“There have been many tales of the great warrior Mulan. But ancestors, this one is mine.” Thus acting legend and perennial Chinese dad Tzi Ma kicks off Mulan, Disney’s sweeping live-action remake of its beloved 1998 animated classic. While recorded in English like the rest of this fully Hollywood-ized blockbuster, had subtitles been needed for Ma’s opening line, the most accurate translation would have read “WE’RE BEGGING YOU, PLEASE DON’T COMPARE THIS TO THE ORIGINAL MOVIE!”.

That bit of imagined peril on Disney’s part may be for naught though as Mulan is good. As good as ye olde animated flick? I could say “No” as this film does boast some issues, but I’m maybe the wrong person to answer that question. In any other year, one of the CH writers who had actually watched the animated version more than once over two decades ago would have penned this review to properly judge whether the Mouse House’s latest live-action effort lives up to its Oscar-nominated forebear. But thanks to an acute case of 2020, I was all that was available for this assignment. I know my Mushu from my Matchmaker though, so I can get by.

Only one of those mentioned characters actually appears in this rousing-but-flawed update on the Ballad of Mulan, the romantic Chinese myth to which director Niki Caro and her writing team have turned to with scholarly fervour. In fact, this is remarkably less of a live-action remake of a kids cartoon than it is a sweeping adaptation of a dramatic 4th-century wuxia epic. There are no Eddie Murphy-voiced dragons, nobody’s being made into a man via choreographed song and dance numbers. What we do have is breathtaking visual splendour, a stirring orchestral score (taking cues from the original’s songs), and plenty of dancerly martial arts. Maybe I’m more qualified than I thought.

Liu Yifei (somehow 33-years old in real life despite her youthful looks here) brings to life Hua Mulan, a boisterous young woman possessed of exceptional Chi. As her wounded war hero father Zhou (Ma) explains, Chi is “the boundless energy of life itself.” Unlike her only other sibling, reserved younger sister Xiu (Xana Tang), Mulan is positively overflowing with the stuff, enhancing her every emotion and preternatural feats of martial prowess. This is much to the dismay of fussing mother Li (Rosalind Chao) who worries that Mulan’s uncontainable spirit will dash her chances of being matched up with a good husband one day. “Chi is for warriors, not daughters”, Mulan is chided.

Warriors are what the Emperor (a strangely muted Jet Li) is in need of though when a force of Rouran nomadic raiders start spreading murderous chaos along the Silk Road. At their head is Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), a revenge-driven baddie’s baddie, complete with malevolent facial hair and a collection of scars that I’m sure spell out the words “evil villain” in the right light. Subtle in characterization, he is not. At his side, and the key to his success, is Xian Lang (Gong Li), a shapeshifting witch who is kept subservient – despite her power – simply because of how society has shunned her for her gifts.

In response to Khan’s reign of terror, the Emperor has decreed that a man from every family is to be conscripted. Knowing that her dutiful-but-hobbled father will not survive another bout of military service for his country though, Mulan absconds with his armour, his conscription letter, and the family heirloom sword. Disguising herself as a young man, the newly dubbed “Hua Jun” enlists as her family’s recruit, much to the pride of Commander Tung (Donnie Yen), her new commanding officer and her father’s old war buddy. Cue Mulan’s amusingly stressful attempts at keeping up the facade of Hua Jun amongst her new squadmates, especially the as-handsome-as-he-is-skilled recruit Chen Hongui (Yoson An) who finds an unexpected ass-kicking equal on the training ground in the diminutive new guy who suspiciously never showers with the rest of the men resulting in a running joke of body stench.

In fact, it’s the joshing between Mulan/Jun and her compatriots as they are transformed from bumbling novices to effective warriors that provides some of the movie’s few moments of levity. Caro and co play this one pretty serious and dramatic for the most part, which admittedly does rob it of some potential charm in places. The lack of wisecracking animal sidekicks become even more pronounced thanks to the new addition of a phoenix which is supposed to be a familial spirit guide throughout Mulan’s journey, but ends up feeling like an ineffectual CGI screensaver.

The dud of that phoenix is balanced out by Caro’s fantastic staging of grand wuxia battles, her camera flipping and spinning through the action with the same swooping gravity-defying prowess of combatants on-screen. The action is robbed a fraction of its oomph though by keeping things a noticeably bloodless PG-13. It’s a Disney family film though, so what can you do?

And those families will be here to see Mulan herself… who is unfortunately slightly problematic. Turning the character from the plucky normal girl that she was in the animated film, who persevered over gender prejudice through nothing but sheer courage and force of will, into a super-kung-fu-powered heroine, does undercut her arc of personal growth and the very theme at the heart of this film. It also doesn’t help that said arc feels a little rushed and heavy-handed in places. Instead, it’s Li’s witchy Xian who gets the more nuanced and compelling character work – the best in the film, in fact. Her mirrored story helps to propel Mulan’s.

