The 2020 Mulan live-action remake of Disney’s 1998 animated Mulan is definitely the same story in both versions, give or take an Eddie Murphy voiced dragon. However, unlike copy and paste recent Disney adaptations like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin or The Lion King, this Mulan has pep. It looks great and for anyone starved for widescreen acrobatic action over the last few months this movie delivers. A couple of things have been jettisoned from the transition to live action but overall the framework remains. This also added a Star Wars / Superhero thematic vibe to it that isn’t present in the original story, featuring an antagonist who is the dark side mirror of the protagonist which is a theme that is nigh mandatory in blockbuster cinema. Thankfully, the emotional moments work, the action is graceful and vibrant, and the visuals pop.
Centuries ago in China, the land is attacked by invading hordes led Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and the evil witch, Xianniang (Gong Li). As cities fall, a call is sent out by the Emperor that males from all families must go to battle. This is bad news for Mulan (Yifei Liu) because her elderly father, Zhou (Tzi Ma), is too frail to survive a war. So Mulan grabs the family sword and armor and runs off to training. There she disguises her gender and meets the friendly Honghui (Yoson An) and they learn about battle from the stern Commander Tung (Donnie Yen). But soon Mulan not only has to confront Khan and his witch, she has to confront the lies she has been telling her fellow soldiers all this time.
Probably the most memorable thing from the original animated film was Murphy as the fast-talking dragon sidekick Mushu who felt dropped in from a different movie. This remake doesn’t have any place for jokey Mushu as is a bit too serious; instead here the father is praying to his ancestors to watch over Mulan and she sees a phoenix which may or may not be real. One thing that Mushu functioned in the original plot was for Mulan to have someone to talk to but without an exposition buddy Mulan’s journey is much more internalized, something which Liu conveys. This works because when she speaks, it has some weight. The reveal to her comrades that she is female was an accident in the original but here she reveals her gender on her own which makes her an active participant in her fate. The scene in the 2020 version when Mulan ditches her armour and truly battles as herself is the best beat in the film.
This version hasn’t totally bailed on mysticism, it just bailed on the chatty dragon. There is a lot of talk about chi like The Force from Star Wars as the wellspring that Mulan draws near superhero level powers, like when she kicks a spear out of the air and throws it back (admittedly, that is very badass). The mystic threat is the evil witch who is slowly begins to realize she is a slave to the villain, Khan. Li does the freaky well and her chat with Mulan about them being the same is good supervillain evil monologue stuff however overall her arc seems plucked from Darth Vader from the original Star Wars trilogy. The main villain is Khan as Jason Scott Lee is mostly just looking intimidating, snarling about revenge. There is a parallel story point where both the witch and Mulan are looked down upon because of their gender when they are the most powerful ones, however, that plot seems rushed and ultimately pointless. Yen as the Commander adds dramatic heft to the stern leader role and his reaction when he finds out who Mulan is genuinely tense. As Mulan’s best friend in the army, An gets to stick up for Mulan but doesn’t do much else. Ma as Mulan’s father is good at looking frail which makes it more believable that Mulan would take his place.
The musical numbers from the original have been dropped, however the song melodies are reprised in the orchestral score. The end credits features Christina Aguilera singing covers of original songs from the musical which is interesting because in the 1998 animated movie she covered the song “Reflection” during the end credits and performs a revamped version here. Where Mulan really soars is in the visuals which are incredibly vibrant; a confrontation that Mulan with the witch in the mist looks incredibly awesome. Also one of the best action scenes from the original Mulan, the big avalanche that crushes the baddie army, is recreated here. The action is entirely bloodless but it has some nice balletic moves as Mulan is frequently doing incredible flips. Flying along the air gives Mulan a fantasy movie vibe be which may not be realistic but it is fun although there is a jarring tonal disconnect between the fantasy elements and the realistic commentary on gender inequality.
Mulan is a sweeping, visually lush epic that changes just enough from the original to not be a pointless rehash like the remakes of Aladdin or The Lion King. Even though she doesn’t say much, Mulan is an empathetic heroine which makes the moments when she fights as herself literally soaring.
Director: Niki Caro
Starring: Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen and Li Gong