Mulan (2020) Movie Review
When Disney announced that they would be remaking Mulan into a live-action movie that would be more faithful to its Chinese heritage, I was interested in what Disney would do to update the film. With the recent surge in foreign releases succeeding in the United States, the opportunities were endless. They could make it more action-heavy or more dramatic.
However, Disney chose to take the easiest route with this retelling of the story of Hua Mulan: update what people liked about the animated film from 1998 and incorporate elements of The Ballad of Mulan – the folktale the original film was supposedly adapting. If you do even the most basic research on Hua Mulan and the history surrounding her, you will find that this rendition of the tale is not even close to a faithful representation of the 1998 film or the folktale. On a fundamental level, this rendition is one of the messiest attempts at a remake of a beloved film in recent years. Whether it’s the endless mentions of chi as this mystical force, the several historical inaccuracies, trying to unnecessarily update elements of the animated classic, or its lackluster action, Mulan is not a retelling that’s worth the price of admission.
Right off the bat, we’re presented with one of the many updates to the film’s narrative: it’s new female empowerment angle. I take no issue with female empowerment in any sense. My issue rears its head when I think about the fact that no matter which rendition of Mulan I researched in my review process, Mulan’s arc is purely based on a need to serve in her father’s stead because he will surely die if she doesn’t. For her, it’s not about challenging gender roles in Chinese culture (although she does challenge them by her actions); it is about surviving so that she can make it home to her family once the invading army is defeated. Furthermore, I feel that it cheapens the film’s narrative flow to start with Hua Mulan already capable of so much at so young of an age and explaining it by saying “chi” a lot like that is some sort of magical power she has over everyone else. As far as I know of ancient Chinese culture, all Hua Mulan would have to be worried about is similar to what the 1998 animated film portrays in that she can never reveal her gender to her army friends because that would end with her death before she can stop the invading army.
This is also why Mushu made sense within that film’s narrative: He is a protector of Mulan, guiding her away from danger while providing the film with a sense of levity. Here, Hua Mulan is given a protector – but it doesn’t do anything to help Hua Mulan in her journey except lead her to her post, and that’s about all it does. Not once does this protector guide her away from danger or provide her with anything meaningful; it just appears and expects Mulan to know what to do from there.
Without a meaningful protector, you might be wondering about Mulan’s friends. Unfortunately, I was too, all the way until they went off to war together. I don’t know how four screenwriters did it, but they managed to take all the personality out of her love interest, Cricket, Ling, Yao, Chien-Po, and The Chancellor. Played by Yoson An, Jun Yu, Jimmy Wong, Chen Tang, Doua Moua, and Nelson Lee, the usually loveable goofballs just…aren’t anymore. If anything, they come off as annoying and a nuisance when it comes time actually to go to war. Maybe this change was made to make Hua Mulan even more powerful looking, and if it is, it wasn’t successful.
Strangely, the film finds its personality in characters we don’t get enough time with, like its enemy force, the Rourans, and Hua Mulan’s family. What I don’t get in giving these characters personality is that the screenwriters clearly know how to write compelling characters but don’t do so when it comes to Hua Mulan or its main characters. In the animated tale, we get personality from every single character, not just a handful of them.
Worse than the dull characters, there are decisions made in this script that just don’t make sense to me. There are vast periods of time within the film where someone goes against their own interests. Maybe that’s where the screenwriters attempted to incorporate elements of The Ballad of Mulan and its message of servitude, but I think it was an easy way for the film to lengthen the film’s runtime without reason.
One of the ways the film pays homage to the animated classic is through, and I kid you not, dialogue taken from one of its memorable songs (you can probably guess which one) or straight up playing music from the 1998 soundtrack, even going as far as to have Christina Aguilera sing a rendition of “Reflection” over the credits in English and Yifei Liu sing her rendition of the same song in Mandarin.
I wish I could say the action was at least worth the watch, but it isn’t. Somehow, even though Jet Li, Donnie Yen, and dozens of other martial artists and a team of stunt coordinators couldn’t come up with action sequences that are anything more than someone pulling a wire. I know that sounds reductive or harsh, but that’s just how the action in this film made me feel.
