At the end of 2019, Disney gifted us with the official trailer to its live-action remake of “Mulan”. I remembered watching it once on YouTube, and then again in theaters. Both times I couldn’t help but think please Disney, do not screw this one up.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not here to point out everything wrong with Disney’s live-action renditions of its beloved animated classics. I don’t hate the idea of getting the opportunity to see characters we grew up loving portrayed by great actors, paired with today’s evolving technology. I actually enjoyed “Beauty and the Beast”, released in 2020,and found myself having a genuinely good time, enjoying the grandeur of it all, fantastic casting, and songs we all know and love.
But what I started to quickly realize time and time again was my waning satisfaction with these remakes and in some cases an overall indifference to some. It took me a while to watch “Aladdin” and I have yet to see “Lady and the Tramp”and The Lion King, all three of which were released in 2019 . I craved the same sense of magic, wonder and inspiration I had felt watching animated Disney films, but felt that the live-action ones fell short, as greater emphasis was placed on special effects rather than storyline.
Nonetheless, I placed my faith in Mickey Mouse again, and paid $30 on top of my $3.99 per month Disney+ subscription to watch this year’s “Mulan” on my family’s television – something that I would come to regret faster than you can say “loyal, brave and true”.
Within the first 15 minutes or so, I found myself cringing at the film’s use of visual effects used to awkwardly portray a young and innately powerful Mulan. Already, I could feel the disappointment creeping in and the mental notes began.
I began to notice moments throughout the movie that had me questioning whether or not there was intentional voice dubbing being used or if, perhaps, our WiFi had somehow caused a connection problem. But after consulting with my mom who was watching next to me, alas, my eyes were not playing tricks on me. There did in fact seem to be technical issues that were either accidentally overlooked, or left in thinking nobody would notice. The overuse of visual effects and computer-generated imagery in scenes was only one problem, the poor writing and lack of representation quickly became apparent.
“Mulan” deserves credit for the visually appealing sweeping landscapes, training and war scenes, something that would have looked fantastic on the big screen. However, what we came here for,the heart of Mulan’s story ,is missing.
Character development? You won’t find it here. Seriously, you won’t get Mushu and Li Shang, but instead a bunch of characters who will mean absolutely nothing to you when the credits start rolling.
What’s worse is that overall I felt this indifference towards Mulan. How could I possibly feel this way toward the film’s main character you ask? If we start at the beginning, the writers decided to portray Mulan as someone who holds the power of the “qi”. This power Mulan was born with limits any possibility for real character growth, as she’s already gifted. Viewers never see Mulan’s struggles and feel her pain as she trains alongside an army of men because she’s able to hone into her “qi” giving her supernatural powers without explanation. It would be the equivalent of never explaining the significance behind “the force” in early “Star Wars” films; just imagine how confused we’d be today.
As the audience, we’re left to decide on our own what “qi” is, its cultural significance or how one even comes about obtaining it because it’s never fully explained. This creates a huge cultural gap for non-Chinese viewers, and takes away any sort of suspense from the audience.
Maybe she’s born with “qi”, maybe it’s Maybelline?
Is it even something all that significant when you have a shapeshifting witch, Xian Lang, and Rouran soldiers who can climb walls and catch arrows with ease? Do they have the “qi” too? We don’t know.
I was surprised by the lazy writing. Disney spent a reported $200 million budget on creatives to retell Mulan’s story, but her narrative arc is sped through, leaving very little room for the viewers to form any emotional connection. For example, after revealing her gender, Mulan is kicked out of her unit, deemed dishonest and untrue. We watch as she briefly deals with this emotionally. When she returns shortly after, she is nearly killed for disobeying orders but then reinstated and given a leadership position within a blink of an eye. Scenes never reach a high point due to the lack of logical and meaningful transitions completely thrown out the window over and over again, making for weak moments with integral characters.
