‘Mulan’ is a Thoughtful but Clunky Iteration of the Chinese Folktale

Mulan is the latest in a growing line of Disney live-action remakes. Based on the 1998 animated feature film of the same name, as well as The Ballad of Mulan, a young woman (Yifei Liu) disguises herself as a man to take her ailing father’s place in the Imperial Army, to protect the country from Northern invaders. Along the way, she comes to terms with realizing her full potential and to not hold back on who she is.

Director Niki Caro made it clear very early on that this would not be a direct remake of the animated film so many of us grew up on. The character of Mushu was done away, the role of Li Shang was split into two characters (played by Donnie Yen and Yoson An respectively), and several of the musical numbers became part of the Harry Gregson-Williams-composed score instead. The antagonist was changed up too, by having it be a Rouran warrior named Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), who is accompanied by an ally, Xian Lang (Gong Li); a shapeshifter with a tragic past.

So how did it all land? Well, it’s not exactly swift as a coursing river. While there were some parts of Mulan that were very interesting, ultimately, the film was kind of clunky.

Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and his troops. Photo: Film Frame. © 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Some scenes were rushed, whereas others dragged on a little too long. Moments that were obviously meant to replicate those from the animated film felt very lackluster for the most part. Because of the story being set around a war, it’s fair to say that there were several high stakes. However, even those seem to fall short of how they were portrayed compared to the animated version. Caro may have had a big vision for the film, but the intensity just fell flat in the final product.

How the dialogue was written also missed the mark. It came across as very wooden, often coded with too much exposition, and sometimes just sounded very unnatural — and this is regarding a film that has four screenwriters attached to it. While it’s obvious the actors did their best with what they had, even they could only do the dialogue so much justice. It’s because of the writing that the relationship between Mulan and her fellow soldiers didn’t feel as well established.

Despite all the flaws, it’s the interesting parts of Mulan that helped the film stand itself apart from not just the animated version, but also from previous live-action remakes that came before, in the best ways possible.

Yifei Liu as Mulan and Tzi Ma as Zhou in Disney’s Mulan. Photo by Jasin Boland.

Take the relationship between Mulan and her father (Tzi Ma), for instance. While it’s already obvious she has a deep love for him, the film does a good job showing how much he loves her, only for pride and societal expectations to get in the way of loving her for who she truly is. That was fascinating to see.

The martial arts and fight scenes were beautifully done. Caro really went the extra mile to find actors who could bring that energy and skill level themselves. The cinematography also helped bring that across so effectively; so much to where watching the film off of a laptop did not do it justice.

Commander Tung (Donnie Yen). Photo: Film Frame. © 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

It was also interesting to see chi mentioned throughout the film; a subject that was previously unexplored. Chi (also spelled qi) is the flow of energy that can be found in all living beings. By letting yourself just be, your chi will flow freely.

That’s what brings it all to the most intriguing part about this version of Mulan. The story as we know it is about a woman who defies the odds of the era by joining the Imperial Army in place of her father, and going on to become one of the most respected warriors ever known. However, as it is much more heavily explored in this film, the outcome occurs after Mulan grew up being told to hide the power she carries and same for when in the army when she is striving to keep her true identity a secret.

The message of being told to hold yourself back, to hold your tongue, to know your place, and to not live as your authentic self is one that is very familiar to both women and people of the LGBTQ+ community. Once Mulan finds the motivation to show what she’s got, both from friends and foes alike, she thrives. Her chi flows freely.

Mulan (Yifei Liu). Photo: Film Frame. © 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

It’s like a deeper dive into the lyrics from Christina Aguilera’s version of “Reflection.” How appropriate then that the instrumental of the song can be heard a few times throughout the film.

If you’re worried that Mulan will be a direct remake of the animated counterpart, rest assured that you have nothing to worry about. The film is flawed and lacks a lot in the pacing, vision, and the writing. However, when given a closer look, a more thoughtful approach to Mulan’s journey unravels.