China is invaded by the Huns led by the fearsome, Shan Yu (Miguel Ferrer). As a result, the emperor (Pat Mortia) decrees that one man from every family be enlisted in the army. The only male in Mulan’s family is her father (Soon-Tek Oh), who’s limp guarantees that he will die in combat. So in the middle of the night, Mulan (Ming-Na Wen) disguises herself as a man and takes her father’s place. She’s accompanied by a lucky charm in the form of a cricket, and her guardian dragon, Mushu (Eddie Murphy).
Mulan is the penultimate movie in Disney’s renaissance period where they released hit, after hit, after hit. The second half of the era, however, proved a hard follow-up after intense business politics changed the company. Compared to the billion dollar piggy bank of The Lion King, the box-office returns were dwindling with each new release. Despite being dismissed as another stock princess feature, Mulan gained a giant following years later for tackling relevant themes surrounding identity and gender roles…after receiving an endorsement from the popular animated series Rick and Morty. With the live action remake now available on Disney Plus, let’s look back at its inspiration.
Whenever people think of empowering female films, this is brought up for good reason. The story stands the test of time with bombastic battle sequences and quiet character reflection coming together to serve a singular purpose: telling a grand tale of identity. Mulan stands out from the other princesses by risking her life to save her father rather than a man she just met. All the while, venturing into war without combat knowledge. Yet like her fellow soldiers, she has to train alongside them to become a better fighter and build connections. The element of change is more relatable than something like Captain Marvel where there is no character evolution from beginning to end. Learning and developing skills is an important life lesson, whether you are in college or a new career. And Mulan should be the poster example that is taught in classes on how to embrace something outside your comfort zone. The story is also able to balance both dramatic moments with the devastation of war, and comedic timing involving the army. For all the liberties it takes with Guo Maoqian’s ballad, the execution of the message stands above modern media more than twenty years later.
Speaking of humor, the multiple comic reliefs, unlike other films, are distinct from one another. From the soldier trio ranging in size and temperament (Harvey Fierstein, Gedde Watanabe, Jerry Tondo), to the stuck up pencil pusher (James Hong), they all have their own identity when they need to lighten the scenario. Then there’s the dragon in the room, Mushu. People either like or despise this character for various reasons. Coming off of Robin Williams as the Genie in Aladdin, Disney pushed for more celebrities in their movies for older crowds. Those who despise Mushu find him to be out of place in ancient Chinese history, but he is a useful sidekick that can dish out entertaining one liners. His conniving, scheming and ambitious nature is all the more fascinating because he is still likeable, unlike in the sequel where he is the main villain. He also has great chemistry with Mulan as they try to help each other in their masquerade to achieve their goals: she wants to become a soldier, he wants to become a guardian. They offset each other perfectly. Meanwhile, the villain, Shan-Yu proves to be an intimidating force with his army and ruthless strength. In spite of that, he could’ve used more screen time and a fleshed out personality compared to the rest of the renaissance antagonists.
Along with the empowering story, people remember the music and songs. Composer Jerry Goldsmith weaves a score that’s awe-inspiring, mysterious, somber, intense, and calming throughout Mulan’s journey. The songs, written by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel, are the key in progressing the story. Bring Honor to Us All and Reflection brilliantly contrasts society’s expectations with Mulan’s identity crisis. A Girl Worth Fighting For wins the award for most jarring tonal whiplash in Disney history. Finally, the stand out number I’ll Make a Man Out of You has more than left its mark on society. It montages the training the army endures, the music and lyrics are invigorating, and it’s the turning point in Mulan’s development. Even Team Four Star put their own spin on the it with Dragon Ball Z Abridged. The only number that feels out of place is at the end with the pop song True to Your Heart. On its own, its a catchy tune, but its placement feels like encountering a time machine.
Being from the renaissance period, the animation is top notch with the backgrounds utilizing water colors to their full potential. The landscapes are vast and the action sequences benefit the most in cinematic widescreen. The timing perfectly aids the comedy when it comes to the army and how they learn from one another. This is the kind of animation that showcases what Disney can accomplish at its peak when telling a timeless tale.
Though it didn’t find its footing until years later, Mulan is still a welcome edition to the renaissance collection. The empowering story holds up twenty years later with a relatable lead, grand animation, memorable songs, diverse comedic relief, and a brute villain. For anyone who grew up with this and now has kids of their own, this is an easy recommendation. For any newcomers, don’t expect a faithful adaptation of the tale since this is told from a western perspective. If you can accept that, then you will be in for a story that treats both its message and main character with dignity and grace.
