When I first heard that Disney would be making a live-action “Mulan” movie — one that didn’t have any musical numbers and wanted to be more faithful to the original story and culture — I was more than excited. I didn’t like the live-action remakes of other Disney Renaissance films because they tried to recreate the original shot for shot. Sure, there is some obvious enjoyment in seeing these live-action films, but they are still very much inferior to the original animated versions. I was ecstatic for “Mulan” because it sounded like it would set itself apart from the original. Now that the movie has been put on Disney+, costing subscribers an extra $30 to watch, one wonders: Is the price worth it? Well, it depends on what you’re looking for. I’m glad I saw it, but I definitely have some gripes.
While I was excited for the fresh take on this film, the changes the filmmakers made didn’t feel nearly as impactful as they should have. The best example I can give is the phoenix, which replaces the character Mushu from the original film. I am glad Disney made this change in order to set a more realistic and serious tone. However, I was hoping the phoenix would have just as strong of a relationship with Mulan as Mushu had in the original. Unfortunately, other than a few moments of screen time, the phoenix does not do much aside from serve as visual eye candy. Plus, Mulan doesn’t really connect with it on a personal level. If the filmmakers wanted to justify the changes they made, they could have given it more meaningful contributions.
Another example of a disappointing change is the small role of the witch. She was my favorite part of the movie; I enjoyed seeing all of her cool powers on display while also witnessing her satisfying character arc. The story would have benefited from her being the main antagonist since her story parallels Mulan’s. Unfortunately, the witch doesn’t have much of an impact on the story aside from a small scene. Furthermore, it does not help that the main villain of the story is not exactly noteworthy.
Simply put, not many of the new characters actually stand out. What is the point in changing these characters if they are going to serve a similar purpose as in the original?
I would be fine with these small changes if the story itself was interesting enough to carry the film. I felt like everyone involved was going through the motions in terms of plot. Those who have seen the animated version will know exactly what happens at each stage of the story. A certain level of predictability is to be expected, but if the filmmakers really wanted to make the live-action version different from the original, changing at least part of the plot certainly would have helped.
The filmmakers did not have trouble shaking up Mulan’s character in this film. Unlike the original, which showed her having to work her way to the top, she starts out being skilled and competent as a warrior. I honestly don’t mind this change, as it helps to color the narrative in a different way. It shows that no matter how hard she tries, Mulan can never be herself in front of the patriarchal society. Only when she proves herself through her commitment and courage do people understand and respect her. This strength then gives her the chance to be her true self. Sure, it’s not the most cohesive message, but I can at least appreciate the writers for trying to do something different.
That being said, not only do her new powers feel like a huge deus ex machina, but they’re given so little explanation that they feel out of place. If at least one other person were seen channeling their chi in the same way as Mulan, it would make more sense. As it stands, however, it feels like the writers gave her new abilities just for the sake of her being a strong “chosen one.” Her natural superiority over everyone else gives less space for moments that truly resonate. Overall, the biggest problem of this film is that the story lacks substance and is ultimately a bland imitation of the original.
Of course, that’s not to say that this movie is a complete mess. This one definitely does a lot more to show appreciation for Chinese traditions and culture than the original ever did. Not to mention the backgrounds and cinematography are straight-up gorgeous, and the action scenes are truly spectacles to behold. I think the film is worth experiencing at least once if you’re even slightly interested. Definitely wait to watch it on Disney+ until December, though; that way, you won’t have to pay the $30.
It is clear that this remake has not brought honor to us all. Here’s to hoping that Disney can give future remakes better, more creative treatment.