Mulan Review: Does This Disney Live-Action Remake Get Down To Business?

Mulan review: does it live up to the hype and the delay?

So, here we are again. Another year, another live-action Disney remake. We’ve been down this path before in the past. The House of Mouse has taken to digging into their catalog of animated classics and reimagining them for live-action. Thus far, while mostly profitable, the quality of these films have been a mixed bag. Even as someone who loves most of them, it’s hard not to admit that they spend too much time aping the original animated films and not enough time actually doing something different with them (*cough* The Lion King *cough*).

And it’s with that in mind that I look at Mulan. If there was a film where Disney could really change things up, it’s this one. It’s a story that’s arguably best-suited to live-action, and the medium allows them to take advantage of actual Chinese locations. This could better teleport us to this moment in fictional history and ground the world in some form of reality — even if it leans more into traditional Chinese fantasy epic tropes.

Luckily for us, this is exactly the approach director Niki Caro decided to take with Mulan. Unlike its predecessors The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, it doesn’t spend its time simply re-enacting scenes from the original movie. Instead, it takes the very core premise, some loose story beats, and runs free with them. In my mind, this alone makes it worth watching, but I’m sad to say the film does all this to mixed effect.

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First, let’s get this out of the way. The movie itself is gorgeous. The production design is exceptional and the imagination behind admirable. It’s very easy to simply get lost in the visuals. From Mulan’s quaint hometown to the Forbidden City, it’s impossible not to be awestruck with each real-world location we get to. 

Disney’s MULAN..Mulan (Yifei Liu)..Photo: Film Frame..© 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

I can also admire the lengths they went to to actually adapt this for live-action. The choreography and action is fun to watch, and the way scenes play out is grounded and believable. For an example of the latter, when Mulan is in the midst of training, rather than just have her walk around with a faux-deep voice (though she does to some degree), they have her as more of a recluse. She doesn’t talk much, for fear of outing her identity, and that has a domino effect with how she is perceived by the others. It’s a subtle change, but it makes a big difference in the grand scheme of things. But not all these differences are for the better.

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Because Mulan spends so much of the film trying not to stand out, I do feel like we lose some of her in the middle portion of the movie. As such, it feels less like a movie driven by its lead and more by the circumstances. Mulan slowly becomes one of the least interesting parts of the film, and while that turns around later, it does still feel like we were cheated out of some good time with our heroine.

This all leads to the biggest criticism I have of the film. In spite of its beauty and ambition, it still feels…constrained. Nothing in the movie truly surprised me, and by the end, I felt hollow. I didn’t really engage with any of the characters on a meaningful level. It felt more like I had seen a story play out than actually engaged in one. Mulan may have had agency, but I never felt like it was propelled by her personality. And in terms of her personality, I couldn’t really tell you much about who she is as a person. At the end of the day, the character of Mulan feels more like an idea than an actual human, and that’s a real shame.

Don’t get me wrong. There are one or two awesome character moments, but the film never engaged them enough on a consistent level for me to fall for them.

The end result is a competent movie that doesn’t really captivate me. Perhaps it’s because the character work was subpar or that it feels a bit vanilla and written by committee, but I get the impression that most people will walk away from this movie either being underwhelmed or saying something along the lines of, “it was fine.”

So, do I recommend a watch? Strangely enough, yes. There are enough fun moments that it’s worth checking out. Its visuals alone are worth it, and the movie itself is rarely boring. It’s a tad slow, but whenever I started to get bored, things moved along fairly well. And at the end of the day, if you’re really itching to see how Mulan adapted to live-action, I think it’s good enough to at least see once. 

But, all in all, given the potential of the film, it’s disappointing to me. It is a prime example of a film ending up as less than the sum of its parts. And given that this is the one animated film I saw Disney could really go nuts with, I can’t help but be a bit sad with the result.


Recommended if you like: Mulan (1998)

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