Film Review: Mulan (live-action remake)

Did I hear someone ask for a miracle?!

Hello, friends! It’s been a while since I’ve done an actual film review — I think the last time I reviewed a film was around this time, last year, for Star Wars TRoS. But I’m back now, with a new film review — this time for the Mulan live-action remake. (And I always say this at the beginning of my film reviews, but in case it bears repeating — SPOILERS AHEAD. If you’re avoiding spoilers, don’t read on and @ me later.)

Let’s get to it!

A few things to note: I held off watching this until I could watch it for free on Disney+ instead of paying the additional 30 USD. I realize that the production company needed to recoup the money for the film in some way when they chose to release it on a streaming service, but I also thought that this might set a precedent for other streaming services to charge additional fees for some films — and I didn’t want to contribute to that. Also, when I typically spend 30 bucks watching a movie in the theater, that 30 bucks usually includes food (miss you, Alamo Drafthouse). So I don’t think the cost can actually be justified. I’m already paying for a damn Disney+ bundle. Secondly, I also knew going into this that the film was going to be quite different from the original film (which I loved). I knew there wouldn’t be any songs like in the original. I knew there would be no Li Shang (best Disney prince, change my mind). I knew that the villain Shan Yu would be replaced by a witch. So going into this, my expectations weren’t really to compare this to the original film. I went into this as though I was watching a retelling of a story I loved, and honestly, I didn’t have the highest of expectations.

Overall, I didn’t think it was a bad film. I wasn’t necessarily disappointed; I was just left wanting a bit more. I think if you’ve never seen the original, you might enjoy this. And although I’m not expecting this film to be a live-action version of the original, I can’t not compare the live-action remake to the original. And in my opinion, the remake falls quite flat, and I still prefer the original.

My main critique of this film was that it simply was not as emotionally impactful as the original. And I felt this was the case for several reasons. I was disappointed that the film reworked and/or removed a lot of the more hard-hitting scenes from the original. In the original film when Mulan decides to take her father’s place, there’s no dialogue in that entire scene sequence — yet we see exactly what she’s thinking. We don’t need to hear her say anything — the film shows us all we need to know. We see the hurt she feels when she watches her father try to practice his fighting skills — and fall. We know that if her father goes to war, he won’t come home. We don’t need to be told this. The film gives us enough context that we can connect the dots ourselves.

Additionally, in that same scene sequence, we see the exact moment when Mulan chooses to take her father’s place. We see her replace his scroll with her comb. We see her cut off her hair with her father’s sword. We see her donning his armor, and needing to calm down her horse because he doesn’t recognize her. All of those actions, paired with the music, really made that scene hit differently. That scene conveyed so much, in such a clever and nuanced way. It conveyed the fear Mulan and her family had for her father, and the pain and difficulty of this decision for Mulan. It conveyed a sense of resolve in the face of danger. It conveyed the fear Mulan felt for joining the army in her father’s place, yet also how her love for her father was more important than her fear.

In the remake, we get a diet-version of this scene. We don’t see her cut her hair (because she doesn’t — more on this later). We don’t see her trade her dress for her father’s armor. We don’t see her horse afraid of her because he thinks she’s a soldier. All we really see is her, already wearing her father’s armor, praying to the ancestors and then leaving. And then we see, after she’s already gone, her father’s scroll replaced with her comb. And honestly, this rework of the scene just doesn’t hit the same way. I don’t feel any of the emotions that I felt watching the original scene. And the film does this more than once, in several key scenes. It almost feels like the film tells, rather than shows, and as a result, those same scenes and storylines don’t translate well to the audience. I think the remake missed a lot of opportunities for creating or even reimagining these signature scenes, but in a way more emotionally powerful way.

Along the same lines of emotional impact, the conflicts and storylines in this remake just didn’t feel resolved in a way that was satisfying. In the original film, the way Mulan is revealed in her army regime is huge. That whole scene sequence is so cool because it shows her using her strengths — and ultimately her resourcefulness is what saves her army. But that scene is packed with twists and emotion. Initially, we feel triumphant, because Mulan has saved her army and helped defeat the Huns. However, a second later, that triumph is gone and instead we’re gripped with worry because we see Mulan is wounded. Then, it’s an “oh shit” moment, because she’s discovered and abandoned by her army for being a woman and impersonating a soldier. In the span of about five minutes, we’re taken on a damn rollercoaster. And it moves the story forward in such a powerful way.

