Mulan: Disney Breaks The Formula, But Still Misses The Mark

Directed by Niki Caro
Written by Lauren Hynek, Rick Jaffa, Elizabeth Martin & Amanda Silver
Starring Yifei Lu, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Li Gong, Jason Scott Lee, Rosalind Chao, Tzi Ma, & Utkarsh Ambudkar

Upfront disclaimer: the politics behind the credits thanking Xinjiang, as well as Yifei Lu’s support of Hong Kong police are not lost on me. I find those to be incredibly problematic, and definitely worthy of discussion. But that discussion will not happen here. Not in this particular entry, anyway.

The problem plaguing Disney’s live-action remakes of their animated classics is they are straight-up remakes. Word-for-word, beat-for-beat, no real deviation from the animated classics. Why would I want to go see the exact same thing I’ve been watching since I was 5 years old? Beauty and the Beast and Lion King never really made a strong case for existing. Aladdin tried with a new character and a few songs, but it didn’t quite land, though it was my favourite of the remakes for its willingness to bring something new to the table.

Mulan, however. Mulan dispenses with the musical numbers and wacky sidekick. It makes a more straight-forward Chinese(ish) historical epic. With Mulan, Disney finally did right by the remakes in telling the familiar story in a new and interesting way. But in doing so, they kind of… I don’t want to say missed the point. But they definitely missed something.

I double-checked, and my consistent thoughts on the film since the first trailer dropped back in July of 2019 is that it looks and feels very much like Zhang Yimou filtered through American cinema, particularly a mouse shaped filter. Zhang Yimou did the great Hero and House of Flying Daggers in the early 2000s. He has even already been filtered through American cinema with his American debut The Great Wall (better than its reputation, but still not good).

The problem was Niki Caro and the rest of the creative team. And that’s certainly not to say Niki Caro is a problem. To tell this woman’s story, the Ballad of Mulan, it of course needs and deserves a woman’s eye. But it’s also a story important to and entrenched in Chinese culture and history. So to have a team of white people whose credits include Jurassic World (terrible gods damn film, I named my “Most Disappointing Film of the Year” award after it) and a Lifetime Christmas movie writing it, and New Zealander Niki Caro directing… it just misses the mark.

What we get is that watered down interpretation of Chinese cinema, that Zhang Yimou filtered through the Magic Kingdom vibe, rather than an authentic, honest approach to cultural folklore.

The most insulting aspect of the interpretation was turning her into some sort of superhero. Not in the metaphorical, “She did great things, she’s a superhero!” sense, but in the “I won’t be surprised if this is an MCU prequel, she has superpowers” sense of the word. It takes away from the story, it takes away from what she did (and yes, I say that fully aware her historicity is debated). Much like it didn’t need the musical numbers and wisecrackin’ animal sidekick, it didn’t need the superpowers.

The supernatural elements still work. Merlin still has a place in historical interpretations of King Arthur lore. And having a witch who aids the villains of Mulan still works. So the problems with Mulan’s superpowers have little to do with accuracy or verisimilitude. It’s just they don’t add anything. They take away more than they add. You no longer have this underdog story, this woman who defied tradition, cultural norms, and “the odds” to be this great warrior. She’s now a superhero who of course was going to enter battle because she has superpowers. It just didn’t work.

Everything else I’m on board with. The cast is really good. I like every actor involved. Donnie Yen as the commander is fantastic. I joked earlier that giving Mulan superpowers makes it an MCU film, but Donnie Yen’s Commander Tung is definitely channelling some Chirrut Imwe energy, so maybe it’s part of the Star Wars Galaxy? I could have used more Jet Li as the emperor. I felt he was underused.

Speaking of the witch… I don’t know, there was more to that story. Give Li Gong a spin-off. I feel if Disney can give Hawkeye his own show, and Mufasa a Lion King prequel, they can give Xianniang something. She was an interesting character with a hanging plotline I need more on, even though it ties directly to Mulan’s superpowers.

Overall, it’s a film I’m conflicted on. I want to encourage them to break the mold and step out of their own box. Disney’s going to remake their live action films whether we want them to or not, and they’re going to make hundreds of millions of dollars anyway, so rather than fold my arms and say “NO! DON’T WANNA!” I might as well try to nudge them in the right direction. And Mulan is a step in the right direction. It’s breaking from the familiar to do something new with the familiar. And for that, I applaud them. I think if they’re going to continue to adapt their animated catalogue, they should certainly look at alternate takes other than what they’ve done.

But as much as I applaud them for deviating from their rigid adherence to the animated original, they still kinda-sorta missed the mark. They went in the direction of giving it a Chinese cinema vibe, in the same vein as Couching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or House of Flying Daggers from the aforementioned Zhang Yimou, but didn’t go with a Chinese filmmaker to do it. They wanted the aesthetic, but not the authenticity. And the lack of authenticity shows. It feels fake. It feels plastic.

It was a perfectly OK movie. But I can’t say it was worth the $30 I paid for Premier Access to see. I should have waited until December to watch it for free.

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