You can’t fault Yifei for this misbalance though. Her Mulan is a simmering blend of emotion, action, and grace. Even when not flying through the air with slickly-choreographed balletic wire-fu fisticuffs, she’s hard to look away from. Some of her co-stars occasionally fumble in their thespian deliveries – not the effortlessly charming An though – but Yifei nails it. Well, as well as she can when using the laughably see-through disguise of Jun which seemed a lot more believable when in animated form.

And speaking of unbelievable, Caro and cinematographer Mandy Walker create eye-popping masterpieces of light and colour with every scene here. Coupled with a level of costume and production design opulence that justifies every cent of the film’s $200 million price tag, this is easily one of the most visually spectacular films of the year. Unfortunately, it’s in a year in which a large percentage of the world will be viewing this at home on Disney+ instead of the expansive IMAX real estate that this gorgeous artistry deserves. Disney can’t be too happy about that one.

And right back at them since there are going to be a lot of people not happy with Disney simply because it’s hard to divorce this film’s artistic achievements from its political pitfalls. While ensuring an appropriately all-Chinese cast instead of the yikes-worthy mixed blend of ethnicities in the first film is one of several great steps, there have been some other questionable decisions in the film’s production. Most head-scratchingly is a very problematic mid-credits Chinese government shout-out that will definitely anger and potentially drive away audience members. And that’s a pity because Mulan is that rare of Disney live-action remakes that doesn’t feel like a slavish shot-by-shot ripoff of the original, too afraid to have its own voice. Like its namesake mythological heroine leaping into battle, Mulan manages to fly over its flaws and kick some butt.

Last Updated: September 11, 2020

Mulan
By not being so obsessed with that "live-action remake" description as some of its peers, director Niki Caro's Mulan is appreciably its own thing. And as a result, despite a questionable revamped superhero-like origin story angle on-screen and some worrying politics off-screen (among some other fumbles), Mulan is still a rousing, beautiful, uplifting film led wonderfully by star Liu Yifei.
7.5
/10
66/ 100

42 Comments

  1. I love how everyone’s upset about the shout out to the Chinese government while back in the US they are keeping kids in cages. Pot, kettle and all that.

    Movie looks cool though. Glad they have gone back to the stories roots and not tried to redo the animated version, as brilliant as that was.

    Reply

    • Insomnia is fun

      September 11, 2020 at 09:40

      I love how Hollywood is all for social justice, but not one of those posers there’s speak out against China.

      Reply

      • Weanerdog

        September 11, 2020 at 09:49

        It’s the hypocrisy that gets me.

        Reply

        • Insomnia is fun

          September 11, 2020 at 10:11

          Same

          Reply

    • Quentin Huggett

      September 11, 2020 at 10:26

      There is a large difference between the human rights abuses going on in china and america. Its not even in the same ball park. So while its true that in ALL countries there are human rights problems, comparing what happens in China to USA is like comparing murder to theft because they both against the law. Get some perspective man.

      Reply

      • RinceThis

        September 11, 2020 at 10:26

        Um, no. Kids in cages in America, or kids in detention centers in China are both bad. No perspective is needed there. Human rights abuses are human rights abuses, the false equiveillance of a murder to theft is to underplay both.

        Reply

        • Quentin Huggett

          September 11, 2020 at 10:33

          No because kids in cages in USA is a half truth. And no it is not a false equivalence. There is a large difference between hold illegal aliens in a detention center, and an actual concentration retraining camps. Besides the massive difference in level of violence and abuse, the man difference is the intent behind them. Intent matters. Again get some perspective.

          Reply

          • Son of Banana Jim

            September 11, 2020 at 11:24

            Yeah, the way those detention centres were portrayed by the media and what they’re really like is actually pretty shameful. If you read any of the reports it literally made them sound like mini-guantanamo Bays.

      • Weanerdog

        September 11, 2020 at 10:33

        Perspective, no. I will not overlook something because something else is worse. That’s just plain wrong thinking. Where do you draw the line. Who decides on this line. People being terrible to each other is not okay.

        Reply

        • For the Emperor!

          September 11, 2020 at 12:17

          “Who decides on this line” – the ones using phones made with Chinese “Slave and child” Labour

          *half said in jest, other half because those complaining about the human rights are using said devices without blinking*

          Reply

        • Quentin Huggett

          September 11, 2020 at 10:33

          I didn’t say over look anything. I said get some perspective. Intent matters.

