Warning: This post includes spoilers for Mulan (2020), if you care about that, go watch it before reading. If not, carry on.
Mulan was one of my favourite Disney movies as a kid, and still is. The songs are amazing, I love the storyline, I love the way tonal and visual shifts are used, I love the characters. So when it was announced that they were making a live-action version of Mulan, I was apprehensive. Could they make a movie as magical as the cartoon? The fact that they weren’t making it a musical gave me mixed feelings–I love the songs and always love a musical, but maybe this would allow the movie to stand on it’s own instead of trying to replicate the cartoon.
The trailer was fine when it was released–the cast seemed good, it was aesthetically pleasing–but nothing that made me want to spend $30 on top of my Disney+ subscription to watch it when it was released on the platform a few months ago. Now that the fee has been lifted, I settled down to see for myself what Mulan (2020) was all about.
So like, it wasn’t terrible.
I’ve seen most of the recent live action versions of Disney films, and in my opinion, they vary in quality. The Lion King (2019) does not need to exist and I’m not sure why it does, but it’s still mostly enjoyable because…it’s still The Lion King. Aladdin (2019) made some puzzling changes and I don’t think the casting choice for Jafar was great, but it was charming overall. Beauty and the Beast (2017) was pretty good, and the music was probably the best out of all of these. They’re all fun, and watchable, although my very biased self doesn’t think any of them surpass the cartoons.
Mulan (2020), in my opinion, was watchable, I didn’t turn it off. The cast was good–especially Donnie Yen and Jason Scott Lee–and there were some very cool visuals and action sequences. In terms of plot, it was less of a direct live-action remake than the films I listed above, and it tries to do more of it’s own thing and take inspiration and influence from the original legend (in this way it’s similar to Peter Pan (2003), which I think is a brilliant movie and I absolutely love).
For me, where I think Mulan (2020) fails is where it is trying to be Mulan (1998).
In parts, Mulan (2020) wants to stand on it’s own as a film and as a story. But in other parts, it makes such direct references to elements of the cartoon that are not present in this movie that it completely took me out of the story. They do this most obviously with the missing musical numbers. The first time it happens it’s fine; they play an instrumental version of “Honor to Us All” over the matchmaker scene and it feels like a fun wink, even though it did make me turn to my brother and say “this would be a great time for a musical number.” But then they just keep doing it.
They quote lines directly from “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You”–I sat there blinking for several seconds when a character completely seriously says “tranquil as the forest, but a fire within”–and they also recreate a lot of the imagery from the scene in the cartoon. There is a randomly placed conversation made up of lines from “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” which again just felt like they SHOULD be breaking out into song in that moment. They start playing an instrumental version of “Reflection” as a musical motif over some of Mulan’s key moments–which only works if you have never heard the words of “Reflection.” As it is, as someone who did a competitive dance to that song as a kid on top of watching the movie many times, I found myself thinking “this is an odd song to be playing over this moment.”
There are some other references that work or don’t work to various degrees. They call one of Mulan’s fellow soldiers “Cricket” as a reference to the actual cricket character in the cartoon, for example, and that’s fine. The phoenix spirit she sees is similar in colour to Mushu from the cartoon (who doesn’t exist in this film), and that’s also fine, although the phoenix itself is a bit random and not fully explained. There’s a few shot remakes that would probably be cool subtle references if all of the other references didn’t exist.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this movie would be a masterpiece if I had never seen Mulan (1998). There are some pacing problems around the middle, there’s a scene involving an avalanche that is very weirdly edited, the way one of the characters dies feels like a cop-out. There’s also been some criticisms about how they handle some aspects of Chinese culture that as a non-Chinese person I do not feel equipped to talk about. There are issues beyond the clunky references. But I think the references welcome more constant comparisons than would have already been made.
As I said before, it’s not terrible. I don’t think I would seek it out to watch again, but I still watched the whole thing and I can think of scenes and elements of it I genuinely liked. I just wish that if the filmmakers wanted to create a film based on the original legend of Mulan while making references to the cartoon most people are familiar with, it was done more gracefully.