Disney’s current motto seems to be, if it ain’t broke- and if it was animated- remake it.
And remake it, they have. At this point, Disney has remade more of my favorite animated films than they’ve left alone. And honestly, to varying effect; some movies have been allowed to drift away from the source material to become their own thing (like Maleficent) while others have felt so similar to the animated original that it is hard to justify their existence (for example, The Lion King).
And that, frankly, is a balance that I think Disney has struggled to find. Of course, when reimagining our favorite classic movies, we want them to be familiar- there’s no sense making The Jungle Book if it doesn’t feel like The Jungle Book that we remember- but we want to have a reason to watch this new version instead of the original. Especially in a world where Disney+ exists and has both options side by side for $6.99 a month.
Personally, I think the best examples of balancing this line have been Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin; both were very well made, entertaining, and captured the look and feel of the originals without copying everything from them. Will Smith’s Genie, for example, was allowed to stray far from Robin Williams’ iconic character to make Genie his own, while still being recognizable as the same character. Likewise, Beauty and the Beast was allowed to be more of a musical, even to the point of adding new songs, in a way that it felt separate from the animated film. And most importantly, neither of these outshined the originals or felt like it was trying to replace them, and were different enough that both the live action movies can be enjoyed without wishing you were watching the animated ones, or vice versa.
The real question, then, is where does Disney’s latest- Mulan- land in this balancing act?
Before we get there, I want to talk about the elephant in the room: $29.99. There’s been a lot of grief online about having to pay above and beyond the Disney+ subscription price to see Mulan. But to be honest, if you were planning on seeing this flick in theaters, just pay the damn money. You were going to drop at least that much to see it in theaters, and your snacks at home are much cheaper. I don’t think $30 is too much for Disney to ask for us to see a movie that we’ve been waiting on since March.
More importantly, however, I think we should be fine paying Disney’s asking price to show support for the movie. It cost them a lot of money to make it, and if we show that we are willing to pay theater prices to watch these movies in the safety of our own home, it could open the door for more highly anticipated movies to be released digitally- like Black Widow, for example. And, let’s not forget that your $30 unlocks the movie to be watched as often as you’d like; unlike at the theaters where you’d have to pay each time you want to see it again, as long as you keep your Disney+ subscription active, Mulan will remain available to watch again and again.
If you don’t want to pay to see it, that’s fine; Disney will be making it available to all Disney+ subscribers on December 4th. But I simply don’t get the complaints of having to pay to see a brand new movie that cost the studio $200 million to make.
But enough about the cost of seeing the flick; if it isn’t any good, then it isn’t going to be worth the price of admission, right? So how does this version of Mulan stack up against the original? How does it do on its own merits?
As far as Disney’s live action remakes are concerned, Mulan sits comfortably with Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast- meaning it is a thoroughly entertaining film that pays homage to the original while also daring to beat its own path. As her father would say, Mulan brings honor to us all.
The original Mulan is one of the first Disney animated films I remember seeing in theaters. That means that the new movie had a lot to live up to in my mind. When Disney started on their path to remake everything they’ve ever made, it was also one of the ones I was most eager to see- along with the likes of Hercules or Peter Pan, I felt Mulan had the most potential as a live action film.
And for the most part, it delivers on that potential.
The biggest thing to know going into this movie is that it will be different from the animated classic. Gone is Mushu and the cricket; at first, I was entirely dismayed to hear that Mushu wouldn’t be present in this incarnation, but the movie works without him. Unlike Genie, I don’t know that Mushu would have translated well to the big screen. In effect, Mushu was replaced with a more symbolic (and non-speaking) phoenix that appears whenever Mulan needs inspiration or direction. And there is a soldier named Cricket, so there’s that.
Also gone are the songs; this is not a musical. Composer Harry Gregson-Williams does bring a few things from Jerry Goldsmith’s original back into play- notably, motifs from “A Girl Worth Fighting For” can be heard when the soldiers are getting to know each other, and “Reflections” is heard throughout the picture (and is sung over the end credits twice; in English by Christina Aguilera and in Mandarin by Crystal Liu). In fact, though Mulan herself never sings it, “Reflections” is definitely the main theme of the movie, even getting a more action-y styling when Mulan rides into battle. It isn’t as good as Goldsmith’s battle theme for the Huns, but it effectively gets you behind Mulan as she embraces her power.
