Mulan falls short of bringing honor to the original classic

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Photo courtesy of: mintmovi3/Deviant Art

The logo for the remake of Disney’s Mulan. Directed by Niki Caro and starring Yifei Liu, the film was released to Disney+ on Sept. 4 2020.

In 1998, Disney released Mulan, a film that would, in later years, become one of the studio’s most beloved, despite waning box office figures compared to its contemporaries Aladdin and The Lion King. 

The film tells the story of a young Chinese girl, Mulan (Ming-Na Wen), who has been raised by traditional values to bring honor to her family through marriage, but fails to do so. She and her family receive word that there is an incoming invasion from the Hun army, and one man from each family must serve in the imperial army. With her father being too weak to properly fight, Mulan hides her true identity and takes his place, and, with the help of her fellow soldiers and the disgraced family guardian dragon, Mushu (Eddie Murphy), defends her country and brings honor to her family.

Given the classic status that this film has received, most people wouldn’t need this description of the story, but it’s important to have in mind when hearing the plot of the 2020 remake of Mulan, which debuted on Disney+ on Sept. 4. 

Directed by Niki Caro and starring Yifei Liu as the titular character, the film was marketed as a darker, more realistic retelling of the story, as opposed to other Disney remakes which, for the most part, try to retain the feel of the original. 

The film’s tagline reads: “Loyal, brave, true,” an obvious nod to the three themes that run through the story of the film. This being the case, it seems only fair that the contents of the film are put up against these three characteristics, both on its own and compared to the original.

 

Loyal

Yes…and no.

The film, which was perceived to be a new or refreshing take on the original story, is not entirely a new or refreshing take, which, in some eyes can be seen as a good thing, and in others as the fundamental issue with Disney remakes. 

By removing elements such as the talking dragon, the fan favorite character of Li Shang (B.D. Wong) and, most notably, the musical aspect, it would appear as if this goal was accurate and possible to achieve. This was furthered along by the announcement that the film had received a PG-13 rating, the first Disney remake to do so.

This new Mulan’s plot, which reads on IMDb as, “a young Chinese maiden disguises herself as a male warrior in order to save her father,” is similar enough to the 1998 version where it just seems redundant and unnecessary. With the remake of The Lion King that was released in 2019, the story and most of the lines remained the same, with no significant changes that could potentially rock the boat for audiences who love the original, while adding enough new lines (Timon and Pumbaa’s scenes especially) where it didn’t seem completely unnecessary. 

While Mulan was not a carbon copy of the original film as much as The Lion King, the key difference here is how the films were marketed. The Lion King did not try to hide or pretend that it wasn’t more than a CGI version of the original. Mulan very clearly tried to establish its departure from the source material even in the first trailer, so the desire for change was very evident. 

There’s nothing wrong with making changes, of course, just as long as they successfully add or benefit the film as a whole. But by subtracting the elements that made the original truly unique and truly Disney, such as the songs and Mushu the dragon, the remake feels like a shell of or a teaser for the original, with less of the charm and also less of the storytelling capability of the original. The songs convey personality and heightened emotions, which just simply weren’t gotten across with the writing or acting in this film.

 

Brave

Before going any further, the point should be made that this movie struggles on levels that aren’t just “not being as dark as people thought it would be.” However, this is still a valid criteria to judge this and frankly any movie with a decent marketing budget.

There’s nothing wrong with making changes, of course, just as long as they successfully add or benefit the film as a whole. But by subtracting the elements that made the original truly unique and truly Disney, such as the songs and Mushu the dragon, the remake feels like a shell of or a teaser for the original.”

— Owen Cummings

To properly do this, another Disney remake can be used as a parallel. Maleficent, released in 2014, was wildly different in tone, character development, and emotion than its source material, Sleeping Beauty. Its tagline was simple, to the point, and, most importantly, accurate. With the phrase “Don’t believe the fairy tale,” it got the point across right away that this was not going to be the story that audiences knew or were expecting if they were going into it expecting Sleeping Beauty.

Mulan never had a tagline like “Don’t believe the fairy tale,” which in hindsight, might have been the right call, considering it didn’t make enough justifiable changes to warrant this kind of statement, which is why it underperforms in the bravery category.

