While carried by a strong lead, Mulan stumbles through poor pacing, thin characters, and VFX issues that kept it an arm’s length from the superior 1998 animated counterpart.
Directed by Niki Caro and starring Yifei Liu as Mulan; Donnie Yen as Commander Tung; Tzi Ma as Zhou, Jason Scott Lee as Böri Khan; Yoson An as Honghui; Ron Yuan as Sergeant Qiang; Gong Li as Xian Lang and Jet Li as the Emperor, Mulan boasts a diverse cast. From the start of production on the project, this live-action adaptation of Mulan was said to borrow from the legend of the character rather than the 1998 animated film.
Disney’s Mulan focuses on the young woman audience that is supposed to be well-familiar with. The basic elements of Mulan have been the same since the original Ballad of Mulan Chinese poem. The young woman who disguises herself as a man to replace her elderly and hobbled father. 2020’s Mulan starts off the same, introducing the Emperor of China’s decree that one man per family must serve in the Imperial Army. Taking her father’s sword and armor, Mulan ventures into the unknown and discovers herself while saving her country. On this basic level, Mulan is the exact same film as its animated predecessor, yet it breaks off drastically from here.
Niki Caro’s Mulan borrows heavily from the original folktales rather than the animated film, but it also introduces new characters and elements. Many characters that existed in the animated film were either removed, replaced, or broken down into separate characters. Perhaps the greatest omission of the film is the lack of Mushu, the comedic relief of the animated film, voiced by Eddie Murphy. Fans of the animated film will miss the character, who provided levity to the story and have Mulan an excellent foil to bounce ideas back and forth.
While Yifei Liu plays Mulan well, it felt like she did not speak much throughout the film. Of course, the nature of the plot, as Mulan is under the cover of a man’s appearance leads her to be quiet for most of the film, it would have been nice to have her speak more often. The omission of Mushu once again plays into this as Mulan is alone throughout most of the film. The second omission fans will miss are the songs. While some notes and instrumental versions of the original songs find their way into the remake, the lack of ‘I’ll Make a Man Out of You” was definitely felt. The character who that song is based on, Li Shang, was broken into two separate characters, Commander Tung and Honghui. While the reasoning behind it made sense, unfortunately, the film itself did not serve either character well. Both felt very one-dimensional versions of a three-dimensional character in the original.
Outside of this, the villains were also lacking in this variation of Mulan. Granted, Shan Yu, the villain in the original Mulan animated film, was nowhere near the iconic Disney villains of the age, but the two villains in 2020’s Mulan, Xian Lang, and Böri Khan were not much better. Each felt very one-note and character development for one them happened in a blinding second, to the point where their arc’s conclusion came off as puzzling, yet predictable. While the actors who played them did well with what they had, better writing and extra breathing room could have gone a long way.
On the topic of pacing and breathing room, something about 2020’s Mulan felt off. The film moved from scene to scene at a lightning pace, character development for the side characters happened in a more cartoony way than the cartoon itself and things felt disjointed in the plot in the third act. One could imagine there is a longer cut of Mulan that would have let the film breathe, specifically in the final half of the film.
Despite all of this, Mulan still feels enjoyable. The film is carried by its actors, specifically, it’s lead in Liu. The production design of the film was nice and the choreography was solid as well. On a technical level, the film is visually appealing and has a nice soundtrack. When comparing it to the recent Disney live-action releases, the film does not really reach the pulp feel of Aladdin or the 1:1 remake of The Lion King. While it is commendable that Mulan took the chance to stand apart from its animated counterpart, it could have benefited from relying on it just a bit more, specifically in characters like Mushu, or included at least one of the iconic songs.
Overall, Mulan is another fun addition to Disney’s library of live-action remakes. While less-than-stellar pacing and some thin characters take away from the strong acting performances, the film manages to be an enjoyable ride into a more serious Mulan tale.