Overall, I think this remake would’ve been more enjoyable if it wasn’t trying to give lip service to two stories with two wildly different tones. If you’re into the animated version, I would advise you to stay far away from this remake. If you’re into Chinese culture on “kung fu films”, just watch Ip Man instead. I wish I could find something good to say, but I just can’t.
Unfortunately, I was not given a code for the 4K digital copy of the film, so I can not speak to any of those enhancements (my bad for not specifying), I can say that Mulan is beautiful in its 1080p transfer. Image detail is spectacular no matter the shot. Depth is clearly defined and colors pop off the screen. Disney’s transfer is nothing short of wonderful.
Mulan has about every audio standard imaginable. If you watch a 4K copy of the film, you’re treated to the Dolby Atmos and Dolby Digital 7.1 codecs, and if you’re watching a HD copy of the film, you’re treated to either a 7.1 DTS-HDMA codec or a 5.1 Dolby Digital codec. From what I could tell on my HD copy through some fairly decent headphones, the audio quality could’ve been more refined. In the battle sequences, there was no spatial audio used that I could hear, which would’ve been useful. This leads to the whole soundstage of the film feeling flat and out of place.
If you like reading subtitles or require them, there is the option of English (SDH), Spanish and French included in the film.
Special Features and Extras
I reviewed the HD digital version of Mulan, but there is the option of buying the film on Disney+ Premiere Access (accessible to Disney+ subscribers who pay $29.99, until the film becomes free to stream on December 4), 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, Blu-ray, and DVD. If you buy a Blu-ray version of the film, you will receive an Movies Anywhere eligible Digital Copy (the resolution format, depends on which Blu-ray you buy).
The Special Features included are:
- Updating A Classic – Explore how filmmakers honored the original animated classic while creating an epic live-action adventure for a new generation.
- Mulan by Another Name – Meet talented actor Yifei Liu and trace her journey to becoming Mulan, from audition screen test to on-screen warrior.
- Being Bad – See actors Jason Scott Lee and Li Gong transform into the film’s evil duo through intense training, spectacular costumes and more.
- Reflections of “Mulan” – Enter the studio and hear what inspired the film’s music and sound, then listen as Yifei Liu records “Mulan”‘s most iconic song.
- The Original Mulan – Ming-Na Wen, who voiced Mulan in the original animated classic, reflects on that experience and her cameo in this film.
- Deleted Scenes (some with commentary by Director Niki Caro):
- Little Sister Sewing
- Young to Old Mulan Sewing
- Hawk and Mulan Meet in Forest
- Mulan Underwater Rescued by Phoenix
- Mulan Runs Over Rourans
- Chancellor Turns Back to Witch
- Music Videos:
- “Reflection (2020)” Concept Video Performed by Christina Aguilera
- “Reflection (2020)” Lyric Video Performed by Christina Aguilera
- “Reflection” Music Video (Mandarin) Performed by Yifei Liu
- “Reflection” Music Video (English) Performed by Yifei Liu
- “Loyal Brave True” Concept Video (English) Performed by Christina Aguilera
- “Loyal Brave True” Concept Video (Spanish) Performed by Christina Aguilera
- “Loyal Brave True” Lyric Video (English) Performed by Christina Aguilera
- “Loyal Brave True” Lyric Video (Spanish) Performed by Christina Aguilera
Needless to say, if you’re into Special Features or Extras in your movie collection, Mulan has them. If you want insight into the film’s production, this has you covered. If you want to see more of the film, it’s here too. Disney isn’t shy about their special features and I don’t suspect they’ll stop soon.
Overall Score and Recommendation
It’s probably redundant by now, but the main message is this: If you are not willing to wait until it is available to stream for Disney+ subscribers at no additional cost, I would not recommend it solely for the video and audio quality, plus the extras. Sure, they’re all nice to have, but if you’re watching a movie you don’t like, there’s no real point. However, if you don’t know anything about Mulan or it’s surrounding history, it’s a good way to spend an afternoon.