Like the leaving-her-family scene, in the remake, the defeating-the-enemy-and-being-outed-as-a-woman scene just doesn’t hit the same emotional points as the original. I think that the film wanted to create some kind of empowering moment by having Mulan reveal herself, on her own terms, but I’m not sure it worked. I don’t think she needed this moment to feel empowered; I think she could have felt empowered on her own when she realized that being a warrior was something she could do well, or when she saw that she helped save China. Plus, the fact that Mulan never explained that she impersonated a soldier in order to save her father, just makes that whole plotline feel like it’s not quite resolved. This was one of those instances where it would have helped to tell, rather than relying on the audience to connect the dots. Because we never see the army and her commanding officers, nor the emperor, understand her reasons for leaving home. And she never takes the chance to explain.

Additionally, the scene where she’s revealed as a woman doesn’t convey the same sense of resistance and conflict that the original scene did. In the original film, we see her comrades shocked. We see Li Shang (who trusted Mulan) hurt and betrayed. We see the emperor’s weird assistant feel vindicated, in a way, because he never liked Mulan. And in that instance, we don’t know what’s going to happen to Mulan. We don’t know if she’ll ever regain what she’s lost in this moment.

In the remake, we get the shocked looks from her peers (and a “He’s a girl?” comment from one of her comrades), but there’s no sense that the stakes are high. I didn’t hold my breath in this scene; I wasn’t afraid or uncertain in this scene. In the original, we know that the only reason Mulan is spared is because she saved Li Shang’s life, and so he repays the debt by sparing her. In the remake, we don’t know why they let her off easy if the penalty for impersonating a soldier was supposed to be death. We don’t get a sense that her comrades and her commanding officers feel this huge sense of betrayal; we don’t get the sense that she’s literally just committed treason. She’s just kind of given this half-hearted stern speech and asked to leave. And when she returns to warn her regime that the war is not over, her commanders and her comrades believe her way too quickly. There’s no sense of resistance. There’s no sense that she had to work to convince them. There’s no sense that she’s treated differently now that she’s back to being a woman, no sense of the struggles she deals with again, now that she’s back to being a woman. And while it’s nice that Honghui sticks by her and stands up for her, I feel like that scene would have felt more emotionally satisfying if the stakes felt higher, and he rushed to her defense then. In this scene, they didn’t even bother trying to kill her even though they said that death was the penalty if she ever showed her face there again. It would have been so much more powerful if they pulled a sword on her and Honghui cut in, and made the rest of the regime listen to Mulan. I wish we had been given a more powerful scene here.

Speaking of Mulan’s big gender reveal….I hate that she didn’t cut her hair. I hate that she let her hair down when she finally decided to own who she was, and she FOUGHT THE DAMN BATTLE with her hair flowing in the wind like it was a fucking L’Oreal commercial. Let’s be real here — if any of us women were fighting in a war, WE’D TIE OUR HAIR BACK. We’d have kept the bun. Fighting with long hair down is just not practical. And also, once Mulan reveals herself to be a woman and it’s out in the open, we never see her dirty or wounded again. Her face remains pristine — even though many times during her training, we see her face streaked with sweat and dirt because, duh, she’s fucking TRAINING FOR BATTLE. I hate that the film made a distinction between her disguise and her true self by keeping her glamourous once she revealed herself to be a woman. As though ~wOmEn dOn’T gEt iCky aNd dIrTy~. Ugh. *eyeroll* Can films just portray women like we’re human for once??

Finally, the big old elephant in the room: the witch plot. Not gonna lie, the witch scenes were really cool in terms of cinematography and visual effects. They were stunning to watch. But in terms of the story, I just don’t think that the witch plot was necessary. I don’t think the witch really added anything substantial to the story. It didn’t add a cool twist to the plot. It didn’t drive home the message of the story — although I think it tried to but fell short. I think the writers used this witch plotline to explain why Mulan had these insane warrior abilities…but even then, why give her superhero abilities to begin with? The point of the story wasn’t that Mulan was an amazing warrior who couldn’t fit in. Mulan made an incredible sacrifice and took a huge risk for the person she loved, her father. The point of the story is that love and courage are stronger than fear, and that you can go against the grain and carve out your own path. Mulan didn’t need to be given superhero abilities to drive home this point. The original story, with her training and working and honing her skills, and eventually coming into her own, worked great. It didn’t need to be changed.

