Review: Mulan (2020)

An at times bizarre, but more often mediocre, experience from Disney. Yet another live action adaptation that no one asked for.

Hua Mulan, one of two daughters, must assume the role as a warrior in secret as the country readies for war, to save her father’s life. Despite doing so potentially bringing her family great dishonour.

Disney’s original Mulan, released in 1998, was perhaps one of the more understated entries in the studio’s “Princess” line, since technically Mulan was not a princess. But she still gets top billing with the rest of them, which is commendable. The character originates from Chinese folklore. Similar to Britain’s Robin Hood, it is debated whether Hua Mulan was real or a fictional figure.
Either way, the story of Mulan is a powerful one, and in Disney’s roster the character is extremely strong-willed and an icon for women everywhere. A young girl, confident in her abilities, not only defies the society she lives in, but also risks her own life to defend those she cares about. Not only that, but she triumphs in her goals, excelling in the male-only arena of war, rising above them as a skilled combatant.
The story rests on the inevitable “liar-reveal”, when those around her discover who she really is, and what the consequences could be. Will she survive, will she be forgiven?

The Disney animated picture was a colourful and brash experience. It had some very catchy music numbers, and some endearing characters, both in lead roles and secondary. It did not rely overly on magic (except for the comedic relief dragon sidekick “Mushu”, played exaggeratedly by Eddie Murphy) and as such, it had a more grounded feel to it, with our heroine relying on guile and confidence to win the day.

2020’s live action Mulan had a lot going for it. The tale is rooted within reality already, a live action version could work better than other Disney properties. But it also suffers from being one of the first releases under the Covid-19 pandemic quarantine, and as a result Disney Studios placed some heavy restraints on the film. It did not receive a cinema release, despite its eventual release coinciding with other studios slowly releasing movies within theatres. Instead, Disney put Mulan out on their new streaming service, Disney+, but at a premium price. Here in the United Kingdom, it costs the service fee for Disney+ along with an extra £20 premium.
Admittedly, this isn’t terrible for a huge corporation sweating under the weight of a pandemic, with the film needing to recover its own budget. A family paying £20 for a movie is a bargain, since at the cinema you are looking at £50+ when including food and drinks. But this mark-up does not sit well with consumers either way.

Especially when the film itself is incredibly lacklustre.

The film is immediately off-putting, having the inclusion of a magical evil witch, who not only could transform into animals, but could also mimic anyone she can get in contact with.
This character was not in the original film, or (to this reviewer’s knowledge) the original folktale. While she has parallels with Mulan’s own struggles (a powerful woman fighting alongside men) her powers completely derail the story. If she can become an eagle, fly to the Emperor’s castle, become the Emperor’s assistant, and get within touching-distance of him… Why is any of this happening? (by the way, she does exactly this, minus the Emperor-killing) She is even seen taking on dozens of soldiers without breaking a sweat. Who knew that harnessing chi allowed you to possess people and give yourself bird talons?

The meat of the story feels rushed, and the dialogue feels stilted and awkward. Unlike the original animation, we never really get to know the soldiers that Mulan has to fight alongside. There are strange, poorly visualised battle sequences. For example, Mulan saves her companions by directing the enemy trebuchets into causing an avalanche. Fair enough. But they can see her position clearly, they are trained siege-weapon users, but they miss so spectacularly that they cause the avalanche Mulan intended. Probably a mile away from her position. What?
As far as Mulan’s character is concerned, being the most important element of the story… the storytellers opt to have her be naturally gifted for combat. Even as a small child, we see her able to defy gravity, and be told to hide her abilities. So the development in standing up for herself and measuring up to those around her, doesn’t exist; she was already powerful from birth. So there’s no sense of elation or success later, because we knew it was going to happen.

Visually, the film is no House of Flying Daggers, it looks cheap and has poor cinematography (oh look, Mulan just so happens to have a different coloured armour to everyone else in the battle. How convenient!) There are no music numbers, for all those disappointed Disney fans out there. In fact there is very little emotional weight to anything.

You are perhaps wondering why this review has so much vitriol. Perhaps it is because Hua Mulan is a powerful story, and even the animated film is good for capturing some of its sincerity. There was also a Chinese produced film, Mulan: Legend of a Warrior, made in 2008 that also captures the legend in a far more grounded manner. It is no chuckle-fest, and Disney fans shouldn’t be looking for it, but this year’s attempt should have been something in-between the 1998 and 2008 films.

Instead it is just mostly forgettable.

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