Video: Mulan (2020)

Disney has given director Niki Caro a budget of $200 million, the most money ever given to any female director, to adapt their beloved 1998 animated classic and give it the live action touch. The film follows the same story but strips all of the over-the-top comedy and catchy musical numbers in order to create a film with a realistically serious tone. This adaptation is concerned with telling a compelling story focused on its positive themes of family, bravery, loyalty, and truth. I recommend lowering your expectations if you desired this live action to have the same dynamic magnitude that its quintessential predecessor had. Go in with the level-headed mindset that this flick sets out to be uniquely different and, aside from the cartoon, is an effective beautiful-looking drama with admirable heart whose pacing isn’t quite near as sharp as the original. If you lower and shift your expectations, I believe you will find enjoyment watching Mulan.

The Imperial City in China is under attack and one man from each family is called to train and fight against this vile threat. Unfortunately, the Hua family only has two daughters and their father Hua Zhou, played by Tzi Ma, has a weak leg. Liu Yifei portrays Mulan who, unbeknownst to her parents, decides to disguise herself as a man, take her father’s sword and armor, and enlist in the army in his place. Here Mulan meets the handsome Chen HonGooEe played by Yo-sen Ann and many other warriors who are under the training of Commander Tung played by Donnie Yen, where Mulan must keep up with the facade that she is in fact a male warrior.

After Disney searched through 1,000 actresses, Yifei was chosen and truly embodies the spirit of Mulan flawlessly. She is believable as both a strong woman and a disguised male soldier. The characteristics that she has and the decisions that the script has her take is what makes her character exceptionally admirable, as she is selflessly putting herself in peril in order to save her father’s life and she has this relatable internal conflict of being honest about who she is.

For those saddened by the cut of the songs, the score (by Harry Gregson-Williams) does pay tribute to those songs by having instrumental snippets of them woven through its epic orchestral score. Specifically “Reflection” is a theme often repeated.

As fine as this film is (like I said at the beginning of this review) it is not better than the cartoon version. The best aspect of this live action is the darker tone that we get. This movie lacks the unwavering compelling beats the original’s pacing had because the songs and comedy were simply so spectacular in that film that they entertainingly moved the plot along so effortlessly. Anyone producing this film was going to have the monstrous challenge at finding appealing material that would compensate for the parts cut that would add to the realistic tone and be as alluring as what was in that 1998 film. Producers do not knock it out of the park but I’m not sure if they could have. Without those extraordinary elements, the pacing is not intolerable but it is significantly weaker. In fact, I do think young kids will become bored because it does not have that ADD fast pacing that likely held their attention in that original film. Older kids, teens, and families should be able to enjoy the film for what it is. What works in this movie is Mulan’s character, the fear of her getting caught, and her adapting to life in the army being completely surrounded by men.

Life in the army is one aspect of comedy that is not as overblown as the 1998 version but was slightly comical to see this woman absolutely aghast at seeing how men interact so comfortably and bare in a bunker. When the commander tells the men to line up for showers and that he needs a night watch volunteer Mulan is too quick to get out of the shower conundrum and night watches instead (and she continues to do this until being told that she does stink terribly bad).

The biggest flaw of Mulan is one of our villains. Bori Khan, played by Jason Scott Lee, who actually represents Shan Yu from the cartoon, and a new character named Xian Lang portrayed by Gong Li are the devious duo leading the overthrow of the Imperial army. Bori Kahn’s purpose for having this evil malevolence towards the Emperor is because this Emperor played a part in his father’s death and that makes him a decent understandable antagonist. Unfortunately, a great deal of time is spent on this other character Xian. 

Xian is unquestionably the weakest part of the film. She has magical shape-shifting abilities. She sounds like a Saturday morning cartoon, talking like a Power Ranger villain. It sticks out like an eye-sore and absolutely took me out of the film. Why the filmmakers wrote her character like Rita Repulsa when they have already committed to a story that mirrors reality is beyond me. The actress isn’t bad; it’s the lines she’s given to work with. There’s a decision she makes in the fourth act that is supposed to have a huge impact on the story and because her character felt entirely fake and distracting in comparison to everyone else I felt nothing and think her character either needed to be re-written or cut entirely. She feels like the character Disney had to add to make the story mystical and she feels like one of the convoluted winged creatures from Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Cut her character and flesh Bori Kahn out. I wish Disney could’ve gone all in and committed to this serious tone. Open with a flashback of Bori Kahn as a kid with his father. Show us how close they are and then have his father be taken away from him so we can understand the gravity of his hurt. That would have intensified how great Bori Kahn’s motive is and would make up for this other contrived mess that Xian is. Additionally, this is a family friendly Disney movie so the action is unsurprisingly bland, although technically well-shot. You can see everything that is happening but there is nothing impressively stellar either.

Despite the bland action and contrived villain, Mulan still has an intriguing story to tell and I do recommend it especially if you want to see it from a different lens. I would not pay $30 for it on Disney+ if you are watching the film by yourself but it may be worth $30 if you’re splitting with others. Otherwise, wait. 

Final Verdict:Lacks the unwavering compelling beats the original had but delivers an effective beautiful-looking drama with admirable heart and a unique serious tone.