Review: Disney’s Mulan isn’t brave – or smart – enough

In some ways Mulan represents a major departure from Disney’s approach to live-action remakes of its popular traditionally animated films. In contrast to Emma Watson-directed Beauty and the Beast, who starred Will Smith Aladdinor Jon Favreaus The Lion King (technically not live action), the new one Mulan is not a musical. Yes, it’s not the first; Disney allowed Favreau to do the same for The Jungle Book (more or less it had a couple of songs). But Mulan also cut out characters and introduced new ones. Pet dragon Mushu, voiced by Eddie Murphy serving as comic book relief, goes out because it wasn’t well received in China, and a shape-shifter named Xianniang, played by Gong Li, is considered the best actress in China today.

At the same time, Mulan is not brave enough. Mushu’s ax is just one way Disney is serving Chinese interests. For example the bad guys in Mulan were changed from the Huns (as in the animated version) to the Rourans to make the film more historically accurate. But Mulan herself is still shown as a resident of Imperial Han China, even though the original story – “The Ballad of Mulan” – says she was part of the Northern Wei Dynasty. Why? Maybe because the Han now make up 92 percent of the Chinese population. The emperor in Mulan instructs his people to “defend the Silk Road,” which makes no sense since the region was not part of China at the time.

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The problem is, Mulan is not a good movie. And what makes it all the more annoying is that it had the potential to be a good movie.

Mulan explains his world very clearly in the first minute. Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma, also a rare narrator), Mulan’s father and war veteran, tells us that her daughter is capable of something that only men are allowed to do. It is called Qi (pronounced Chi) and is described as an energy that permeates all living beings, but only some individuals can use its power. Qi is a central principle in Chinese martial arts and is used practically everywhere by Hollywood (ab) Iron fist to the coming Shang-Chi). MulanQi’s definition of qi makes it sound like the Force, and it’s not the only Star Wars parallel here. Zhou adds that qi is only for warriors, and daughters cannot become that. Still, he’s happy to pamper her, even if those around her disagree.

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Hua Li (Rosalind Chao), Mulan’s mother, agrees. She is concerned because daughters have to adjust in society to find good husbands. Pressured from all sides, Zhou asks the young Mulan (Crystal Rao) to “hide her gift and silence his voice” – this makes the film open to interpretation, even as an LGBTQ story – and to do so what is expected of her: Bringing honor to the family through marriage. Mulan is dejected, and although she generally does what she is told, she does not give up entirely as she matures into a young woman (Yifei Liu). When the Emperor (Jet Li) decides that a man from every family should serve in the Imperial Army to fend off the invading Rourans, Mulan believes it should be them. Her father is in no condition (he walks with a stick) and only has to register because he has no sons.

Mulan can’t stop her father from leaving and knows that he most likely won’t return. He does the unthinkable: she takes her father’s place in the imperial army. If women are not allowed to serve, it means Mulan must disguise himself as a man. It is easier said than done. Being in the army means always being with other men, under the showers and at night. Of course, they’re really there to train, and Mulan proves she’s more than equal in everything.

And they train better because they are not dealing with any common enemy. The Rourans are led by Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), a capable and clever warrior leader who has united 12 nomad tribes and tries to avenge his father’s death by the emperor. But they have an ace up their sleeve in the shape-shifting witch mentioned above. Xianniang (Gong Li) – recognized as such but never mentioned in the film – is extremely powerful. She can take over the bodies of her enemies or turn into a bird: a lone eagle or a crow murder. Xianniang has joined forces with Böri Khan because she wants to live in a world where she is not slandered and called a witch. Mulan’s world, which gives women no power, has never accepted them.

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Gong Li as Xianniang in Mulan
Photo credit: Film Frame / Disney

Spoilers ahead for Mulan.

Xianniang is a fascinating introduction to the world of Mulan, not just what it represents, but how it questions the basis of the narrative. Deep in the movie, when Mulan turns out to be a woman, she is expelled from the army despite single-handedly claiming a victory against the Rourans and proving to be better than any of the men in her battalion. She later has to risk her neck and needs the support of her fellow officers to convince Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) that the Emperor’s life is credibly threatened. And Mulan will not be accepted back home by society until it has saved the life of the emperor and thus the kingdom itself. That is a lot. You shouldn’t have to prove yourself extraordinary just to get the most basic right: equality.

Women get a rough deal in Mulan’s world (including ours) and Xianniang has understood that the world has no place for people like her and that she has to redesign it according to her own image. And that’s what she suggests when she confronts Mulan to stand by her side: “Join us, we’ll take our place together.” She is Mulans Rey’s Kylo Ren, if I were to draw one more parallel with Star Wars, which makes Xianniang much more of an antihero than a villain. Your dynamic should be at the heart of the film, and for a brief moment it is. But Mulan Ultimately wastes all that potential as it shortens Xianniang’s arc for the most meaningless plot points and shows how clueless the film’s writing team is. It’s a shame because Mulan had the opportunity to improve the original.

Disney is committed to turning its popular animated films into live-action franchises. The Lion King 2 already has a director. Prequels too Aladdin and Cinderella are in progress. We have already had two Alice and Vicious Movies. A dozen other remakes are in various stages of development. Disney tried to be sure Mulan and his China pandering failed. Security worked elsewhere. Both Aladdin and The Lion King made over a billion each, even though they were terrible films. If it’s to give us these films, Disney might as well get bolder. Because the way it is Mulan is a boring feminist fable that dispels some gender stereotypes but doesn’t do much more.

Mulan is on December 4th on Disney + Hotstar. It is now available outside of Disney + Premier Access with no additional charge of $ 30.


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