MULAN (2020) Review
Mulan has the honour of being the first big budget film to be exclusively released to Disney+. It also joins the long line of live-action remakes of Disney’s back catalogue of animated films to cash in on nostalgia, which usually deliver soulless facsimiles of the original versions. Mulan thankfully distances itself from the animated film, but that isn’t enough for this film to be anything but satisfying.
Mulan is…well, it’s Mulan. Mulan (Yifei Liu) is a rebellious woman who lives in rural China, who disguises herself as a man to take her father’s place in the army and defend her country. For those wondering, no, Mushu the Dragon or “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” are not in this film. This film is closer to the original Chinese legend of Mulan, which the film lampshades with the opening narration of this being Mulan’s father’s version of the story. While lacking comedic or musical elements, director Niki Caro makes up for with new characters and elements.
Yifei Liu is initially not as animated as the original Mulan, in a performative sense. Mulan is mostly reserved in the first half of the film as she defies her family and village’s wishes, with only brief sweet interactions with her sister. It isn’t until later in the film, when Mulan physically lets her hair down that Mulan opens up and she displays a strength that felt reminiscent of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. While it reflects the character’s progression of opening up and accepting her true self, it does make the first half move sluggishly.
One inclusion is Mulan’s connection with her Chi, her life force, which grants her supernatural reflexes to wall-run and scissor kick spears across a battlefield. While Mulan’s Chi allows for cool action, the film also addresses it on a spiritual level, with Mulan’s mastering of her Chi allowing her to persevere through her gruelling training in the army. It also ties her with the film’s new villain.
Xianniang (Li Gong) is a witch who aids the Rouran in their invasion and grants them supernatural reflexes. She brings menace to the role as she slashes through soldiers with her hawk-like talons. The moments when Mulan and her are onscreen together is when the film shows its potential as it presents Mulan a twisted reflection (get it?) of herself. Her and Mulan’s relationship also provides a welcome message about the importance of female friendship and unity against oppression.
The film is a visually treat with Mandy Walker’s cinematography sweeping over the New Zealand and China landscapes and capturing sunlight through a rainbow of fabrics, particularly in Mulan’s village. Walker also captures the talented action performances with the same fluidity as the performers, sometimes literally rolling with the actors as the flip over scaffolding and run up walls. It’s a shame then that they are all let down by the editing.
It is frustrating how often the film unnecessarily cuts during action scenes, or even simple scenes such as the opening when a young Mulan chases a chicken around her village. There are jarring continuity errors in the editing with one notable scene when Mulan rides on horseback towards enemy soldiers before reappearing hidden behind rocks, behind the soldiers.
Outside of Mulan, her family or Xianniang, the film feels lifeless. Bori Khan is a generic villain that has basic revenge motivations and is not as compelling as Xianniang; the soldiers Mulan befriends are the same personality as the animated film but are not as memorable, which might sum up the movie. With plans to have Mulan available on Disney+ in December, free of extra charge, it might be worth saving the $35 ($30 USD) and waiting till then.
With the inclusion of more mystical elements, slick action scenes and camera work and a strong performance from Yifei Liu, Mulan sits above the rest of the Disney live-action remakes, but is still a pale reflection to the original.