And yes, there’s power. 2020’s Mulan sees our hero imbued with chi, which in this movie is a bit of mystic energy that gives Mulan a natural agility. Because of this, of course, gone is Mulan having to learn how to be a good soldier; instead, she’s more focused on hiding her true potential so as not to be noticed. You could call it overpowering the protagonist, but I disagree; this new Mulan is more designed to pay homage to martial arts war movies. And while it could have done more lean into that aspect- I wouldn’t have minded more choreographed fights like what you’d see in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon- it is definitely pulling from this style of cinema when it comes to the mystical nature of this film. And Mulan’s journey in this film isn’t the same as it was in the original.
While both Mulan’s feature a protagonist dealing with being a woman in a time period and culture that dictates what a woman can- and can’t- do, the new movie takes her journey a step further from that of a girl trying to blend in and be a soldier to save her father from going to war, and elevates it to that of a woman who is realizing her own potential and place in the world. Like Belle before her, Mulan definitely benefits from a 21st century look at the character.
In keeping with that theme, gone also is Mulan’s love interest. There is a love interest, but it is no longer her commanding officer. Instead, a fellow soldier- one who has tried to be her friend while she has tried not to bring attention to herself- fills this spot, but it is much more subtextual; he doesn’t follow Mulan home like Li does in the original, but he does promise that they’ll see each other again.
Another addition that works well with this incarnation of Mulan is Li Gong’s witch, Xianniang, who technically was a character in the original; Xianniang transforms into a familiar-looking eagle that flies around the main antagonist (who is now Bori Khan instead of Shan You). Xianniang is aligned with Bori Khan, but is very much a “reflection” for Mulan as well (see what I did there); she represents what Mulan could be if she embraced her power and was tossed aside by her family and culture. She exists as a warning to Mulan, but also a signal that helps Mulan choose to stop hiding and be who she is.
Yes, in this version of Mulan, it is her choice to out herself as a woman instead of a side effect of getting injured in battle. It has roughly the same outcome- banishment from the army, dishonor on her family (and her cow), and distrust from her friends- but as with the theme of this movie, it is more self-empowering, and necessary- according to the witch, Mulan’s lies and deception are making her weak. And frankly, that’s a message we should all take to heart: we are stronger when we allow ourselves to be who we are meant to be. Lying- either to ourselves or to others- only weakens us. Nice touch, Disney.
The cast is a veritable who’s who of familiar faces, from Jet Li’s Emperor to Donnie Yen’s Commander. Jason Scott Lee plays an excellent villain, and provides a little more depth to the antagonist than the monolithic evil Mulan faced in the original. And Li Gong’s Xianniang is a great addition to the story, providing a more personal foil for Mulan. Of course, the highest praise should go to Mulan herself; Yifei Liu, who I haven’t seen in anything since 2008’s The Forbidden Kingdom (though I really don’t remember that movie very well), elevates this movie. She brings a conviction to Mulan that is believable, and handles all that this movie throws at her. When Ming-Na Wen- the original voice of Mulan (and one of my favorites from Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D.)- cameos to announce Mulan to the Emperor at the end of the movie, it feels like a passing of the torch- and one that Yifei Liu absolutely earned. I really look forward to seeing what she does next… especially if that would somehow be a sequel to this film; of all of Disney’s live action reboots, Mulan lends itself best to being a franchise.
There are things that I loved more about this movie than the original- I particularly liked the visual style, which was honestly breathtaking in some scenes- and there were things I liked better in the original- the climactic fight was much more… climactic… in the animated film. But overall, this movie gets it right: it doesn’t try to be the 1998 Mulan all over again. It allows this new version of Mulan to find her own place in this world. There was never a point where I was wishing I was watching the animated movie instead. And when I revisited the animated movie a couple of days later, likewise I wasn’t wanting for the live action. They both exist, complimenting each other while forging their own paths. And that’s exactly what these live action remakes should do.
The biggest question remains this: if this wasn’t a reboot, if Mulan hadn’t been a story that I’ve loved since I was a kid, would this movie still be worthwhile? The answer, simply, is yes.
2020’s Mulan brings a fresh take on the classic, more grounded in some aspects, more magical in others, still humorous, action packed, and definitely worth the $29.99 admission price. Disney, if you’re listening, feel free to drop this in theaters when we get back to something resembling normal; once it is safe to do so, I’ll happily go see this on the big screen.