Pros: Jerry Goldsmith’s Score, empowering story, grand animation, diverse comic relief, brute villain powerful dramatic moments, evolving main character, memorable songs
Cons: Out of placing ending song, under developed
In keeping in line with their live-action remakes, Disney brought their sword wielding heroine to the realm of reality in 2020. Originally slated for theaters, Mulan was sent to Disney Plus following the corona virus outbreak, with a premium access price of thirty dollars (it became free on December 4th). Several controversies surrounding the film went viral because they were tied to the Hong Kong protests, including a scathing quote from the lead actress supporting police brutality. Legions of die hard fans were also disappointed that Disney would omit key elements from the original such as Shang Li, Mushu and the songs. This remake had a lot going against it before release. However, after witnessing The Lion King rely on not taking risks, there is still potential for this remake to break the mold of mediocrity by trying something different for a change. So how does it hold up on its own and compared to its animated counterpart?
A group of Rourans led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott) and the witch Xianniang (Gong Li) attack China, forcing the emperor (Jet Li) to recruit one man from every family for an army. In order to save her father (Tzi Mai), Mulan (Liu Yifei) steals his armor in the middle of the night and disguises herself as a man to take his place. Only this time, instead of learning alongside the other soldiers, she’s always been a great warrior from the start because…she possesses powerful chi…?
For those who wanted a more serious take on the tale, everything was set in place to make this stand out from the crowd. Unfortunately, from the first three minutes, this completely misses the point of the character while somehow being thirty minutes longer. What makes Mulan relatable is that she is a normal human being that has to learn something new for to protect her family. But now that she’s given the Captain Marvel “Feminism” makeover, what character progression is there? None. She’s stoic to a fault and nothing about her is explored outside of her fighting skills. Take away those skills, and what character are you left with? Nothing. We don’t know her likes, dislikes, dreams, or personality. All we know is that she can wield a sword. People complain that there’s no female representation in media when in reality, there’s no female arch representation in media. You can have strong female characters, but if you are unwilling to show how they became strong through their flaws and struggles, then you’re creating a dangerous new stereotype: Something people can’t relate to because they’re not human, they’re robotic. For all the flack people give past Disney princesses, at least they’re more relatable in character compared to this. If nothing about this version of Mulan can be improved, why are we rooting for her? So she can save her father? That crucial detail is constantly butchered along with other important narrative moments. She’s not a character, she a toy being sold on a market without trying anything different from the animated heroine.
Because Mulan has no character development, you can forget about her connections with the other soldiers. Yao, Cheng Po and Ling are relegated to minor callbacks that disappear as soon as they’re introduced. Whatever new additions are added have no significant effect on the story: Mulan’s sister, the captain, and even the colorful phoenix. For all the effort put into the new villains, they are disposable compared to Shan Yu. There’s a witch that mirror’s Mulan’s struggle in the army, but because she’s “already perfect”, it barely has any impact. Strangely enough, director Niki Caro has already helmed this familiar story with Whale Rider. So what happened here? One would think that this would add more material from Guo Maoqian’s ballad, but instead it take out what originally offended the Chinese without adding significant substance. If it didn’t want to be a musical, fine. If it didn’t want Mushu, fine. If it wanted a new general, fine. But these videos prove that no artistic merit had any say in what would change this story:
This feels less like its own adaptation and more like a key molded to unlock the Chinese market, which has been growing in entertainment over the last decade. Politics clearly had more influence on this than filmmakers did. Even with these changes, it still flopped in China. In trying to appease one audience, this fails to satisfy any audience.
If the story is butchered, surely the action would make up for it right? Yes and no. For a two-hundred million dollar epic, the action is stylized yet Disneyfied. The lack of blood brings the PG-13 rating into question between the admirable stunts and inconsistent special effects. If this wanted to be a gritty remake, it would’ve gone further in showcasing the cost of war with more blood, visible casualties, and characters to root for when they charge into battle. This is softcore PG rather than a mature retelling deserving of a PG-13 medal.
Mulan 2020 is proof that more effort goes into two seconds of animation than two hour of live-action, further cementing Disney’s reputation of failing to understand what makes their animated films classics when attempting to add a new spin. It’s just as terrible as 2019’s The Lion King for opposite reasons. While the shots are beautiful and the action is adequate, it comes at too high of a cost. The story is on auto-pilot, the acting is wooden, the violence is disneyfied, the new additions are pointless, the pacing is poor, and worst of all, the main character’s progression is completely assassinated for the sake of “Girl power”. Again, there is more to a strong female character than just having them strong at the beginning. Their struggle and personality is what makes them identifiable rather than stoic propaganda. This was clearly made just to tap into the Chinese market, except it backfired. So not only do Chinese movie goers hate this, but westerners who were open to a new direction are instead left with corporate table scraps. Scraps that had the gal to charge thirty dollars on top of a subscription when the better movie is already available on the same platform. It’s not only a disservice to feminism; it’s a disservice to animation by pretending to be “grown-up” without the struggle the original Mulan went through. To those who liked this movie, I would love to hear your reasons out of curiosity as well as what separates this female character from all those listed below:
Aside from that, this is a disgrace. It may look like progressiveness, but it will never stand on its own or against its superior animated counterpart.
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