‘Mulan’ Review: An Animated Classic Revived For the Superhero Age
Disney’s original Mulan sang about her reflection; how it never showed who she really was inside. Now here is another reflection of Mulan, this one rendered in live-action instead of animation and transforming the character from a clever and resourceful nonconformist into a kind of reluctant superhero. Viewed together — which is easy enough, since both will be available on the Disney+ streaming service — the two version of the same story offer an instructive example of how studios try to cater to audiences’ changing tastes.
In both of Disney’s Mulans, a young woman disguises herself as a man to serve in the Imperial Army in her father’s place. In the animated film from 1998, Mulan (voiced by Ming-Na Wen) is totally ill-equipped for the role of warrior, and she largely excels in her Army training because of her intelligence, determination, and ingenuity. She completes one exercise that involves retrieving an arrow from the top of a pole, for example, by working at it all night, until she realizes the weights she must wear while climbing can be used to help her shimmy to the top.
The live-action Mulan, played by Liu Yifei, is introduced already wielding incredible martial arts skills. Her father (Tzi Ma) begs her to hide her gifts, and to play the role of dutiful wife that society expects of her. When this Mulan arrives for Army training with her father’s old armor and sword, her commanding officer, played by Donnie Yen, recognizes the “chi” she possesses, and urges her to stop holding it back.
One version of this story is not necessarily superior to the other, and some viewers — particularly teenage girls — may be drawn to a story that celebrates a woman who can hold her own in any fight and moves with the athleticism and power of Jet Li (who plays a small role in the new Mulan as the Emperor). It is interesting, though, to consider the two films’ competing ideas about what it means to be a “strong woman.” In the original, Mulan is an ordinary person who trains and perseveres and uses her brain to solve some very scary and difficult circumstances. In the new Mulan, the title character is essentially Wonder Woman. There’s even a variation of the scene in the first Wonder Woman movie where the hero finally reveals her iconic costume and strides through a World War I battlefield totally unafraid of the danger.
There are other differences in the new Mulan, which was directed by the talented Niki Caro. Mushu, the wisecracking dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy who taught Mulan how to navigate the world of men, has been removed. So has Mulan’s quippy grandmother; instead, Mulan has a sister who’s better suited to the world of matchmakers and tea ceremonies. Mulan’s love interest, Captain Li Shang, has been split into two characters; the older commanding officer played by Donnie Yen, and a younger colleague in the Army played by Yoson An who becomes her ally in battle. And the hawk that accompanied the Huns as they invaded China in the animated film is now revealed to be a shapeshifting witch played by Gong Li, who serves the film’s villain (Jason Scott Lee) but also takes an interest in the powerful, defiant Mulan.
It’s a shame that at least in America, Mulan will be seen almost entirely at home on Disney+, where a $30 fee gets you “Premier Access” to watch the movie several months before it becomes available through the standard Disney+ subscription. The one area where the new Mulan clearly outpaces the original is visually. It’s packed with gorgeous natural vistas and filled with martial artists like Yen and Lee who deliver some impressive fight choreography. The movie looks good on a decent television; it surely would have looked spectacular on a theater screen.
For those watching at home though, it’s worth noting that 2020’s Mulan is rated PG-13 for some fairly intense battle sequences and action. (The original Mulan received a G from the MPAA.) There’s no blood, but there’s an awful lot of stabbing, fighting, and death. The musical numbers are entirely gone, although you will hear familiar themes on the soundtrack and in the closing credits. Families who buy the movie on Disney+ expecting a lighthearted night’s entertainment should know this Mulan is clearly aimed at older audience. This is less of a Disney princess movie than a war epic — and an inferior reflection of the original.
-Live-action Mulan has an awful lot of hair. I don’t know how she hides all of it under a bun. (In the animated version, the character chops off her long locks before she dons her disguise and joins the Army.)
-Mulan reminded me a little of Scoob!, another 2020 movie that took an old property and attempted to superhero-ified it for modern audiences. As someone who loves superheroes, can I just say something to Hollywood? Not every movie has to be a superhero movie.
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