I hate to admit it, but I am not the biggest fan of live-action remakes. I have always been uncomfortable with the translation of animated characters, especially animals, to actors and computer-generated imagery. I also struggle with mixed expectations of how a live-action remake should be and what it should accomplish. Oftentimes, I think that these remakes lack a sense of freshness; they follow the same plotlines, character arcs and even replicate similar camera shots. They feel as if they are the same movie, just made years later when we are more cognizant of the film’s inherent flaws and with the added discomfort of hearing unfamiliar voices through CGI animals.
However, for “Mulan,” it was the first live-action remake that genuinely piqued my interest. Though I did not have an utter devotion to the animated film when I was younger, it was a Disney princess movie that I actually remembered and cared to finish as a child who never finished movies. I remember connecting with the Asian princess on the screen, finally having a Halloween costume where I somewhat resembled the character, and having someone to look up to who looked like me and was not simply a “damsel in distress.” Because of this, “Mulan” was the first live-action remake that Disney has released which I actually intended to watch.
To begin, I’d like to be clear of some simple opinions that might lead you to quickly dislike this remake. First, Mushu, Mulan’s humorous sidekick of sorts, is wholly absent from the remake (more on this later). Second, this is not a modern feminist film nor does it necessarily intend to be. Third, this is not a nostalgia trap; if you are looking to reminisce on your childhood connection with the original “Mulan,” I’d recommend simply rewatching the animated version or maybe watching the much-forgotten “Mulan II.”
That being said, watching this new “Mulan” movie, was an overall strange, yet intriguing experience for me. With the format being online, this entirely altered the experience. The movie has been accessible from Disney Plus since Sept. 4 for $30 to stream. Thirty dollars! Of course, Disney spent about $200 million to make this film and was expected to make much of that back in the box offices. (Disney even tried to move its release three times in theaters!) This might be a steal for large families who would have spent much more on tickets, snacks, and drinks for the whole family in theaters, but. However, as someone who would have individually paid under $10 for a ticket, this price seems a bit steep. If you gathered some friends and split the cost though, it ends up costing about the same as theaters. If you are not eager to watch this movie now, it’ll be included with a Disney Plus subscription on Dec. 4. Anyway, onto the film itself.
Unfortunately, I struggled to remain engaged throughout this movie. I finished it in the span of three days, pausing and starting again as I so desired. It may have been because of the at-home format, but I largely attribute this to how unengaging the movie was at times. There were distinct points where it almost seemed fitting to pause the movie and move on to another task on my to-do list. From its opening, I surprisingly felt little invested or interested in the movie’s characters. I think one of the problems with these remakes is that they rely heavily on the originals for worldbuilding and character development. There is an assumption that the audience already cares about the characters and knows the world, so little effort is put towards that. For me, the worldbuilding in this movie was lacking, with forced dialogue and only the smallest coherence between elements (especially new elements) of Mulan’s world.
The filmmakers chose to alter certain characters and introduce new elements to this story; however, these changes were oftentimes executed clumsily with little overall payoff to the entire story. One of the most prevalent changes, is the introduction of qi to Mulan and the added villain, Xianniang, which acts as a sort of power for both characters. For me, this addition was not effective or necessary. Qi transforms the originally astute, witty Mulan character into a mere superhero with powers. It left Xianniang to serve as the typical outcasted villain who can relate and sympathize with the hero. This left me feeling like I was watching an “Avengers” movie with the same hero trying to defeat the same maleficent, yet secretly understanding villain. Many fights, though beautifully shot, reminded me too potently of the many fight scenes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Despite some ineffective changes, I appreciate the intention to revive and elevate the original film. This intention manifests in a generally more serious mood throughout the film and overall feeling reminiscent of Asian martial arts films. Whether these changes are ultimately positive, is up to the viewer. For me, I enjoyed these kung fu scenes with backflips and exciting weapon twirling. It brought in elements of Asian fight cinema which I thoroughly enjoyed when coupled with the crisp visuals and beautiful scenery.
As for the overall more serious mood, I’m conflicted to say whether I preferred it or not. Some may immediately criticize this remake for its lack of singing and, especially, the absence of the humorous backbone of the original, Mushu. I would agree that the animated “Mulan” brought us some of my favorite Disney princess songs, and I always enjoyed a quick quip from Mushu; h. However, the remake continues to include these songs, instead in the background as sweeping instrumentals to move the scenes forward. This was at times effective, at times not. All in all, I missed some of the lightheartedness of the animated original as the war and, an at times, an unconvincing presentation of duty and honor sat heavily throughout this remake.
Disney’s live-action remake is filled with glorious visuals with the beautiful landscape of China asserting its splendor throughout. The remake is breathtaking to watch, at times sending an appreciative chill down my spine. Was it worth remaking? For me, yes. Would I choose the remake over the original? No. But, will it fulfill what you want from the story’s retelling? Well, that all depends on your expectations.