There were moments in this year when it felt like we would never get to this point. Originally set for release in cinemas at the end of March 2020, Disney’s latest live action offering instead ended up in release date limbo, seemingly competing with Christopher Nolan’s TENET for which film would make it onto the big screen first, as the tentative litmus test for whether people were willing to return to cinemas or not. Whilst the release narrative of those two films were aligned for a while, they eventually went in completely different directions, with Nolan defiantly releasing his latest opus in cinemas only, and Disney opting to put Mulan solely on their streaming platform Disney+ for an additional cost.
It has been the subject of much bickering since then between those prepared to pay the fee, and those who were adamant that a move like this signalled the death of cinema as we know it. And just as that began to subside, with Mulan finally available to audiences, it’s release is being targeted by those who wish for the film to be boycotted due to the star’s controversial opinions on police brutality in Hong Kong. This isn’t something this review will address, but it doesn’t feel right not to mention it at all, and to pretend that this film’s road to release has been an easy one. The comments of the film’s star however should not taint the film as a whole. The film is the result of thousands of people’s hard work, and the merit of the film now it is finally here is the thing we shall be focusing on.
Prior to the maelstrom of Covid-19, I always high hopes for Disney’s latest live action, despite the fact I had repeatedly been burned by this optimism in the past! The thing that gave me such high hopes however, was that it was wisely choosing to abandon certain elements of the 1998 animated version, such as the songs and the wise-cracking sidekick, in order to forge its own identity. The carbon copy remakes of Disney animated classics are the ones I find most egregious, and the last thing I wanted was another Lion King… The decision to set themselves apart and be different is something I wish more of the live action adaptations chose to adopt, and there is the hope that this film may set the precedent going forward. As it stands, this fresh reimagining of Mulan, is just that – fresh, exciting and all the better for the way it distances itself from the original.
Perhaps one of the biggest strengths of this new version is the way it expands on elements that were barely touched upon in the original. One of these being the relationship between Mulan (Liu Yifei) and her father Fa Zhou (Tzi Ma). The film establishes their closeness and bond through showing us Mulan as a child and gives us more scenes of the two bonding together. This isn’t something which is entirely absent from the 1998 version, but it is given extra weight and importance here, meaning certain climactic scenes have even more of an emotional punch.
Another big change is with the villain, this time around giving us two in Xian Lang (Gong Li) and Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee). The former is particularly interesting and well developed, providing an interesting counterpart to our protagonist, and with an arc that I didn’t expect. By changing up the villains this time around, it took some of that certainty away for those very familiar with the original. It meant that in the intense fight sequences, I found myself gripped and enthralled because I wasn’t sure of what the outcome would be.
I could see this being the thing that turns a lot of people off, but I really welcomed the fact there wasn’t a romantic subplot this time around. This was never the main focus of the original, but it was there, and it always felt like it wasn’t particularly necessary. There is chemistry between Mulan and Honghui (Yoson An) undoubtedly, but there isn’t any real suggestion of something more until towards the very end. This kept the focus on Mulan and her journey and the lack of deviations away from this was one of the film’s big strengths.
The scope of the story in the animated version always felt huge, and that certainly translates here. The action scenes in particular are breathtakingly well-shot and choreographed, and even in the quieter moments, Niki Caro’s lense seems to capture the huge undertaking of what is essentially an underdog story, still ensuring the smaller character moments are not lost.
Mushu the dragon was a popular character in the 1998 film, but is definitely MIA here. Whilst the film loses some of its zany humour because of this, it feels more real and more grounded, something which suits the tone of this film much more. That being said, there are still moments of humour, it’s just a different style to the original. It feels wise of the film however to make it a more serious story, focusing on the themes and values that make it so memorable. The inclusion of Mushu would’ve felt incredibly out of place, and for those mourning the absence of him, the original still exists so don’t worry!
There are still nods to the original, which are woven throughout with commendable subtlety. There’s visual references, small amounts of recognisable dialogue and of course the familiar notes of the original score. These provide just enough connectivity with the animated film without ever feeling like unnecessary fan-service. More than anything, the choices made in Mulan prove that the film has a reason to exist, and that’s generally enough to satisfy those who question the point of remakes. It provides expansion on elements that make sense to expand on, whilst incorporating the elements so beloved in the original. Perhaps most notably, it doesn’t rely on these elements as a crutch, cementing its own identity from the off, and without being a shot-for-shot remake as so many of the other Disney live action films are.
It is certainly a remake which brings honour to the original, and one that is definitely worth your time. Now whether it is worth that premium price or not is another matter for another time…