The original Disney’ Mulan wasn’t perfect, but you could tell that the people who worked on it poured their hearts into it through details. Yet films often reflect societal attitudes, and gone is the time when China was still a subject of wonder for many filmmakers in the West, when filmmakers were sometimes insensitive but at least interested in China. In the live-action Mulan, almost every aspect of the film seems to send the same message: China is the world’s second-biggest box office and we will use the minimum efforts it takes to give them what we think they want.
Disney’s Mulan is not a bad film, but it is a disappointing film. The basic story of Mulan is compelling, the scenery is beautiful if often obviously New Zealand, and its lead Liu Yifei is charming enough and did what she could with the role. Yet it’s very hard to watch the live-action Mulan and not judge it for what it could’ve been or see the lack of effort behind it. One expects a live-action to have the same humor and heart as the original, and it doesn’t. There isn’t a single change I can name that improved the story.
As a fan of the original, my biggest problem is with the plot changes. The film’s choice to introduce “chi” aka the inner force is the antithesis to in many ways what made Disney’s Mulan unique at the time – she was not a princess by birth nor marriage but became worthy by her own strength. By giving her an innate ability to be in touch with her “chi” that others do not, she loses her character growth and agency. This, along with several other changes, made many of Mulan’s actions become reactions rather than active decisions. She became a hero by following her destiny rather than in spite of it.
The film also tries to make the film “more Chinese” by focusing more on patriotism and filial duty. Yet by removing the little girl’s doll, they remove “a girl worth fighting for”, and Mulan’s patriotism become blind. This is not helped by the fact that Jet Li’s emperor feels like a villain at times. The patriotism part feels like someone saw Wolf Warrior 3‘s box office and decided Chinese people liked it for the patriotic slogans rather than the fight scenes. Similarly, her filial duty was only tacked on at the very end.
The film also tries to be more feminist by removing the power imbalance between Mulan and Li Shang, by adding a female antagonist, and by some pretty obvious feminist lines. Yet everything seems so superficial, especially when they removed her agency with the concept of the “chi.”. There’s one key turning point where all the men take turns saying “I believe in Hua Mulan”, and it was so poorly done I felt like it was a parody.
As a fan of traditional Chinese culture, I felt even more offended by the film. I did this visual comparison of why I hated the costumes, sets, action choreography, and general aesthetics when the trailer came out, and everything still holds in the overall film. The costume and sets were dug up from an 80’s TVB abandoned lot and the action choreograph feels like someone watched Liu Yifei’s Return of the Condor Heroes and did a low-budget imitation of a few key elements. The end products all feel like someone who didn’t care about the film or Chinese culture went on SparkNotes and turned in something on a tight deadline.
One new complaint is that of composer Harry Gregson-Williams, who is just as lazy as the rest of the production team in his work. In addition to being an overall generic and boring soundtrack, the music also feels like he just googled Chinese instruments and added in the top three results ( guzheng, erhu, pipa, with a bit of the ruan). I couldn’t feel any love or understanding of Chinese music or instruments in his score. His use of the erhu was especially jarring for me. He used it in intense parts, happy parts, and sad parts as if it were a violin, but everyone who knows anything about erhu knows how hard it is to use the erhu to convey anything but sadness to the casual Chinese audience. Compare this to, say, Stefanie Sun’s Mulan Spirit that perfectly uses the horsehead fiddle in addition to the erhu, guzheng, and dizi to convey the vastness of the fields, the grandeur of the battles, and the longing for home.
The cast was also disappointing. I could’ve forgiven the casting of so many caricature looks if they made up for acting, but the acting is made-for-TV-film bad. Gong Li and Donnie Yen were passable but obviously didn’t try too hard with the one-dimensional characters they were given. Jet Li was atrocious. Only one of Mulan’s fellow soldiers – Jun Lin’s cricket – could act. Meanwhile, Rosalind Chao as Mulan’s mother was the only one who passed the test for me back at the village.
At the end of the film, Liu Yifei is the only person who feels like she’s trying in this whole production team. Her English intonations always convey the right emotion, something that she must’ve worked very hard on. While she didn’t have any wow moments, she delivers almost every scene, be it the innocence and joy of pre-matchmaking Mulan, shyness towards Li Shang-wannabe, her boyish fake demeanor in the army, and her doubt, anxiety, reservation, and determination in deciding to be her true self. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean she was excellent, it just means no one else feels like they’re trying, from the writer to the set designer to the costume designer to the stunt coordinator to the composer to the editor to the rest of the cast.
Mulan is currently available for streaming on Disney Plus in many countries and coming to theaters in others.