The new live-action Mulan, directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider, The Zookeeper’s Wife), is reminiscent of two things. First, naturally, the 1998 animated film it’s adapted from. Second, Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker. There isn’t any science fiction in the new Disney movie (though there is a healthy helping of fantasy), but the changes to the story — and the nostalgic cues that haven’t been changed — call the recent installments of the blockbuster franchise to mind.
The bulk of the story, based on the legend of Hua Mulan, remains the same. Mulan (Liu Yifei) is strong-willed and unafraid to speak her mind. Those qualities worry her family, since they may prevent her from finding a suitable husband, especially after she bombs her visit with the local matchmaker (Cheng Pei-pei). However, when her father (Tzi Ma) is called upon to serve in the Imperial Army as forces from the Rouran Khaganate invade from the north, Mulan’s determination and spirit become assets. Rather than sending her father to certain death, she disguises herself as a man and takes his place as a soldier.
Unlike with the 1998 film — and unlike most other recent Disney live-action remakes — Caro and screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, and Elizabeth Martin tell the story without any songs. But they aren’t able to completely let go of the music that made the animated film such a hit. The score, composed by Harry Gregson-Williams, has constant nods to Matthew Wilder and David Zippel’s old songs, including an entire orchestral cover of “Reflection” at a pivotal point in the movie. On top of that, characters recite entire lyrics in scenes from which songs have been removed. While those lines might sound natural when sung, they’re clunky when spoken.
The old music and lyrics are also effectively a shortcut, tapping into the animated film’s well-established emotions, at least for those familiar with it. The same tactic is also used in the new Star Wars movies, which bank on nostalgia and trot out Luke’s and Leia’s respective themes to get straight to Star Wars devotees’ tear ducts. Unfortunately, the musical cues aren’t enough to distract from the live-action Mulan’s clunky script, even aside from the shoehorned lyrics. Mulan is repeatedly referred to as “the daughter,” and despite the script’s insistence that she be true to herself (“loyal, brave, true” are the words inscribed on the Hua family sword), the early mischievousness she displays is replaced with stoicism and seriousness as a way of representing her burgeoning strength.
And what does strength entail, exactly? The Mulan of the 1998 film (who notably retained her impishness throughout the movie) displayed her strength through determination and cleverness. The 2020 Mulan possesses those same traits, but Jaffa, Silver, Hynek, and Martin also introduce the concept of chi, or life force. Though everyone possesses chi — it exists everywhere — Mulan is overflowing with it, and that excess of chi is what makes her special, rather than her resolve in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
The change feels akin to the way The Rise of Skywalker refuted The Last Jedi’s suggestion that a hero could come from anywhere. Rather than allowing Rey to come from humble beginnings, The Rise of Skywalker turned her into a descendant of one of the franchise’s most powerful characters. Mulan does something similar, especially given that the only other character who seems to be able to harness chi in a meaningful way is one of the film’s villains.
Xian Lang (Gong Li), who is working with the Khaganate to overthrow the ruling dynasty, is something of a Darth Vader figure to Mulan’s Luke Skywalker, sans the familial bond. Both she and Mulan are referred to as witches for being women who don’t fit into a stereotypically feminine mold, but Xian Lang actually possesses magical powers. Her abilities, which are ascribed to her powerful chi, allow her to transform into a hawk and take over other people’s bodies, among other things. Nobody else in the film is capable of such magic, but Mulan excels in battle to the point where she frightens off enemy soldiers, suggesting that there’s a supernatural element to her heroism, instead of it emerging from more everyday bravery.
Considered apart from the film it’s adapting, Caro’s Mulan is still a mixed bag. It shakes off the occasional miasma cast by visuals that range from “historical epic” to “Disney Channel Original Movie” through well-choreographed action scenes, including a sequence that unfolds inside a grid of scaffolding. But the action is just a fraction of the film, and what remains is buoyed largely by the wealth of talent assembled to portray the film’s characters.
Yifei easily handles both seriousness and jest, but only gets a couple of chances to show off her charm. All of the other actors are only around long enough to provide brief pops of color. Ma, who has shown his powerhouse abilities again and again in films like The Farewell and Tigertail, is only present to bookend the film, and Gong, Donnie Yen, and Jet Li (who is inexplicably dubbed) get one or two significant scenes each, but make the most of them. Seeing so many legends in the same movie is an exhilarating experience, even if they aren’t doing much, and the rush is heightened by how novel it still is that every actor in the film is of Asian descent — and allowed to speak with their natural accents. But that doesn’t make the movie great.
To put it crudely (and to bring another blockbuster into the equation), Mulan suffers from Crazy Rich Asians syndrome. The story and execution are shaky. Some of the editing is also baffling, as some cuts leave out enough action to be jarring. But the amount of joy and goodwill born from seeing a screen filled entirely with Asian actors who are either still relative unknowns (Jimmy Wong, Doua Moua, Chen Tang, and a very charming Yoson An as Mulan’s fellow foot soldiers) or just mostly unknown to Western audiences is difficult to overlook, as is the sentiment stirred up by a single refrain of “Reflection” for anyone fond of the original film. Those elements excuse many sins, including how generic the new Mulan feels — and an oddly prominent bent toward nationalism, as protecting the reigning dynasty becomes Mulan’s primary mission.
The best point of comparison, however, remains The Rise of Skywalker. Mulan handily clears the bar set by live-action duds like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, but it still fails to recapture the magic of the movie it’s adapting. It forgoes the strongest ideas in the animated film (the songs and the humble origins of heroism) in order to try to tell a more conventional story. In the animated film, the emperor says of Mulan: “You don’t meet a girl like that every dynasty.” She’s an unfollowable act. So is the 1998 movie.
Mulan will be available via Premier Access on Disney Plus on Sept. 4.