I am a fool. A damned one at that. For about a year or more, I was confident and excited for the fact that Disney were doing a live-action remake of their 1998 film Mulan, starring an all-Chinese cast with massive battles and epic martial arts all centred around a more respectful and culturally-appropriate adaptation of one of the most famous tales of Chinese folklore. The trailers looked really good, and I was confident that this could be one of the best Disney live-action remake movies because it was to do something different and more mature than just a nostalgia-heavy redo of what was already good before.
How wrong I am.
There’s enough wrong in the above assumption above, like the words “Disney” and “culturally-appropriate” being mutually exclusive. Also that this wasn’t written, produced or directed by anyone with Chinese heritage is one sign, another being that Disney themselves deemed this movie not even worth the wait for cinemas around the world to reopen, with Mulan becoming their guinea pig for their “Premier Access” (ed: the American spelling being applied globally is equally egregious) is gross enough, let alone the very idea of such thing.
For posterity, Mulan is based on the ancient Chinese ballad of “Hua Mulan” from the Northern Wei Dynasty, of a woman who takes up her father’s armour and joins the army, disguising herself as a man, and fighting off the invading forces from Mongolia, or other parts of Northern Asia. She fights these enemies, protects the Emperor of China, and proves to her country that men and women are equal when it comes to protecting one’s country.
The 1998 animated movies gets a few things wrong and perhaps is a bit too much in line with the mainstream line of Disney commercialism, but is still respected and praised today for great voice performances, terrific animation and a sensitive story at its core. The initial backlash to this remake was at first focused around the absence of beloved character of Mushu (voiced by Eddie Murphy) and it not being a musical, both smart decisions, and both are quite silly compared to the real things people should be disgusted by with this movie.
To put it out there simply, Mulan is an exceptionally boring and bland remake that offers up nothing new or unique to either the animated movie nor even as an adaptation of the original ballad and simply reserves itself to a kind of paint-by-numbers filmmaking that Disney seems to revel in when it’s not something Marvel or Star Wars (though they do sometimes share these problems). Just like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King, there is a director credited to the film (Niki Caro, being the first woman to direct a big budget Disney adaptation) and it could literally be anyone’s name and it wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference.
The movie is mostly well-photographed by Australian cinematography legend Mandy Walker, and the production design looks nice enough, as well as there being a few decent moments of action sprinkled through. And hey, any movie that has Donnie Yen doing anything gets at least half a point in my books, but really that is all. All of the characters besides Mulan merge into one another, particularly her four or five or six warrior friends whose names I instantly forgot and whose personalities never existed.
A few changes, like excising Mushu and not making it a musical, were for the better, but these made way for a whole heap of senseless and often deplorable new choices: Mulan has no charming personality, only brief flutters of sadness and shame underneath a stonefaced performance by Yifei Liu; the absence of Li Shang gives the bisexual viewers something to hate (as if they needed more); a witch is added who seemingly becomes Mulan’s role model to stand up to the patriarchy or at least defend the evil man and protect the powerful one; there’s the additions of ch’i to the story which makes sense as ch’i or qi is central to Chinese mythology and culture, but this movie’s version of it is only to enhance some clunky idea of female empowerment which was already there in a story that’s endured for thousands of years!
Also, Mulan is guided by a phoenix who shows up a few times and does absolutely nothing, beyond be linked to Chinese mythology but still in a Westernised way.
Mulan is already a source of controversy over Yifei Liu’s support of Hong Kong police during last year’s tumultuous riots, and more recently with the credits listing the production of the film as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region which is the site of concentration camps for the Uyghur people by the Chinese government who brainwash and torture the traditional Muslim communities imprisoned there. Good work Disney. They’re happy to charge you $AU34.99 on top of an $AU8.99/month subscription fee all so you can in some way support the persecution of Muslims.
What is hilarious now is that Mulan was hoped to be a box-office behemoth in China, as it has been given a theatrical release there, and yet, it has now been given the cold shoulder. The movie has flopped hard in the country, with audiences complaining about the movie’s notable historical inaccuracies as well as the depiction of qi and even down to incorrect make-up.
Something that frustrates me as a film critic, certainly not as notable as the controversial aspects listed above, is that Mulan is reported to have cost $200 million to produce. That is a budget shared by most of the recent Marvel and Star Wars movies, the last few Pixar movies, the last two Bond movies and Tenet. All of them are expensive yet still good-looking and handsomely-produced films with the money clearly on screen in almost every frame. Mulan has none of this detail and somehow cost just the same. How? It was partially filmed in New Zealand which means the production had tax incentives, there are no A-listers in the cast, the main battle is accomplished mostly with CGI and a few hundred horse-riders, the last battle takes place either in a cheap hallway or on a stage-built scaffolding in front of a green screen, the production design is done mostly on location in ways other films can do for under $70 million, and all the CGI looks rushed and cheap. So where did the money go?
Mulan is a painful waste of your time and money. Be smart and do not pay $AU34.99 for something boring, flat, offensive, inaccurate, and worthless. I don’t care if it’s “cheaper than going to the movies”. What’s cheaper is not seeing this abomination from Disney. That shit is free. With tepid performances, an uninteresting story, cheap production values on many levels, and a tiresome feeling of ‘nothing here’ needing to exist, Mulan is one of the worst movies of 2020. And that might be saying something.
Director: Niki Caro
Cast: Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Li Gong
Writers: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, Elizabeth Martin