Disney’s live-action remake of their 1998 original was not much better than all their other live-action remakes. A little better than or on par with Beauty & the Beast, but not better than Aladdin. (Just realised I haven’t reviewed Aladdin! I should get around to that.) I haven’t seen The Lion King remake but I bet this is way better than that one. So it has some things going for it.
So far, none of them have surpassed their originals.
I have a rather long list of complaints but first, a disclaimer of sorts: My dissatisfaction with this live-action remake can be attributed in part to my great fondness for their originals. While I attempt to keep some objectivity when watching these, I find that it’s very difficult to not compare them when the originals are vividly stuck in my mind.
- There are some really nice wide shots of the landscape.
- The visuals are not dreary. No borderline black-and-white imagery a la Nolan or Snyder. The general populace wear bright colours, and the soldiers mostly wear red and yellow. I appreciated the colours!
- Ming-na Wen’s little cameo was nice. Not much, but nice to see the original Disney Mulan there.
- The three or so reviews I read before seeing the movie all made a point of how Mulan is now “magical” and that’s detracting from story. They’re right. She doesn’t have to work for anything because she was special from the beginning. Her amazing qi means she’s a great athlete and fighter from the start.
- 1998 Mulan was a tomboy but not a preternatural fighter. She had to really work at it in the camp. She was awful at first – couldn’t even pretend to be an impressive guy. She was so pathetic when she first arrived at camp that other characters observed it was no wonder Fa Zhou’s son was unknown – “he” was such an embarrassment that Fa Zhou never spoke of him.
- 2020 Mulan is almost a superhero and she only pretends to be average because she’s been taught for far too long to hide her qi and not use it. When she does The Thing That No One Else Can Do, it’s just because she’s allowing her qi to flow or whatever. It isn’t because she used her brains and had trained enough to attain sufficient physical ability for the solution she came up with.
- It felt really slow. At about 2 hours, it’s half an hour too long. (The 1998 version has a run time of 87 minutes.) There were a lot of parts that could have been easily left out without affecting the story much.
- They chose to not make a musical but the attempts to introduce the familiar (and incredibly popular) musical cues from the original movie all fell flat to me.
- They changed where Reflection appears in the movie, and it didn’t work in the same way. Here, the cues from Reflection were used at a point where Mulan is closer to realising that she shouldn’t hide her identity after all. But originally, it’s a sad, melancholic song where Mulan is lamenting her inadequacy as a daughter. So the music really doesn’t have the same effect.
- A Girl Worth Fighting For never appears (or not in a way that I could recognise) except for the characters talking about the kind of girls they like.
- Honor to Us All turns up for a bit during the preparation for the matchmaker sequence. That one was inoffensive but not outstanding either.
- Just give me back the awesome songs.
- The changes to key moments and key elements did not work. And this part of my review turned out so long that I’m going to make it a separate post.
- Xianniang’s sudden change of heart felt unearned. They hadn’t interacted nearly enough for this to be explained. How did she even know that Mulan led the team into the palace? Mulan burst into the throne room alone and all she said was “I’m from the Fifth Battalion. I’ve come to protect you.” Xianniang concluded that she was leading the army just from those lines? How?
Then her flying to Bori Khan and just telling him about Mulan was an odd choice. She could have just torn him to pieces (as she said she could earlier in the movie) and as he lay dying, recited the same lines in almost the same way.
That brief conversation with Bori Khan was of course followed by her taking the arrow for Mulan. I don’t see that as being particularly satisfying…
- Donnie Yen was wasted in this movie. I understand that they split the character of Li Shang into Commander Tung and Honghui because in today’s sociocultural environment, some people would not be comfortable with a romantic relationship between a superior officer and his female subordinate. But I don’t know if Yen’s character had much of a purpose. If they had somehow made Honghui a more distinct character who earned a level of respect from his peers, then he could have taken on so many of Tung’s lines. Tung didn’t even personally train Mulan. He spouted a few lines at her, showed off his skills in two scenes, but that was it. What was the point of him??
- On that note, if Honghui was supposed to be the love interest, there was far too little of him and also not enough of the relationship. I guess it’s suggested or implied that he’ll come find her. Or that she’ll accept the Emperor’s offer and return to the city and reunite with Honghui eventually. But it felt like it was a “love suggestion” rather than a “love interest.”
- Mulan’s sister could have been an interesting addition but ultimately she too served next to no purpose in the story.
And Other Stuff
- The CGI was a mixed bag. Most of it was fine but the phoenix really stuck out like a sore thumb, and there were several shots at the palace during the climactic battle where the palace itself looked pretty fake. The spider during the matchmaker scene also looked obviously CGI.
- They dropped Mushu but included a phoenix that was more suited to a more stylized, more fantastical setting. How was a phoenix that never talks but appears just when Mulan needs directions or reassurance any better than Mushu? There’s probably some cultural inaccuracy complaints about Mushu that I’m not aware of but at least he was funny…
- Gong Li is gorgeous even with that odd costume and makeup. Her face is just so striking on screen.
- The movie’s theme has changed from “Believe in and be yourself” to “Be yourself because you are special.” I’m not sure I like that.
For all that Hollywood likes to talk about being authentic to the original stories and whatnot, I think this change in the message has resulted an even more contemporary western liberal theme. Not that the original was very “Chinese” in that regard either, but the amount of publicity movies of this size get nowadays means the pretension/hypocrisy becomes magnified as they have to talk about it all the time.
- The music overall was okay. Not impressive nor memorable either in a good or bad way.
- In general, all the 1998 characters were far more charismatic and likeable than the 2020 ones.