated version of Mulan were truly something to behold. That avalanche sequence was more than just a majestic set piece. It was crammed full of character moments. It showcased Mulan’s heroism, cemented her relationship with her squad, and did it all with great humour, and eye for action, and a genuine sense of peril.

This movie had none of that.

We're off to fight the Rourans!

The thing that made the animated Mulan such a compelling character, that made her resonate with so many young girls and boys, was that she was just like them. Here was a plucky teenage girl, struggling with the expectations put upon her by family and society who, in an ultimate act of filial devotion, disguises herself as a boy and goes off to fight in a war, so her father might live.

She wasn’t a superhero. She wasn’t the chosen one. She was ahead of her time and took on the world with nothing more than a street-smart dragon, a lucky cricket, and her unflinching determination.

In this version, Mulan is reimagined as a superhero origin story. Her incredible abilities are explained by way of her “chi,” which, in this movie, is a metaphysical and ubiquitous spiritual energy, that’s created by life, and binds the galaxy us all together. Her hero’s journey skews closer to that of Luke Skywalker. There’s even a scene in which Gong Li’s Xianniang urges Mulan to take her hand and join her on the dark side. And her motivations are muddied by being forced (pun intended) to fit within the confines of Disney’s storytelling formula.

The thing that made the animated Mulan stand out was that it wasn’t just another retread.

It's Donnie Yen baby!

The one saving grace here is the cast. All of them are an absolute delight to watch and deserve to be in a far better movie. In fact, so many of the emotional beats in Mulan come from who these actors are as opposed to what they’re actually saying or doing. Tzi Ma is that strong and supportive father figure we want in our lives. Donnie Yen is the same noble warrior that we’ve come to know and love across dozens of movies. It’s a cunning bit of casting when you can rely on the biographical weight of an actor to carry a character instead of a script.

I think it’s safe to say that Liu Yifei will be the image you have of Mulan from now on. Despite being saddled with some truly clunky writing, she nevertheless brings dignity and gravitas to the part. She is filial and vulnerable when she needs to be, and she kicks ass at all other times. (She also fits the mould of a traditional Chinese beauty. Which was likely Disney’s attempt at addressing the criticism from China that the original animated Mulan didn’t look Chinese enough.)

Liu Yifei is Mulan!

In a lot of ways, this is a movie that isn’t for you, or for me. Mulan is a movie that was created by committee for a hypothetical Chinese audience. While Disney’s 1998 animated film was critically acclaimed and won itself legions of devoted fans, it was all but shunned in China. And this remake was the perfect opportunity for a do-over.

In the 22 years since Mulan was first released in cinemas, China has become the second largest movie market in the world, and pandering to their perceived moviegoing wants and needs has become a Hollywood pastime. Given the amount of time, effort, and spin Disney has put into packaging Mulan for China, it will be interesting to see if this live action remake will appeal to mainland audiences.

Analysts have been praising Disney’s seemingly bold decision to drop a US$200 million movie on Disney+ as proof of their commitment to streaming. Having watched the movie, however, it became increasingly clear that it was probably due to a lack of confidence in how Mulan would perform in American theatres. More so during this time when going to movies has become a life or death decision. It is also always telling when press screenings are held late, and review embargoes lift at the absolute last minute. Bad – even mixed – reviews could mean that people might wait until December to watch the movie for free on Disney+ instead of dropping US$29.90 for the privilege of watching it now. (Studios know when they’ve struck box-office gold. They usually make sure the press sees a movie early, and aren’t subject to embargoes, so they spend all their time hyping the movie before it is released.)

Jason Scott Lee does not age.

The one word that comes to mind when describing Niki Caro’s remake is “restrained.” This is a movie that is trying so hard not to offend anyone that it comes off as completely and utterly spiritless. This is a movie that is so risk averse that it contains no big ideas. Someone needs to tell Disney that being “respectful” to the source material doesn’t mean removing any and all humour, romance, and adventure. Someone needs to tell Disney that people in China like to have fun too.

There is no joy here. There is very little flourish.

There are few stories that are as inspirational and empowering as the legend of Mulan. Which is why I’m left baffled as to how we ended up with such an uninspired and dispassionate piece of filmmaking.

116 minutes
Director: Niki Caro
Writers: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, and Elizabeth Martin
Cast: Liu Yifei, Donnie Yen, Tzi Ma, Rosalind Chao, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Gong Li, and Jet Li

Uma has been reviewing things for most of his life: movies, television shows, books, video games, his mum's cooking, Bahir's fashion sense. He is a firm believer that the answer to most questions can be found within the cinematic canon. In fact, most of what he knows about life he learned from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. He still hasn't forgiven Christopher Nolan for the travesties that are Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises.

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