Part of what I loved about the original film is that it showed that anyone could get better at something and do something right. What I’m seeing and what I suspect might be a trend in newer films is showing a female protagonist who’s just naturally gifted — we see this with Hua Mulan, we saw this with Rey in Star Wars, with Elsa in Frozen, etc. And the battle becomes about being able to be accepted in spite of being a total badass, or becomes about being able to accept yourself (again, in spite of being a total badass). And this can be cool in its own way, to be taught to embrace your strength rather than hide from it…but I feel like it almost pushes the idea that people are just born with things. They’re born with powers, they’re born with special abilities, they’re born with talent. And in the real world, that’s not really true. Sure, some people are born with natural abilities or natural inclinations toward certain things, but almost everyone still has to work incredibly hard in order to gain that sort of skill level. What I loved about the original Mulan film is that Mulan wasn’t a natural warrior with these innate skills. She was smart, yes. She was clever, resourceful, opinionated. But she was not a soldier. When she first joined the imperial army, she kind of sucked. She couldn’t do any of things. And granted, neither could any of the other men in the army. But as the film progressed, she got better (and so did her fellow soldiers). She used her strengths in order to help herself improve at the things she wasn’t good at initially — like using the weights in a clever way to help her climb to the top of the pillar during “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.” This scene showed us her natural cleverness and resourcefulness, but the reason why this scene is so cool is because it also shows her working at something that initially she wasn’t good at. So it’s a combination of her embracing her natural skills, but also growing and honing skills she didn’t have before. I didn’t love that in this remake, Mulan just naturally has these fighting skills. She’s a natural warrior. But she has to work hard to hide it. I would have connected much more with the character if we saw her work hard not to hide a natural skill, but rather work hard at a skill that she didn’t have naturally — and then thrive at it. And I think with young girls watching films like these, it’s empowering and encouraging for them if they see that their heroes aren’t just “born with it.” It’s encouraging when you are shown that where you start isn’t necessarily where you have to stay. That you can choose what you want to do, and who you want to be, and you can work at that. You don’t have to “find” your talents — you can choose your talents. And that as long as you work at something, you CAN get better at it. I think that’s a much more empowering message to pass on to kids.

All that said, there were some things I did like about the film. I loved the little nods towards the original film — like the commander saying “Tranquil as a forest, but a fire within.” And the scene with the matchmaker. And the orchestral version of Reflection, which I thought was beautiful. I loved those little touches throughout the film that subtly paid tribute to the original.

I also liked the character development of Mulan’s crew — I almost like it as much as Mulan’s crew in the original films. The rapport was funny yet you could tell that this group really bonded. And I love that the writers personified Cricket — who I personally found adorable and endearing. And, much to my own surprise, I really liked Honghui. Not gonna lie, I was really, really looking forward to a live-action Li Shang and was so disappointed when I found out we wouldn’t be seeing a jacked, beautiful commander train the army. But I came to really like Honghui’s character. I liked how layered he was. He wasn’t a typical douche-to-good guy. His character managed to successfully avoid a lot of the male love interest character tropes, and be interesting in his own way. I liked how during the scene where the soldiers are talking about what kind of wives they want, Honghui gives Mulan a chance to speak. We’re shown a lot of scenes where he’s paying attention. I loved how secure he was — how excited he got when he saw Mulan best him during training, rather than being jealous. How he let Mulan warm up to him on her own terms, and even when she refused to be his friend, how he still treated her well and still regarded her as an equal and as someone he trusted to have his back on the battlefield. I loved how he noticed the small details about Mulan — like her hand shaking the night before the battle. I only wished a couple of things were different. Because Honghui was so attuned to Mulan, I’m personally surprised he never suspected her to actually be a woman, especially after the scene of him watching her put on her armor. It would have been a pleasant creative twist if Honghui was the one to discover Mulan’s secret — and decide if he wanted to help her keep the secret or expose her. And two, I had hoped for a bit more of a resolution to their “romance.” Again, the original had a far better, more satisfying resolution to the romantic subplot. And I had hoped that there was more of a resolution to Mulan and Honghui’s story — they barely had time to develop their friendship, and barely had time to even think about exploring what else was there. Mulan and Shang’s romance wasn’t the central plot of the original film, but the plotline there still felt resolved. In the remake, this was not the case, and I wish it had been.

And finally, the ending scene was different, but it was also nice. I liked that Mulan’s father verbalized an apology and admitted to being wrong, and to not seeing who she truly was until now. It’s not the same as Mulan’s reunion scene with her father, but it still does pack an emotional impact — just in a different way. It was a departure, but I think in this case, it worked.

Another bonus plus for this film— I loved that they brought back Christina Aguilera to do a song for the soundtrack, and I love the new song at the end credits. Wonderful lyrics, the melody was so cool, and I love that the song was a bit darker-sounding than typical Disney songs. I think it worked so well for this film. I also loved the Mandarin version of Reflection — I thought it was such a fitting tribute to the original film.

All in all, I didn’t love the film, but I didn’t hate it either. There were certainly a lot of things I wish had been done better, but hey….we still have the original film. This was a lot to unpack, but if you’ve stuck around till the end, thank you, reader!

Have you all seen the Mulan remake? What are your thoughts? (Also, feel free to drop a comment on what you’d like to see reviewed next!)

I ramble about movies a lot.

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