The Ballad of Mulan, a sixth-century war poem about a Chinese warrior who concealed her sex while serving in the military for 12 years, manages to resonate to this day.
A story about hiding who you are, and defying the low expectations of those around you – ultimately in order to save them – is ripe with dramatic potential, and it’s no wonder that Disney’s 1998 animated classic Mulan is so cherished, nor that Disney saw fit to give the film a live-action makeover.
What’s confusing, though, is how little the Mulan reboot pays attention to its central character, or what made the previous Disney movie work. The result is a patchwork of flashy martial arts, incongruous CGI, and forced gravitas that attempts to paper over the confused tone at the film’s center – even if some of the choreography still deserves praise.
The film quickly sets up Mulan as a child prodigy, somersaulting across rooftops and earning the chiding words of her parents, who don’t know how to handle her wild and boisterous spirit (or “chi”). After that, the film largely follows the footsteps of the previous film, though with a few key differences, mostly in the introduction of a new character – a shape-shifting witch under the command of the Hun’s horde.
While 2020’s Mulan may appear to be a grounded war movie on the surface, in practice it oscillates wildly in tone.
On the one hand, it’s often very silly, with Bori Khan’s horde acting as basic movie extra villains, grunting all in black – if nowhere near as terrifying as the Hun from the 1998 animated movie, with their exaggerated talon-like hands. (Yes, I had nightmares.)
On the other hand, 2020’s Mulan continually forces a sense of gravitas, with gravelly-voiced soldiers – not least the emperor, played by Jet Li – delivering gruff statements about the incoming Hun horde in monotone.
The witch’s presence is never really well-explained, and mainly serves as mythological filler in place of Mulan’s ancestors from the animated film – along with a prominently CG phoenix that flies across the screen now and again, but never to much purpose beyond its flashy appearance.
A film that doesn’t do the work to make you care
Mulan’s time training in the army is the most watchable section, grappling with the tension and humor of being the only woman in a camp of oblivious men, while showing Mulan and her compatriots gain prowess in battle and bond over talk of girls back home. But the rest of the film is too busy aiming for large-scale spectacle to pay attention to these personal relationships, and the work done here isn’t enough to lend real stakes to the film’s climax.
That’s not to say Mulan doesn’t have some highlights. The fight choreography is superbly done and enjoyably playful, with soldiers routinely finding a way to fire arrows, vault onto horses, or outmanoeuvre their enemies with aplomb – none more so than Mulan herself, who gymnasts expertly from one fight scene to another.
It’s hard not to cheer when she kicks off a soldier’s own weapon into the air, kicks an enemy to the ground, or kicks a spear into someone’s chest (she does a lot of kicking, ok?).
Moments of wall-running in city streets, or watching movie titan Donnie Yen (playing the commander of Mulan’s regiment) swirling across the screen are always a delight too.
The problem with these moments is just that: they pass quickly, and they never quite add up to a gripping story.
A lack of reflection
There are moments of nostalgia for the original film here, with chord progressions from its soundtrack appearing in some form – even if there aren’t any in-character songs this time around – and a rendition of Reflection by Christina Aguliera that accompanies the end credits. It's hard not to miss classics such as I'll Make A Man Out Of You, Honor To Us All, or A Girl Worth Fighting For – though the 1998 movie is still available on Disney Plus for those who want to relive them.
The issue is that, while cutting the songs out of Mulan is a perfectly reasonable creative decision, the reboot doesn’t really ever replace them with anything – leaving the film without any channel for communicating its characters' internal motivations. The result is a cast of thinly-sketched characters that are never given much of an inner life, skirting over desires, hopes and fears, as not to distract from the film’s all-important set pieces.
If 1998’s Mulan was a 2D film with 3D characters, 2020’s Mulan is the reverse – and the introduction of another prominent female character (Gong Li’s witch) is undermined by how little we come to understand either her or Mulan’s motivations.
In fact, any potential for character introspection is bulldozed by a devotion to empathetic, one-word statements about the values that the film’s world expects its people to live by, whether speaking to newly-trained soldiers (“Loyal. Brave. True.”) or marriageable women (“Poise!”).
Even the film’s conclusion collapses back onto these broad-sweep statements, replacing closure with easy declarations about devotion to one’s family.
This verbal clarity underscores how confusing the film can be, with one character’s self-sacrifice coming out of nowhere, a seeming resurrection getting next to no explanation, and the action simply rushing past awkward plot points.
With Mulan skipping cinemas for online streaming, its biggest problem is the high cost Disney Plus is asking for subscribers. While it could fill an evening if you got it under the main subscription, a $29.99 / £19.99 surcharge for such an inconsistent film simply isn’t worth it – especially since it’s going to land on the platform for real this December. In this case, while Mulan may live by loyalty, I’m not sure Disney deserves yours.
Mulan is available from September 4 on Disney Plus for an additional fee of $29.99/£19.99 – or for free with a Disney Plus subscription from December 4. For a list of reviews and responses by Asian writers, check out this Twitter thread too.
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