          Reply

          • Weanerdog

            September 11, 2020 at 11:15

            You are disagreeing with my point of view based on magnitude. I understand what you are saying. The kids in cages is merely one example of the atrocities that the US had committed or been party to. If you are the one in the cage, the black kid being shot because you have a toy or the family being bombed because the neighbours wouldn’t let the US put missiles in their country in the 60s, I’m sure that feels as bad as being persecuted for your religion in China. Or any other crimes against humanity across the world based solely on someone else not liking you because you look, or act, or worship or have sex differently. These are all wrong. There is no perspective.

          • Son of Banana Jim

            September 11, 2020 at 11:15

            Absolutely, there’s also a case to be made that because of the detention centres and how they processed adults and children (and pushed for due process – ensuring that they were actually families), it curbed the illegal use of children by traffickers. It wasn’t just a case of children travelling with their parents, but even children being used by human traffickers to cross the US/Mexican border. The fact that the US came so hard on the practice, may have saved the lives of countless children throughout South America.

            But to say that the Chinese concentration camps is the same as the detention centres for illegals (or that the outrage is comparable) is just… wow…. There’s a way to make a point, and then there’s just being dishonest.

            That’s pure sophistry, bud!

          • Quentin Huggett

            September 11, 2020 at 11:32

            But there is perspective, because the intent behind those things matter, and the extent of the harm caused matters. This is why we have difference between 1st, 2nd and 3rd degree murder. You cant compare the result of things in a vacuum. You have to look at why and the context at the time of the why and the how. Easy to look back at history with today standards and say omg those people were disgusting and terrible. But doing so with out the context is just plain wrong. Understand had you been a German in the 1940’s the likelihood of you being a nazi is close to 100%. Very few have the conviction the fortitude and the chance to stand up in the face of such things. Most were destroyed very quickly or were swept along with it. I do get what you are saying, their is to much hypocrisy in the world right now. The Chinese government though is deserving of criticism, as indeed are the US companies such as Disney that profit off doing business with china, yet virtue signal about social justice issues in western countries. That’s were the biggest hypocrisy is right now.

          • Weanerdog

            September 11, 2020 at 12:09

            Okay, we are discussing human atrocities, I’m going to assume that these things are in fact planned. My reference to magnitude is the number of persons involved not the level of harm caused. Also these are mutually exclusive events. We are allowed to be against both. We don’t have to choose.

            I think it’s important to look back at history so that we don’t become those people that you refer to.

          • MechMachine

            September 11, 2020 at 18:07

        • For the Emperor!

          September 11, 2020 at 12:17

          “Who decides on this line” – the ones using phones made with Chinese “Slave and child” Labour

          *half said in jest, other half because those complaining about the human rights are using said devices without blinking*

          Reply

          • Weanerdog

            September 11, 2020 at 12:23

            Guilty as charged. But I suppose we are all slaves to the options available. And those are all made in China. I suppose shouting in the internet is just a way for us to distance ourself from our guilt.

            Edit: I actually reference it ironically below.

    • RinceThis

      September 11, 2020 at 10:26

      It’s a tricky one. There are reportedly 2 million people locked up in that area and I’d be pretty pissed if the local municipality then got a shout out and pat on the back for great work on a movie if my family was locked up. It’s not adding any international pressure to stop what’s happening there, it’s literally ignoring it, where as the shit that is happening in America IS being criticized internationally and actually reported on.

      Reply

    • Son of Banana Jim

      September 11, 2020 at 11:06

      I think it’s good to be conscious of the past, the rights violations that occurred (especially in the last 10 years, particularly with how the Obama administration treated border jumpers and their children), or the mistakes that were made, but I really dislike this sort of “whataboutism”. It’s not even a question of comparing apple vs oranges. There’s clearly something horribly wrong in China, especially with how they treat minorities and political dissidents, and if people are waking up to that fact and putting pressure on China for it.

      Good!

      Reply

      • Weanerdog

        September 11, 2020 at 11:15

        How is boycotting an American movie putting pressure on China?

        Reply

        • Son of Banana Jim

          September 11, 2020 at 11:15

          It’s putting pressure on American companies to stop trading with a country that’s clearly not good news, and it highlights a very serious human rights violation that’s happening RIGHT now.

          One of the interesting things about China, is that their leadership hates controversy. They’d rather not have any of this discussed inside or outside of China. That’s the key to all of this. The fact that China is under this much scrutiny is probably making those in the CCP very uncomfortable.

          The world at large was never supposed to know these camps exist, nor were we ever supposed to know that people were experimented on (through extremely unethical medical experiments) or that as part of their torture strategy that Uyghur women were raped by Chinese officials.

