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Review: Mulan (Digital Release)

November 11, 2020

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Disney’s Mulan, the studio’s big budget live action remake of their 1998 animated classic, has had a pretty rough time getting in front of audiences. The film became one of the first major cinematic casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic when its theatrical release got cancelled back in March, forcing it to spend several months in limbo as the studio tried to secure a new date.

When plans for a theatrical release over the summer fell through, the studio decided to release the film directly on Disney Plus for a premium price instead, in a major shakeup to the theatrical distribution model. Now the film is being released across digital platforms and on Blu-ray this week, before being made available for all Disney+ subscribers in December.

I say all of this because it feels like we have been waiting ages for Mulan, (I had been invited to a press screening back in March that got cancelled when theatres were forced to close), and to tell you the honest truth, the wait for this blockbuster that could have been hasn’t entirely been worth it. This is not to say that Mulan is a bad film, because it’s not, and from a visual standpoint at least, it can be quite an attractive one. But it also feels mostly unnecessary and somewhat hollow, especially compared to the superior animated film.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t really a direct remake of the animated film, but rather a new adaptation of The Ballad of Mulan, the Chinese folktale upon which both movies are based. The basic story remains the same, following a free-spirited young woman named Mulan (Yifei Liu) in Imperial China. Her family feels ashamed by her “un-ladylike” behaviour, and is trying desperately to transform her into the perfect bride so that she can be married off

Facing an invasion by Rouran warriors (updated from Huns in the animated film) led by Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), the Imperial Army orders every household to give one man for battle. With her father (Tzi Ma) too frail to fight, Mulan disguises herself as a man and decides to take his place, stealing his sword and armour and sneaking off at night on horseback to join the fight.

Despite having to keep her identity a closely guarded secret, including not being able to shower with the male soldiers lest she give herself away, Mulan is sent on a journey to protect the Emperor (Jet Li) and restore honour to her family. The film also features an added adversary in the form of a shapeshifting witch named Xianniang (Li Gong), who takes the form of a bird. She is a new addition to the story, but the character feels underdeveloped, like an idea that worked better in theory than in practise.

Directed by New Zealand filmmaker Niki Caro, whose breakout film Whale Rider seems like somewhat of a blueprint for this one, this live action version of Mulan aims to be a more grounded retelling of the classic story. For example, Caro has omitted the animated film’s musical numbers, along with much of that film’s humour, and the dragon sidekick Mushu. While these elements wouldn’t have necessarily translated well to live action anyways, they are also some of the things that gave the animated version a lot of its character, and without them this film feels somewhat bland.

Caro’s film tries to strike a more serious tone, which makes the more cartoony moments of humour seem somewhat out of place. Several of the changes that she makes also feel like needless updates, including the removal of Captain Li Shang, Mulan’s love interest from the animated film and a fan favourite character who has been claimed by many as a bisexual icon. Producer Jason T. Reed raised eyebrows with fans when he explained that, in the age of #MeToo, it wouldn’t be appropriate to have a love interest who is also a commanding officer.

But this reasoning is quite puzzling, because there was literally nothing remotely predatory about their relationship in the animated film, and it was actually one of the more intriguing aspects of the original for the way that he appeared to start falling in love with Mulan as a man. Li Shang has been replaced by two new characters; Commander Tung (Donnie Yen), who takes on a sort of paternal role to Mulan, and Honghui (Yoson An), a soldier who tries to befriend her. Though I would add that the interest Honghui shows in Mulan while she is disguised as a man still allows for the character to be read as bisexual, so at least this aspect hasn’t been entirely erased.

In other regards though, this version does remove some of the original film’s queer subtext. While you could argue that it wasn’t intended as such, many fans have taken on the animated film as a transgender allegory, interpreting Mulan not as someone disguising themselves as male, but rather someone who wishes they had been born male. While you could still read these themes into the live action version, much of this subtext has been written out in favour of a more straight-forward “girl power” narrative that leans into the idea of Mulan simply dressing up as a guy out of necessity.

For example, in the animated film, Mulan actually cut her hair before joining the army, where in this film she keeps her long hair and lets it down as she rides into battle. The key to understanding the deeper transgender allegory in the animated film actually lies in the song “Reflection.” The song has been taken up as an unofficial trans anthem, with lyrics including “who is that girl I see, staring straight back at me, why is my reflection someone I don’t know?” and “when will my reflection show, who I am inside?” suggesting something deeper going on than just dress up.

Christina Aguilera still sings an updated pop version of “Reflection” over the end credits, as she did in the animated version as well. But, while an instrumental version of the tune becomes a recurring motif in the orchestral score by composer Harry Gregson-Williams, who does a decent job of building upon the late Jerry Goldsmith’s music in the first one, the song itself isn’t featured within this film’s narrative. The stirring production number of “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” is also greatly missed.

I must give credit where credit is due though, and as I mentioned earlier, Mulan is often appealing on a visual level. The film does feature some impressive widescreen cinematography by Mandy Walker, with her camera even turning sideways to follow warriors up the side of a wall in one striking moment. The film’s colours are incredibly vibrant, including rich reds and golds that pop off the screen. There is also some well choreographed martial arts action, including a few moments in the finale that recall the “wire fu” in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

That said, I would be remiss not to mention the many troubling behind the scenes aspects of Mulan, which do colour our judgement of the film. The film was subject to controversy long before its scheduled release, when lead actress Yifei Liu came out as pro-Beijing during the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, voicing her support for the Hong Kong police who were cracking down on protestors. This was followed by more recent revelations that parts of the film were shot in Xinjiang, close to the site of concentration camps where Uyghur Muslims are being held by the Chinese Communist Party.

Several Chinese government agencies that have been accused of human rights violations even receive “special thanks” in the end credits. While much of the film was shot in New Zealand, the fact that the producers seem to have willfully overlooked the Uyghur genocide in order to shoot some scenes on location in Xinjiang is an egregious example of putting profit over human rights. These things all give credence to the feeling that Mulan was produced merely to capitalize on China’s massive box office market, having been made under the watchful eye of Chinese censors so as not to offend the CCP.

Ironically, the film has also received criticism from some Chinese audiences for making changes to the original story, and for having a white director and key crew. Who, then, is Mulan really for? Like an increasing number of these live action remakes, including last year’s Aladdin and the Disney+ original film Lady and the Tramp, Mulan mostly feels like a needless retread. The film also plays into the unfortunate idea that animation is somehow an incomplete blueprint for a story that is in need of an upgrade.

Right after watching Mulan, I went back and rewatched the original film, and there is little in this live action version that is as stirring as the best moments in the animated one. Alas, even many of the battle scenes were more awe-inspiring in their animated form. This isn’t a bad film, and it is kept watchable thanks to good cinematography and decent action sequences. But it lacks the spark of the animated version, and is clouded in enough controversy to drown out the positive elements, making it one that is hard to really get excited about.

Mulan is now available on Blu-ray, 4K Ultra HD, and a variety of digital platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by Walt Disney Studios Canada.

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