The original Mulan animated feature from 1998 was a great film. One of the better stand-outs at the time the Disney Renaissance was coming to a close by that point, it featured some solid storytelling, great animation, and a lovely cast of characters. I’ve had it somewhere in the upper half of favorite Disney Animated Feature titles since its release and hasn’t really gone down in admiration. So the idea of giving Mulan the live-action adaptation treatment did not seem far-fetched to me. Honestly, it sounded like it might actually work out.
Most probably know the core story of Mulan. The daughter of a father too old to partake in military action, she disguised herself as a man to go in his place. The animated feature saw her fighting Hun invading China. The live-action feature sees her taking on Rouran warriors, one of the leaders Böri Khan seeking to avenge his father’s death at the hands of the Emperor. Whereas the animated feature saw Mulan have a dragon sidekick in Mushu, the live-action feature has Mulan occasionally guided by a vision of her family’s ancestral phoenix.
Right off the bat, its clear director Niki Caro and her writers wanted to use the animated feature as an inspirational template and weave their own iteration. They wanted to build upon the challenges Mulan faced living in a society where women were treated in a way that debilitated strengths she possessed. As such, the character of Xianniang is designed as a possible dark mirror, a witch shunned by society for daring to rise above her place as her gender dictates and ultimately uses her powers in service of the enemy.
I admired this approach with the storytelling. This is especially the case with the live-action feature lacking a sidekick to give Mulan pep talks and encouragements. Instead, she has to weigh the consequences of her actions upon the virtues of being loyal, brave, and true. It is an honest attempt at applying further depth to the character beyond what was presented in the animated film. To some degree it kind of works. I found the problem to be that it affects the pacing of the narrative in a way that other aspects get downplayed.
If the animated feature had a lovely cast of characters, the live-action feature really only had two in Mulan and Xianniang. Everyone else comes off either in a stereotypical manner or are just bland. Which makes the attempt for Mulan to earn the respect of her fellow comrades less emotional and by-the-book. And while she does have some depth, it’s actually not enough for Xianniang to be a more fascinating character than the film ends up making her out to be. Beyond Mulan, you really don’t know much about all of the other characters to enjoy them.
Which is a shame because I feel only some of the actors where able to make do with what they were given. Yifei Liu really isn’t bad as Mulan, in my opinion, and does a nice job playing the scenes with the right tone when needed. Gong Li is great as Xianniang whenever she is able to shine. And Jet Li is actually quite fun any time he shows up as the Emperor. Donnie Yen, Jason Scott Lee, Tzi Ma, and Cheng Pei-pei do enough to be enjoyable as respectively Commander Tung, Böri Khan, Mulan’s father Zhou, and the Matchmaker.
One thing that the live-action feature has going for it is the beautiful cinematography. Mandy Walker does a wonderful job in photographing with an eye for making each scene vibrant and colorful without being a distraction. In one instance where Mulan and Xianniang encounter each other for the first time, the texture of the landscape around them is very unique and provides a different kind of energy to how the scene is viewed. And I personally think it was a good call for Mulan’s key color scheme to be red as it framed her quite well.
The action sequences were quite nicely done. Caro doesn’t try to go overboard with them nor does she diminish their importance to the narrative. It’s enough to maintain a pace that allows the film to move along. Some might get put off by the occasional camera rotation during some of the fight scenes, but I wasn’t too bothered by them. And I’m sure many wished there was a lot more wuxia inspiration, but I’d rather they went with what they were comfortable with versus trying to apply the genre archetypes in a way that might’ve end up looking bad.
Lacking songs like in the animated feature, the live-action feature would rely a lot on the score by Harry Gregson-Williams. It works well enough to bolster each scene with the appropriate mood, certainly during the action sequences. It’s not quite groundbreaking and are primarily memorable for the traces of “Reflection” sprinkled throughout. Nevertheless, the score as a whole is nice and rather soothing to listen to with what’s playing on the screen. As for the one new song, the end credits “Loyal Brave True” by Christina Aguilera, it’s fine.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call Mulan a disappointment. I wouldn’t call it great either. The attempts to make this stand-out from the animated original and craft its own story with some depth to the character is admirable. And it is a visually stunning film by its own right. It’s just that most everything else lacked the kind of energy needed to make it exciting. The film is merely okay and aspects of the narrative were not connecting as well as they should have. Upon reflection, this version of Mulan may not quite be “a girl worth fighting for”.
Walt Disney Pictures
September 4, 2020
Directed by Niki Caro