I’m sure there were others at the time, but to me it very much feels like Mulan was the first high profile casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic. I mentioned in my March review of System Crasher that I had expected to be watching Disney’s big new remake on that weekend, but here we finally are six months later! I might be back in the cinema now, but Disney+ was chosen as the home for this long awaited picture. As I pressed play, I hoped beyond hope that the wait was going to be worth it.
As I am sure we all know, Mulan tells the story of Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei), a young woman who disguises herself as a male soldier to take the place of her ageing, injured father (Tzi Ma) after the Emperor of China (Jet Li) issues a decree to defend the country from Northern invaders.
I won’t beat around the bush, guys. The wait was not worth it. I’m not going to hide the fact that I am a huge fan of the 1998 animated version, so a lot of this review is going to be a comparative exercise between the two, but even as a stand alone feature, Mulan is an incredible disappointment. Let’s start with the comparisons, shall we? I’m not exaggerating when I say that every single important beat of this story was executed better twenty-two years ago. Moments like Mulan’s decision to transform herself, the iconic training montage, the final battle, each and every one is a pale imitation of what we saw in animated form in 1998. I’ve really thought about it, and this isn’t nostalgia talking, it’s just plain facts.
After a relatively strong start and good introduction to the protagonist, something starts to happen; the film just ever so slowly starts to become, well, boring. This boredom, I’m sorry to say, never subsides. In an attempt to maintain a fairly grounded, serious tone, 2020’s Mulan has forgotten what made its animated counterpart so beloved by millions, its sense of fun amidst the drama and fighting. In principal, I have no problem with taking away Mushu, with taking away the musical numbers, but what I do have a problem with is not replacing these things with anything new or exciting. Of course, it doesn’t help when Reflection and I’ll Make A Man Out You are arguably two of the best Disney songs of all time. The score teases the audience with references to the 1998 tracks, adding a further touch of annoyance to the current blandness of what you are watching on the screen.
I don’t have the time or the patience to dive into every single thing that I didn’t like about Mulan, but suffice to say, it was not an experience that I enjoyed at all. There is a degree of admiration for not simply opting for a carbon copy of the animated version, but the directions taken were simply not directions that I wanted to go in. The pacing is wild, it is 25 minutes too long, the emotional stakes are never fully fleshed out, and most damning of all, the meat of the film is just plain boring. It’s not a disaster, it’s just at best boring, and at worst, comically bad. Some of the key sequences in the final third in particular were just a ridiculous waste of action.
As Mulan, Liu Yifei does a perfectly fine job without her performance ever really becoming a superstar turn. Seeing as the filmmakers opted to scrap some of the most iconic character moments from the animated predecessor, we’ll never know how cool it would have been to see Liu in an extended ‘decision to go to battle’ scene or a more exciting training montage scene. She does well with the material that was provided, and to be honest that’s all I can really say.
The rest of the cast is peppered with notable names, some familiar to Western audiences like Jet Li and Donnie Yen, others more familiar to Eastern audiences like Gong Li. It’s worth stressing that all actors involved in Mulan do a good job in front of the camera. There are no really bad performances, but at the same time, perhaps with the exception of Gong Li as new story character Xian Lang, nobody does anything particularly special to stand out from the crowd.
Overall, I think you can tell that I was less than impressed with this Mulan remake. It lacked fun, it lacked real spectacle and it lacked a lot of life and epic excitement that I was expecting. At this point, I think I’m the fool for still holding out hope that these relentless Disney rehashes are ever going to be anything other than meh. I’m more frustrated than anything else, because even more so than the likes of Beauty And The Beast and Aladdin, I really thought that there was a great live action film to be made out of Mulan. Perhaps there still is, but it’s certainly not this one.