By Robert Vincent
Mulan is an adaptation that does not need to be compared to the original too much. They intended for it to be its own movie, and succeeded for the most part. This might be a reaction from the producers to the reception of The Lion King’s CGI adaptation, which reviewers and audiences chided for being a shot-for-shot remake.
However, being its own film does not excuse it from possessing its own flaws.
A brief contrast worth mentioning, though, is Mulan’s aptitude in martial arts, which she has had since she was young. I was apprehensive going in due to this (the first scene we see is her swinging a staff around) but this does not affect her character too much.
In the original, she has to train before she achieves any skill in warfare, portrayed as a sort of a klutz. Here, she has to hold back so it won’t be discovered that she uses qi, the body’s life essence, which is taboo to be used for warfare.
Her training in the original is a great part of her development, and it is missed, but the other elements of her character arc are highlighted instead. More focus is given to her honoring her family and realizing who she is as a person. It balances out in the end and doesn’t harm her character’s depth.
The film also takes time to develop side characters well, beyond which Disney films usually entail. The villains have motivations beyond being power-hungry. Mulan’s family has its own character arc, in which the family members realize that there is more to honor than men going off to war and women marrying honorable men.
Onto visuals—the set design is meticulously crafted and by far the biggest asset to the film. Great effort went to designing the training camp and the imperial capital, although the latter uses a tad too much CGI. The early set pieces use more practical effects than later on in the film.
And speaking of practicality, the props deserve special mention. Each soldier has a physical set of armor on them, and Mulan’s communal home village feels authentic to the time period. The staff involved with the production design are by far the ones who deserve the most credit.
The shot composition is also very well done. Special note needs to be given to one scene in the middle of the film. After Mulan causes an avalanche and buries the Rouran warriors, a white, snowy fog hangs in the air. This is by far the most visually striking scene in the film. But its use of shot composition and design is sadly only half of its visuals. It has several glaring issues otherwise.
The choreography is cheesy. The film attempts to present realistic Imperial Chinese architecture and aesthetics, but the action is over-the-top. The two elements contrast with each other too much, and you’re left wondering what type of film it’s aiming to be.
The actress who portrays Mulan, Liu Yifei, must not have much skill as an action star, because the final fight with Bori Khan is littered with quick cuts as if they are trying to cover up her lack of choreographic direction. The cuts are so ubiquitous in this fight that it’s hard at times to follow what is going on. This plagues other parts of the film, too, but to a lesser degree.
The brilliance of the set pieces and props are hurt by a bland presentation. The film desperately needs a filter of some sort. It looks like a film from the early 2000s at times. Everything looks so clean and clear that it breaks the immersion in the world.
Although there are moments of humor that are spaced apart well enough not to be jarring, the film still takes itself way too seriously for its overall presentation. Either they should have focused on making the action less cheesy, or they should have introduced more levity.
It wants to have it both ways, and this hurts the film. Using humor similar to the Pirates of the Carib- bean franchise would have given legitimacy to the cheesy action.
The plot works for an action flick. It isn’t anything revolutionary, but it’s not particularly bad. It’s wellpaced, with a distinct three-act structure.
There are a couple of points to nitpick, however, such as the inclusion of qi. This felt too tailored for the sensibilities of the wuxia market (a type of Chinese action movie that mixes mystical powers with kung fu), and it sticks out in
a realistic war story that otherwise had no need for fantastic elements.
Mulan’s switching from being dishonored to leading the army to the capital happened too fast and felt jarring, like they could think of no other way to make it work than to have them say, “Yep, we trust her now.” Just a couple of scenes ago, they abandoned her in a field of snow, and no soldier raised an objection.
The music: nothing really there. The only pieces that stick out are ripped from the original, such as a reprise of Reflection that plays at key moments. I can’t really remember anything else besides a boom that played when she left home.
You get what you came for. The movie doesn’t surprise or subvert with the intention to shock its audience. The elements changed from the animated film do not ruin the original’s themes. It’s an average movie that presents a decent character arc and occasional fun action.
Delays and controversy marred the premiere of the film. Mulan originally should have been released in theaters, but the COVID-19 pandemic relegated it to streaming on Disney+.
Liu Yifei voiced her support for the Hong Kong police force, which has been criticized for restricting democratic freedoms. Filming took place in Xinjiang, which is where the Chinese government has concentration camps.
It is estimated that there could be as many as 3 million in the Xianjing concentration camps. The main group detained there is the Uighur people, a Muslim minority in China. The camps have been described as reeducation camps.
Whether these controversies affect your enjoyment of the film will be up to you. As it stands by itself, separated from the controversy, it’s not really a movie worth fighting for.