Published Sep 03, 2020Since the earliest hints of Disney's live-action remake of Mulan began surfacing over a year ago, the film has been shrouded in controversy. From its many delays to the removal of bisexual icon Li Shang over supposed #MeToo concerns and lead actor Liu Yifei's problematic stance on the Hong Kong protests, the bar has been raised significantly for Mulan to deliver on its hype. Pitfall after pitfall, Disney even moved last month to hawk the film for $30 on its streaming platform. Now that the film is finally here, was it all worth it?
Where the original 1998 animated predecessor left off, the 2020 adaptation lends a sophisticated hand in moving the Chinese folklore into the new era of cinema. That much is certain. With all its incredible stunt work, production design and its matured (but faithful) soundtrack, Niki Caro's latest makes for a dazzling watch. Its two-hour runtime is nothing to scoff at either; the film uses every last minute to its fullest.
Doing away with Eddie Murphy's impish comedic relief dragon, Mushu, in favour of a majestic, CGI phoenix was a risky move, but it paid off. Removing the lyrical elements from its soundtrack — also risky, but a fine choice in the end. Substituting Yoson An's dreamy Chen Honghui for Li Shang? As much as the queer community will miss its beefy captain, Chen is a pretty awesome understudy. However, one choice — namely to skip over a gender flipping montage — was a huge missed opportunity.
And where the film lacks in playfulness, it falters. Liu's Hua Mulan is portrayed immaculately by the actor, but the character is as one-dimensional as can be. Whereas the 1998 animated character is goofy, coy, obligatorily honourable and a good friend, watching Liu's version is about as dynamic as watching grass grow. While the feminist overtones of the '90s film may seem dated by today's standards, 2020's reboot somehow manages to take an even further step into the dark ages, with its fairly dull lead lady whose sole commitment to upholding honour makes for a pretty dry premise.
Despite its Chinese folk roots dating back some thousands of years ago, the original Disney adaptation managed to breathe personality and autonomy into its titular character. The live-action remake offers no such relief. Liu's Hua Mulan is a servant to her virtues, making her already predictable story arc land fairly flat. It's hardly an inspiring choice, and only lends to imply the female warrior's best attribute is that she's "not like other girls" because she's super strong and supernaturally skilled. It's subtly suggested that within her lies a well of tappable chi (maybe that's where her personality lives?) but we don't ever get to really see its full power.
That said, Caro's film has a decent selection of tear-jerker moments and is filled to the brim with visual excellence. Plus, we get an all-star cast which includes Jet Li, Gong Li, Donnie Yen and Tzi Ma, and hearing Christina Aguilera stepping back into her time-honoured soundtracking role is absolutely priceless. For hardcore Mulan fans — yes, they exist — a $30 streaming fee might actually be worth it. For everyone else, maybe pull up to someone else's home screening for the night — but prepare to sing the '98 score a cappella. (Disney)