Disney’s live-action adaptation of Mulan is probably the boldest move the studio has taken in the recent years. Putting forward representation in the production by casting actors of Chinese descent (a mix of those familiar faces to mainstream American viewers and some fresh faces from the Mainland) with Chinese-born Liu Yifei portraying the titular character suggests the Mouse House’ commitment for diversity (in the brink of fight against whitewashing in Hollywood). While seeking after an Asian director to no avail, New Zealander Niki Caro (Whale Rider and McFarland, USA) lands the job making her the second female director to helm a Disney movie (after Ava DuVernay with A Wrinkle of Time). In a critical and controversial move, Disney released it as an on-demand perk in their streaming service Disney+ (while also releasing it globally for subscribers in the same platform eventually) as a final minute cry for profit. But, is Mulan worth all the hassle?
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Unlike other Disney’s live-action adaptations ranging from Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King, the new Mulan aims for a more serious realism and presents it as a light wuxia epic rather than a musical entry as in the 1998 movie. On the light of realism and to find consensus in a way the movie is intended to be seen—by global audiences, people of Chinese diaspora and the native Chinese—and to address a more modern approach of emancipation, a series of creative decisions are taken, signifying just how ambitious this adaptation is. Mulan’s side-kick, Mushu, is stripped away to please Chinese audiences; the love interest, Li Shan, is broken down into two characters in the light of #MeToo movement; the villain’s side-kick is given a completely new backstory and a new body in the shape of Gong Li. And yet, the backbone of the story remains the same: Mulan disguises as a man to replace his ailing father and joins the fight against barbaric invaders.
With an unsurprisingly thin plot, known for the subversion and straightforward lesson, the screenwriting team (consisting of Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek with polishing by Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Jurassic World‘s writers, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver) feels the urge to adds layer to the narrative to highlight Mulan’s emancipation. From the awareness about her body’s independence by refusing arranged marriage and lots of it to the evidence of equality, the writers always seek a way to highlight the message. One of the most enticing addition is Gong Li’s sorceress character who mirrors Mulan’s ordeal and tries to undermine her achievement in terms of equality, or in her own word, in bringing honors to the family through battles. Aside of it, however, the discourse about feminism that the movie seems to hold dear seems to always be at the bay. In the end, the story seeks for basic entertainment that isn’t too complicated to absorb.
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It is no surprise that Mulan gets caught up in its attempt to compromise and to please everyone in the only imaginable way, but ends up presenting a rather bland story that never fulfills its potentials. The protagonist remains true to the virtues of “loyal, brave, true” and being responsible to her family; this holds a respectful Easter culture norm. And yet, that has certain drawbacks to the emancipation story she’s trying to tell as it only affects her individually and not others. When it comes to action sequences, Mulan tries to reenact high-wire martial art bonanzas from classic wuxia movies; but, the PG rating hinders it to reach the heightened level. The fighting sequences are well-choreographed but they are unimpressively shot with the beauty of it reduced to mere movements without impact. The absence of Mushu makes ways for a scarlet phoenix to shine, but it never actually means more than a decoration. The same case happens to Gong Li’s character, who even with all the enticement, is underused; meanwhile, Jet Li who portrays the Emperor gets a little too much action on the run just to please whoever expects some style for the actor.
It seems that there’s just too much on the plate for Mulan. Bland actions, plain characterization, try-hards and whatnots have weighed the potentially engaging story down without any chance to recover. Everything has been thought through, but you simply cannot please everybody. That’s what basically the lesson we got from this live-action adaptation.