Countless other unnecessary details plague the film. There was no clarification on Mulan’s sexuality despite the insinuations throughout the movie. Her interest in one of her male peers never fully developes but instead comes tantalizing close, leading me to believe that there was an implication that Mulan was not interested in men. For a moment I thought she might have been written as a lesbian character after a fairly long moment with a dying Xian Lang who dies giving her life for Mulan and saving her from Bori Khan’s arrow.
I thought at this moment they might kiss, but then nothing happens. So then I figured she’d likely end up with Chen Honghui, her fellow recruit, but this too never fully develops into anything. I also couldn’t help but wonder if Chen was perhaps gay or bisexual as it’s never fully explained if he knew all along of Mulan’s true identity, but it seems apparent that he always drawn to her, even when disguised as a man. So in the end, I never really knew if she was also coming to terms with her sexual identity or simply seeking the right timing to share her feelings with Chen.
The “funny” points sprinkled in for some comedic relief aren’t funny at all, and simply cannot replace Mulan’s witty remarks and Mushu from the animated version. Everything from Mulan’s sister being afraid of spiders and eventually finding a husband who isn’t afraid of spiders to a “man-to-man” fireside chat with fellow recruits before war; the humor falls flat. The only reason you’ll find yourself laughing will be after you realize you are a joke, having just spent $30 and two hours to watch this movie.
There are some issues that hinder the full concept of female empowerment, like giving Mulan power of the “qi” and having all repeated disapproval come from female characters, while the men are quite forgiving even after Mulan’s true identity is revealed. There are moments where I almost feel convinced that her experiences disguised as a man are critical to how Mulan conceptualizes her leadership and these scenes overshadow her identity as a woman. Disney glosses over Mulan’s struggles painting an idealistic model of female empowerment. If their message is that female empowerment is easy to claim while letting your hair blow dramatically in the wind then…sign me up? As a young woman of color, I was excited to have another movie with a badass female lead, especially one led by a Chinese actress. But what I found was that I felt little to no resonation with this year’s Mulan because, though she runs into a few hiccups here and there, she doesn’t really have to work for anything she’s rewarded in the end. As someone who has had to work hard to get further in life, “Mulan” is a testament to Disney’s struggle with strong female characters of color in its live-action films.
Overall, the film also seems to slap together Chinese culture in an inauthentic way, and in the end, we are assured that indeed, this is a Chinese inspired story told from a Western point of view as Christina Aguilara’s songs play before the Mandarin version of “Reflection”. I found this decision to be highly offensive since this song would probably play to a near empty theater, seeing as how not many folks stay until the end of the credits.
But one thing that I cannot stress enough, is how great this film could have been with Asian representation behind-the-scenes. The film, which consists of a cast of amazingly talented and noteworthy Asian actors, depicts something that is seemingly diverse. But it doesn’t matter if you have great talent if the story isn’t up to par. It is performative activism at it’s best.
None of some of the most important roles were given to a person of Chinese background. Roles from director to writers to costume designer were handed to white creatives. When you don’t bring people onto a team who have actual understanding and experiences with a subject, you end up with a watered-down and frankly disrespectful version of what could be. This live-action remake of “Mulan,” is lacking diversity where it matters and it shows on screen. I genuinely believe that part of the reason why films like “Black Panther” do so well is because there is diversity of talent happening on both sides of the camera, which lends itself well to the story.
I hope that if you’re only to take one thing away from this review, it’s that we need to continue holding people accountable when the need for increased visibility is on both ends: onscreen and offscreen. The live-action “Mulan” failed not only because it relied on visuals to carry the storyline, but it was also a disservice to Chinese culture and “Mulan” fans.
I greatly attribute this to the lack of representation off-screen and hope that people will begin to truly put their money where their mouth is when speaking on inclusion and diversity efforts. Save your $30 and stop settling for lousy remakes of films that should just be left alone, unless they actually add value to what already exists. And as for Disney, no amount of Baby Yodas or churros can make up for the dishonor felt watching “Mulan”.
As Mushu would say, “dishonor on you, dishonor on your cow”.