I remember the night well. It was the summer of 1998, and my local movie theater was full of elated children. I was 4 and my sister was almost 2 (it was her first time in a movie theater), and we could barely contain our excitement.
We were about to see one of the greatest Disney movies of all time. We were about to see Mulan.
It’s a movie I never grew tired of. It’s one of those movies that’s as enjoyable as an adult as it was as a little kid. I was excited when I found out that Mulan was getting a live-action remake, but my excitement faded when I noticed how many changes were being made to the 2020 remake. With the removal of iconic characters like Mushu the Dragon to Captain Li Shang and replacing the villainous Shan Yu with Bori Khan, it was clear that the remake was going to be very different from the original.
The remake was originally supposed to be released in theaters in late March but was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The remake was made available to Disney+ members with Premier Access (which is $29.99) on September 4 and will be available to all Disney+ members on December 4.
The Critical Response
Mulan has received mixed reviews from critics. As of writing this, it has an 80% critic score and 53% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. The critics’ consensus says, “It could have told its classic story with greater depth, but the live-action Mulan is a visual marvel that serves as a stirring update to its animated predecessor.”
It’s also important to note that the original film wasn't well-received in China. Chinese viewers claimed that the character Mulan was “too foreign-looking” and disliked comedic characters like Mushu the Dragon. Since the Chinese market is huge, the creators kept "Chinese audiences in mind" at every stage of the remake. In short, expectations from Western audiences were different from Chinese audiences, explaining some of the rifts in the reviews.
Personally, I enjoyed the movie. It wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t nearly as good as the original (to be fair, nobody can remake perfection), but I liked it more than I expected. I give the movie 3 out of 5 stars. My breakdown of what the movie got right and what it got wrong is below.
What the Remake Got Right
One of the best parts of the original film is that Mulan is an incredible character. She’s hilarious, charming, strong yet vulnerable, smart, sassy, friendly, fun, and kicks butt. She’s easy to root for, and everyone wants to be her friend. Fortunately, Mulan in the remake has the same charm, leaving you rooting for her throughout the entire film.
Out of the new characters introduced, the best is Xianning, the witch who fights alongside the villain Bori Khan. She’s not only a complex character, but she keeps you guessing her next actions throughout the film. When I first saw her on the trailer, I was worried that her character would be two-dimensional and try to force a girl-power narrative (I love girl-power narratives, but not when they’re forced and come across as pandering), but the dichotomy between her and Mulan is truly one for the books. She’s badass and beautiful, so I have no choice but to stan her.
One of the most common praises for the film is its cinematography. To be honest, I’m disappointed that Disney didn’t wait for the pandemic to slow down to show this in theaters, because the visuals are stunning. From the costumes and special effects to the set that looks like it came straight from a storybook, it’s one of the most beautifully shot movies I've seen in a long time.
One of my favorite parts of the original movie was the relationship between Mulan and her father. Her love for her father is her main motivation to risk everything by pretending to be a man and joining the Imperial Army, and this sentiment isn’t lost in the remake. The film also goes deeper into their bond by showing parts of Mulan’s childhood, embracing the heartwarming theme of a strong father-daughter bond.
What the Remake Got Wrong
From “Reflection” to “I’ll Make A Man Out of You,” the original Mulan has some of the best music in the history of Disney. Though “Reflection” can be heard in the score and there are references to “I’ll Make A Man Out of You,” it doesn’t make up for the lack of music. I get that Disney was trying to go for a more serious angle in this film and wanted to please Chinese audiences, but that resulted in them taking away one of the best aspects of the original film.
This also goes into the lack of comic relief throughout the film. Though there is some comic relief from the friends Mulan makes at camp, it doesn’t make up for the loss of iconic characters from the original film like Mushu, the lucky cricket, the matchmaker (there’s a matchmaker, but she’s not funny), and Mulan’s sassy grandmother. Western fans were understandably upset when they found out that Mushu was cut because he’s one of the funniest sidekicks in Disney history. He also makes the original Mulan different from other Disney classics, which is why he and the original film as a whole are so beloved.
The biggest criticism I have of the film is that Li Shang wasn’t in it. When asked why Li Shang was axed from the remake, producer Jason Reed said, "I think particularly in the time of the #MeToo movement, having a commanding officer that is also the sexual love interest was very uncomfortable and we didn't think it was appropriate."
This makes no sense because Li Shang is a gentleman in the original Mulan and doesn’t take advantage of Mulan. Li Shang is the "the sexiest Asian man in Western cinema" because he’s the epitome of every girl’s dream, not because of the power dynamics between him and Mulan.
This led the creators of the remake to divide Li Shang into two characters: Commander Tung, Mulan’s commanding officer, and Honghui, a fellow soldier and Mulan’s love interest. Though both characters are still enjoyable to watch, they both lack the depth that Li Shang brought to the table. Dividing such a complex character into two weakens the complexity and depth of the new characters. This led to a lack of interest in these characters in the eyes of the audience. Both could have died in battle and nobody would’ve cared.
Is the live-action version of Mulan worth the hefty price of $29.99? It’s not, but it’s also a movie that can’t be missed. It’s worth waiting another three months for a film that will leave you both nostalgic and on the edge of your seat for the majority of its run time. Despite some of the changes being negative, as well as the film not living up to its predecessor, it’s still an enjoyable film.
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