This is the most appropriate time to talk about the directing aspect of this film, as well as the specific changes in plot and acting that make it lackluster, while also examining what about the change didn’t work enough to justify its inclusion in the film.

For an animated children’s musical, the original Mulan is surprisingly cinematically and tonally heavy. With scenes such as when Mulan leaves her home for the army (which includes the famous shot of her cutting her hair with a sword) and saving the country in the middle of a fireworks show are emotionally gripping and intense, with vibrant colors and powerful music. Giving the remake credit, the cinematography is gorgeous and the coloring is very eye catching, but these qualities are stifled by lackluster editing.

The opening scene of this film (in which Mulan runs across her residence chasing a chicken, cuts around so fast that it’s not only hard to watch, but is confusing to the audience in terms of what to look at. Mulan is a child in this scene, but many of the cuts make the action look incredibly cheesy and cheap looking, which is not beneficial at all, especially in the first scene which determines if viewers want to keep watching or not. 

This film substitutes truly good directing for a sleek production feel, sacrificing large cinematic shots in the original for fast cuts in order to cover up true lack of decent action, and focusing more on a quick pace than good character building. An example of this is Mulan’s friends in the original, Yao, Ling and Chien Po, who are all well established characters with distinct personalities. 

These characters are meant to be a clear juxtaposition between the personalities of men and women when put next to Mulan.The actors, both for the men and Mulan, utilize the writing to create engaging performances to get this across. The remake doesn’t focus on any of Mulan’s friends enough to create engaging characters, only speaking certain lines from songs that would only work building up personality if they were said in contexts where the audience feels the need to pay attention to the side characters.

This is one of the biggest issues with this remake: world building. The film barely builds up an environment cinematically, or situations for characters to be established in. It doesn’t try to be anything new and exciting, it only focuses on trying to be new. By focusing only on bright colors and a fast pace, the film loses the majority  of its emotional impact, which wouldn’t be so detrimental if it wasn’t for the poor writing choices and sloppy execution. 

 

True

Apart from the addition of Mushu and the ghostly ancestor characters, the original Mulan is already a very grounded story. Mulan is not a superhero, she is a normal person with just a heightened element of bravery and cunning, along with her military training   which eventually aided her in saving the Emperor. This is why she is such a great character, and one that audiences can relate to; by putting in enough effort into a craft, it’s possible to earn the respect of a great number of people.

Now is the time to address the biggest detriment to the film as a whole: this Mulan does not symbolize the same things that the original Mulan does, or if it does, it does a poor job of showing it.

In the original, Mulan has to work in order to be able to get what she needs to save her country and her family, which is another thing that drives the message of the film home so well. By working so hard and by becoming the country’s hero, she shatters the idealistic belief of what women should be in society and becomes a true symbol of feminism and equality. 

The problem with the new Mulan character is the addition of an almost magical energy known as Chi. Mulan has a very high level of and control over her Chi, which gives her almost superhuman reflexes and acrobatics from birth, which completely bypasses that crucial element of the original character.

In the original, Mulan wins in spite of the prejudices against women. In the remake, Mulan wins because of these prejudices. She would have been defeated in battle if it weren’t for one of the villains, another woman with magical capabilities named Xianniang (Li Gong). This character sacrifices herself in the end for Mulan, not because of any emotional connection, but because she is so surprised that a woman is leading the charge.

This connection over gender isn’t a bad thing, but in terms of character development for both Mulan and Xianniang, it only comes across as lazy, especially considering Xianniang was fighting with Mulan just a few minutes earlier, and her change in heart seems to come from nowhere. 

This point aside, just the addition of Chi at all makes the character of Mulan so much less relatable, especially since she never does seem to learn any new skills; she only hides them for a period of time before using them to blow all the other soldiers away. Even other franchises with magic like Harry Potter, a crucial element is the learning and harnessing  the powers that the characters have, which this film severely lacks.

 

 

Mulan does not live up to expectations nor the impact of the original. It makes very few changes that render it justifiable, while also not sticking enough to the story or characters to feel like a respectable tribute. It strips away the true essence of why Mulan is a compelling character and places that in a confused and frantic sense of cinematic direction. The colors are pretty and the music soars, but overall the film is a poor reflection of an all time classic.

 

Rating: 4/10

 

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