The original “Mulan” was released 22 years ago and is remembered today as an immensely charming product of the Disney ‘90s renaissance, thanks to its potent blend of multiculturalism, subversive twists on the classic Disney princess formula, memorable characters, banging musical score and simplistic yet beautiful aesthetic that complemented the story’s Eastern origins. In this latter respect Disney’s live action adaptation of “Mulan” does surprisingly well, containing inspired landscape compositions that are decorated and produced with immaculate care. As for recapturing the rest of the original’s magic, the 2020 adaptation of “Mulan” — like so many other things this year — falls short.
There are things to commend about this adaptation before getting into the purely critical. Director Niki Caro and her team have assembled an actually diverse and appropriate cast, with Mulan (Yifei Liu) and warrior-companion-turned-love-interest Honghui (Yoson An) in particular performing their roles admirably. The action sequences in battles follow cartoonish physics and adopt a kung-fu style presented just believably enough to work. While a live action aesthetic will always fail to stack up to the 1998 “Mulan” film’s gorgeously unique geometric animation, the vivid saturation and imaginative scenery of the 2020 “Mulan” does the trick when set to a decent original score — although it should be noted that the lack of any songs in this version leave it feeling a little devoid of personality.
It isn’t just missing songs where 2020 “Mulan” falls short of character, but frankly most of the film. While there are a few sparing jokes about gender politics during Mulan’s time pretending to be a man in the Chinese army, the character-filling banter between 1998’s Mulan (Ming-Na Wen) and her dragon companion Mushu (Eddie Murphy) has no replacement in this new adaptation. In the 2020 “Mulan,” the only supernatural companion to be seen is a phoenix representing Fa Mulan’s family “qi” energy with no dialogue or distinguishing characteristics. Without a humorous sidekick to talk to, 2020’s Mulan has a hard time making her character known to viewers despite Liu’s sincere and effective performance of the character.
Side characters like fellow trainee Cricket (Jun Yu) are given a minimum treatment of personality and are nowhere near as entertaining as their equivalents in the original. The regiment’s Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) isn’t quite a blank slate, but he’s not very recognizable either without a recitation of “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.” Even one musical sequence would have added a good bit of personality to a movie that sometimes feels similar to competent but sterile high-budget video games with their barely sketched-out characters.
The lack of personality sorely reveals itself, however, in the Emperor and villain characters. The Emperor (Jet Li) is laughably stoic without a hint of anything to be remembered by, and the Khan villain (Jason Scott Lee) is a hollow portrayal of the leader of the Huns. Though it may be tiresome to compare an adaptation so rigorously and repetitively to its original, when the characters fall this short a reminder of what made them work in the first place feels appropriate.
As a person of Kazakh descent, I feel particularly robbed of a memorable and great Central Asian villain a la the 1998 “Mulan’s” Shan Yu. The original Shuan Yu was a vicious man who stood out for his particular breed of arrogance and cartoonish buffoonery, whereas 2020’s Khan is a stereotypical angry warlord in kahoots with a new character, a witch named Xianniang (Gong Li).
Xianniang is supposed to be a thought-provoking parallel to Mulan as a female who undergoes a transformative arc of redemption, but the script condenses this arc into such a miniscule amount of screentime that her presence barely registers. Li’s character could have been an interesting feminist complement to what has always been a subversive plot since “Mulan’s” origins as a real folk tale. Unfortunately, a cool costume and one battle sequence with Mulan leads her neither toward being a compelling villain nor a redeemed helper. Combined with the tragedy of this movie’s Khan, the result is that 2020’s “Mulan” has no compelling antagonist.
“Mulan” is far from a terrible movie — as some internet trolls who are upset by it on principle for being too PC with its diversity might lead you to believe. But it is a disappointingly sour take on what was originally a fresh and subversive animated feature. Watching “Mulan” is entertaining enough, but it is not worth the $29 price Disney is charging for at-home viewers who must already be subscribed to the Disney+ streaming service to view the film during what would have been a purely theatrical release window. In a normal world with theaters, “Mulan” might at least be a spectacle worth some popcorn time, but in the current global context it’s a story not quite worth the price of admission for all but the most diehard or desperate of Disney fans.