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Josh Reviews Mulan

September 23rd, 2020

Because we don’t plan on going to a movie theatre any time in the near future, my family was delighted that Disney opted to release their live-action remake of Mulan on Disney+.  Yes, the additional $30 fee on top of the cost of our Disney+ subscription was steep.  But that was still far less of an expense than taking our family of four to see Mulan in a theater, and I understand the realties of Disney’s desire to make back as much money as they can on this film.  While we all agreed that the original, animated Mulan was superior to this new version in almost every way, every member of my family nevertheless quite enjoyed this new version.

As I have written before, I am not a fan of Disney’s proclivity of remaking their animated films into live-action versions.  There’s not much that excites me, creatively, about this idea, and even when I have enjoyed the remake, I can’t think of a single time when I thought the remake was better than the animated original.

Interestingly, while many of Disney’s previous remakes hewed very closely to the animated original, this new Mulan is quite different from the animated version.  The main beats of the story are the same, but so many other aspects of the film’s story and characters are different.  This is an interesting choice.  On the one hand, I like this idea in principle because trying something new seems to me to have the potential to bring some excitement and creative energy into a remake that would be missing in a more slavishly faithful version.  On the other hand, there’s so much of the wonderful original Mulan that wasn’t broken, and so watching the new film there were a number of times when I wondered why they strayed from what had previously worked so well.  That’s not to say the changes are bad.  Most of the different paths this film goes down work just fine.  The result is an enjoyable film and a different version of the Mulan story.

They’ve assembled a wonderful cast for this new Mulan.  Let’s begin with Yifei Liu, who plays Mulan herself.  She’s very enjoyable in the lead role, soulful and compelling.  Mulan can be a very internal character — even more so in this version, because she doesn’t have her sidekick Mushu to talk with throughout the film — but Ms. Liu is terrific at showing us Mulan’s emotional depths so that the audience can clearly follow where her thoughts and heart are, throughout her journey.  She’s also able to handle the action side of the role extremely convincingly.

Tzi Ma (24, Arrival) brings a wonderful soulfulness and wisdom to the role of Hua Zhou, Mulan’s father, and I was delighted to see Rosalind Chao (Keiko O’Brien on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine) as Hua Li, Mulan’s mother.  New to the film was the character of Hua Xiu, Mulan’s younger sister, played by Xana Tang.  I liked this change; adding Mulan’s relationship with her sister brought some enjoyable new elements to the story.  I also really enjoyed the work of Crystal Rao, who played a younger Mulan in the early sections of the film.  It was interesting to events from earlier in Mulan’s life that brought her to the place she is at when the main story of the film behind.

The character of Captain Li Shang from the animated film — the young captain who trains the troops (including Mulan) and with whom Mulan develops a deep friendship (and also some romantic sparks) — has been divided into several different characters in this new version.  Donnie Yen (Chirrut Îmwe from Rogue One) plays Commander Tung, the veteran commander of the troops with whom Mulan fights.  Mr. Yen is fantastic as always, and I enjoyed the way the film developed his mentor relationship with Mulan.  Then there’s Ron Yuan as Sergeant Qiang, another senior military leader (who seems to be Tung’s second in command).  Lastly there is Chen Honghui, played by Yoson An.  Chen is a new recruit, just like Mulan.  He’s a skilled fighter, and gradually he and Mulan develop the friendship (and perhaps something more?) that she had with Li Shang in the animated film.  I can understand why the film chose to develop these different characters, and allowed Mulan to develop different types of relationships with these different male characters.  It also helps that all three actors were terrific.  (The film makes an interesting choice in keeping Mulan and Yoson An’s final scene very ambiguous.  The animated film was chaste, but it was clear that, by the end, there were romantic feelings between Mulan and Li Shang.  This version never goes there explicitly; it’s more for the audience to decide what’s happening beneath the surface.)

Mulan’s three friends Ling, Yao, and Chien-Po from the animated film made the transition into this version, here played by Jimmy Wong, Chen Tang, and Doua Moua.  I enjoyed all three characters, though they weren’t as distinct and memorable as they were in the animated version.  (It’s a strength of animation that they could design the three characters to look so dramatically different from one another.)

Jet Li (Shaolin Temple, Once Upon a Time in China, Hero) plays the Emperor.  It was interesting to see this younger, more action-oriented take on the Emperor.  I loved the Emperor in the animated film and I also enjoyed this version.

The villain Shan Yu from the animated film has become Böri Khan, played by Jason Scott Lee.  Khan has been paired with a female villain, a witch named Xianniang, played by Gong Li (Memoirs of a Geisha, Miami Vice, Curse of the Golden Flower).  I like the idea of Xianniang as a mirror image of Mulan.  She too was a young woman with powerful skills, and like Mulan, that meant she had trouble finding her place in the society around her.  Unlike Mulan, she turned vengeful and evil.  I liked her story, though I’d have loved if she and Mulan had had more scenes together.  Mr. Lee is solid as the warrior Böri Khan, though he’s not as memorably scary as Shan Yu (voiced by Miguel Ferrer) was.

I was intrigued to see the way the film embraced the idea of magic, and warriors with supernatural powers.  The film suggests that warriors can utilize their Chi in a way that manifests as super-human abilities.  This idea wasn’t present in the animated film.  It’s funny: I’d have expected that an animated film might have been more fantastical and then become more grounded for the live-action version.  But here, the reverse has happened!   I don’t think these fantastical elements were needed (the original worked just fine without them), but I enjoyed being surprised by that aspect of this Mulan.  I’m aware, of course, of the long and robust history of Wuxia, Chinese fiction focusing on martial artists, many of whom possess abilities beyond those of a normal human.  It’s fun to see this version of Mulan utilize some of those ideas.

While this Mulan has those new fantastical elements, the physical manifestation of spirits — including, of course, Mulan’s spirt-guide sidekick Mushu, voiced in the original film by Eddie Murphy — are entirely absent from this version.  I’m not terribly surprised.  It’s hard to imagine a character like Mushu fitting into this live-action version.  This Mulan also does not have any songs.  (Though several themes from the animated film’s songs are incorporated into the soundtrack!)  Here again, this is not a surprise.  (Though I’ll admit I missed hearing “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” during the training sequence.)

One of my favorite changes in this version were the tweaks to the last scene, after Mulan has returned to her family.  For all the boundary-pushing that the animated Mulan did, in that version, it’s suggested that an aspect of the happy ending is that Li Shang has feelings for her, so maybe she’ll be able to find a husband after all.  This new version removes that from the ending; now the ending is more squarely focused on Mulan’s skills, and the honor of being asked by the Emperor to serve in his personal guard.  That’s a great change.

The production values in this film are tremendous.  This is an epic story and it’s been brought to life on an epic scale.  (This helps explain the absence of any singing — this Mulan was designed more as an epic historical adventure than a whimsical musical.)  I loved the design of the village in which Mulan grew up, and the capital city is dazzling in scope.  The costumes are lavish and beautiful.  Each character’s look is memorable and feels extremely well thought out.  The film is a joy to look at, filled with vibrant color and lavish spectacle.  The fights are pleasingly choreographed and laced with a fun energy.

Did a live-action remake of Mulan need to exist?  No.  But director Niki Caro (who also wrote and directed Whale Rider) has crafted a thoroughly enjoyable film, one that I think will be appealing to viewers of all ages.  I know I certainly had fun watching it.

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