          Reply

          • Weanerdog

            September 11, 2020 at 11:24

            Sorry can’t hear you over the noise of your Chinese components in your electronic device. Yes I acknowledge the irony.

            My point is not that China is not a fucking terrible place, it’s that the hypocrisy that people get on their high horse to make a scene about something that is irrelevant, while using those countries products and patents. This actually paying for those fucking things to happen. And also at the same time turning a blind eye to similar shit that is going on in there own back yard.

            I’m sorry you failed to grasp that concept. This isn’t whataboutism it’s about only getting upset when it doesn’t affect you and then only doing so in a meaningless manner.

          • Son of Banana Jim

            September 11, 2020 at 11:24

            I’m sure those were the same arguments made by US isolationists about what was happening in Nazi Germany. Also, calm down champ. No need for foul language.

            “My point is not that Nazi Germany is not a fucking terrible place, it’s that the hypocrisy that people get on their high horse to make a scene about something that is irrelevant, while using those countries products and patents. This actually paying for those fucking things to happen. And also at the same time turning a blind eye to similar shit that is going on in there own back yard.”

          • Weanerdog

            September 11, 2020 at 11:32

            Firstly swearing is part my vocabulary, please don’t be offended is not cause you’re special.

            Secondly, your arguement is purely based on logical fallacy that you use to incite a fight. You don’t debate but are merely confrontational. You don’t address any relevant points but nitpick details. And then you make outlandish statements that are neither true nor relevant. You tactics are the same are creationalism because they are studied.

            I am not going to fight.

            I stand by my point that human atrocities are human atrocities regardless of who causes them or to which magnitude.

            You can stay with China bad me clever.

          • Son of Banana Jim

            September 11, 2020 at 11:49

            Cough, you mean “creationism”… Also, you’ve made just over three logical errors in under three posts. ? See if you can identify them https://media1.giphy.com/media/3NtY188QaxDdC/giphy.gif

          • Son of Banana Jim

            September 11, 2020 at 11:32

            But it does highlight another issue that we should be more conscious about where our products come from. Clearly, how products are being produced
            (and where) is something most people are completely ignorant of.

            Hopefully, these sort of controversies will mean we become less eager to have goods produced in China. But we won’t get there with whataboutism and sophistry.

          • Alien Emperor Trevor

            September 11, 2020 at 12:09

            Is it necessarily hypocrisy instead of maybe just picking your battles? There’s any number of issues someone can care about to varying degrees, and they raise those issues at their discretion. Imagine how mentally exhausting and damaging to your own health it would be to focus on potential negative aspects of everything in life – we all put up barriers for our own protection and they’re rarely consistent.

            As an example: I can enjoy watching a movie with kiddie fiddling Kevin Spacey in it, but I can’t bring myself to carry on watching House of Cards which also starred him and I was really enjoying.

          • Alien Emperor Trevor

            September 11, 2020 at 11:32

  2. Original Heretic

    September 11, 2020 at 09:19

    I’ve been hearing/reading that China may even ban this movie, due to all the negative press it’s getting because of that “thank you”.

    Reply

    • Insomnia is fun

      September 11, 2020 at 09:26

      They banned all coverage so far because of the backlash

      Reply

      • Son of Banana Jim

        September 11, 2020 at 11:15

        Yeah, the CCP would rather that those in China be completely in the dark about the controversy. It wouldn’t surprise me if the concentration camps are portrayed as re-education camps or some sort of protection scheme for minority groups in China.

        Reply

  3. Insomnia is fun

    September 11, 2020 at 09:40

    Did they even bother bringing back McDonald’s Szechuan sauce?

    Reply

  4. RinceThis

    September 11, 2020 at 10:33

    Nice review man! From what I’ve seen from other people’s reviews, one of the biggest issues they had was that she is no ‘everyman/woman’. The tale is supposed to be about how you can achieve anything through sheer determination, but this film makes it through ‘she is strong with the force’. Or, in this case, Chi (which is still bloody stupid). Is that the case?

    Reply

  5. For the Emperor!

    September 11, 2020 at 19:12

    Movie is worth a watch (eventually), though the problem mentioned about the “born with it” does put me off a bit.

    I do seem to remember many a movie credits thank the local administrations etc where the movie was shot. “Thank to the *insert local government agencies here*” – it has been done many times. Not sure if every movie has it, but I have seen enough “thanks Ontario board of blabla” and “thanks New York board of blabla” that this should hardly be seen as political cow-towing…

    Reply

  6. Grant [_G_] Hancock

    September 14, 2020 at 09:00

    The original Mulan is my wife’s favorite film and we loved watching this new version. I thought Liu Yifei was a fantastic lead, and always great to see Donnie Yen on screen.

    Reply

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