I am so thankful for being a 90s kid and being able to own VHS copies of the Disney renaissance movies. That decade is still regarded as Disney’s best work and is looked back upon very fondly, and it was in this decade that one of my all-time favorite animated movies was released: Mulan. When the live-action remake was announced, I got excited and was thrilled to see one of my favorite characters come to life, and I finally got to watch my most anticipated Disney movie in years.
And it sucked. I don’t like it. I really, really, really don’t like this movie. After this, I have no more faith in these live-action remakes. I’ve tolerated them despite their problems, but this was the last straw for me. At least Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin pretty much stayed to the original movie’s script so it wouldn’t mess things up too bad, but this tried a different approach. Though I would have welcomed a different take on the story like Pete’s Dragon and The Jungle Book did, this new take brought dishonor on you, dishonor on your cow, and dishonor on your whole family! (Just to make you aware: there’s no Mushu in the remake. Yes, really.)
Now that I got that off my chest, let’s go into why you should watch the 90s classic instead of this “de-make.” First off, if this really is a remake or a retelling, then the story completely missed the point of the original. I’ve been told that this new version is supposed to represent the original story, but I’m pretty sure there wasn't a Phoenix following Mulan around everywhere (and doing absolutely nothing...even the cricket from the original movie was more useful), and that all of China was threatened by a sorceress who could make her soldiers run up walls like anime warriors. Sorry, no, it’s not more “realistic” to the original story. In fact, the cartoon is more realistic than the “live-action” version. This more fantastical rendition takes away what made the original special to begin with: Mulan being a normal human being, taking on an army of China’s most feared villains, without the help of extraordinary abilities. Both movies centered around female empowerment, but both have completely different executions. In one version, Mulan could take the same amount of punishment as the guys, and she wasn’t any better than them physically. She was more cunning and clever, which enabled her to achieve her accomplishments. In the other version, she overcomes her challenges by using her "chi." Her chi enables her to basically become a Jedi knight, defying gravity and gaining superhuman strength at any given time. This results in a victory earned through sheer luck, since no one else in China’s army is even remotely close to her power level. It’s so frustrating to see one of my favorite childhood heroes, who showed that anyone can do amazing things when they pour their heart into their mission, not earn their accomplishments by pushing themselves to their limits. I really hate comparing two films from two different visionaries, but in this case, I find it necessary. I should be cheering on the protagonist of the movie to keep pushing themselves even against the odds, not sitting around for two hours waiting for them to have an inevitable victory. Obviously, most movies almost guarantee their protagonists will win at the end, but the audience should be wondering how they will win and not have the answer given to them literally in the first five minutes of the story.
Ok, so the movie’s message falls flat when compared to the original. Is it still enjoyable? I certainly think it has its moments. I’ve always loved the Asian aesthetic, and this movie certainly has that, since parts of it were filmed in China. It’s a great looking film, with rich reds and fantastic set designs. The visual effects can be hit-or-miss which really surprised me, considering how much money was put into this motion picture. The aforementioned Phoenix can appear very fake in some shots, making the whole symbolism behind the mythological bird seem very cheesy and unnecessary. The battles and the CGI-effects in them are convincing enough, but honestly, I wish they had more practical kung-fu fighting. Heck, they cast Donnie Yen in this movie, whose martial arts skills are extremely impressive, and he only gets to swing a sword around, displaying his swordsmanship by slicing and dicing…the air. What was even the point of hiring him? They could’ve gotten someone a lot cheaper to swing a sword around in front of the camera. Due to Mulan’s "chi," the fights, though admittedly entertaining, are just not very memorable, as she utilizes her powers instead of her skills. At times, this movie can be very exciting, but there were a lot of missed opportunities to showcase the skill and intelligence of this legendary soldier.
Speaking of Donnie Yen, the cast is quite good. Each actor gives a great performance, possibly thinking in the back of their minds how important this movie would be to the younger viewers. Liu Yifei does a great job of portraying this tough-as-nails rendition of the Disney “princess.” However, her seriousness made me laugh out loud in a key scene because of how over-the-top it was. This is by no means a criticism of the actress; I blame the cheesy acting on director Niki Caro, who instructed Yifei to do what she did. I believe the direction of this movie holds back Yifei, as I can see her talent for acting shine in other places of the movie. She isn’t the only one held back by the production of this film. Her co-stars also are hindered. As talented as these actors are, I feel like they weren’t given scenes to really showcase their acting ability. Sure, there were funny and even touching moments, but more often than not those moments were reflections (see what I did there?) of the original film. Because of those scenes’ similarities, it’s not as captivating because it invokes a sense of deja vu, which leads to “oh I’ve seen this before” moments. This resulted in boredom for me because I knew what to expect. The new scenes focus primarily on Mulan and her struggle to keep her femininity a secret, which doesn’t help us connect to the supporting characters since we’re not given time to fully understand them. Overall, you can definitely see the effort being put on display, but ultimately, the performances aren’t memorable due to the movie’s lack of opportunities for the characters to grow and become lovable. But thank goodness we have those new Phoenix shots scattered throughout the whole movie to make up for it! Forget character development. More CGI birds please!
The latest remake from Disney falls flat for me. As the minutes rolled by, my mind kept racing back towards the original and how much better the scenes were played out, especially the ending. After failing to fully defeat the Huns and being abandoned by her peers, Mulan pushed herself harder than before, and due to her craftiness and training, she was able to overcome the impossible odds and save China. Her victory was earned, and when the nation bowed to her, they essentially bowed to someone who you and I probably pass by while shopping at a store or walking in a park. She was a mere woman, without any special abilities, yet she managed to triumph in what seemed a hopeless situation.
Mulan’s story of overcoming expectations still resonates with me and so many others after all of these years. Thankfully, we still have the original version accessible, and I have no doubt it will continue to inspire new generations. I really wish the remake was as inspired by the original as I still am today.