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A Reflection on Disney’s Live-Action ‘Mulan’ – Review

Let me preface this review with the fact I am highly protective of the animated 1998 animated Disney Mulan film and I am the self-appointed president of the Mulan fan club. With that being said, I went into this live action viewing with low expectations given all that’s been speculated. From the early news about nixing the musical aspect prominent in the animated film to the fact that the initial live action screenplay inserted a white male lead, I wasn’t sure what to anticipate. However, I held back my judgments as I watched and well…I have some thoughts.

Warning: This review contains spoilers for Disney’s live-action Mulan

There was no doubt that the live-action was going to be compared to the animated film. Even I found myself frequently making those comparisons as I tried to watch and enjoy the live action as a standalone movie. Granted, it’s got a star-studded cast with Liu Yifei as the titular character, Gong Li as Xianniang, Donnie Yen as Commander Tung, and Jet Li as the Emperor; the movie had a lot to live up to. Plus, given the early rumors that the live-action would not be like the animated movie, I fully believed that they would be two completely different movies. However, the live-action contained essentially the same major plot points that carried our heroine in its animated counterpart.

If you’ve seen the animated Mulan (Which, if you haven’t what are you doing? Please go watch it! It’s so good!), then you’ll definitely recognize major similarities that overlap with that movie and this one. I personally hadn’t expected that because I had resigned myself to the possibility that the live-action would be completely different from the animated version. And so, when I saw the similarities, I was actually pleasantly surprised. That did mean that I knew how the movie was going to go, but I enjoyed the story nonetheless because there were enough differences and side plot that kept me on the edge of my seat.

(Courtesy of Disney)

The live-action was not a full frame-by-frame remake which I am grateful for. I thought I would miss the musical aspect of the movie, and I absolutely did. Shang is also not in the movie, nor is Mushu. In fact, dragons in general are not a pertinent symbol in the movie whatsoever and have instead been replaced by phoenixes. I didn’t like that as much even though the phoenix served the same purpose as the dragon: as a protector to Mulan. But, if you’re subscribed to the “Great Stone Dragon” theory from the animated film (basically, the Great Stone Dragon that protects the family is embodied by Mulan so that she is in fact the Great Stone Dragon and the actual Protector of the Fa family), the phoenix does not have the same thematic impact. Really, the phoenix just becomes a deus ex machina plot device.

Then this movie brings in the notion of chi to explain why Mulan and Xianniang are so powerful, but it hardly goes into depth to explain why that is a thing! Why can’t the women in this movie be powerful just because? While there is a brief explanation that’s provided halfway through the movie, it feels like one too many things going on. Why was that necessary to add in? My theory is that it’s really only there to cover the loophole as to why Xianniang has magical abilities that apparently no one else in the movie has! Don’t get me wrong, Xianniang is bad ass and her abilities are cool, but it just made no sense to me if I’m forced to think about it for too long.

Patriarchy and the struggles of it was obviously a very pertinent theme of the movie. It almost feels like low-hanging fruit to talk about it because it’s such an obvious theme, but I can agree that it is carried out poignantly throughout the movie. The movie really pushed that theme by stating society held women back rather than individuals being misogynistic. I think in the end, Mulan is and always has been empowered to be her own person, but she’s only really able to rise above that when men explicitly say so and outwardly support her. On her own, she’s unable to accomplish that.

Gong Li as Xianniang in Mulan (Courtesy of Disney)

For example, after Mulan was expelled from the regiment and returned to warn the army of Böri Khan’s plan, her commander didn’t believe her until the other men stood up for her. So on one hand, society expected women – and specifically Mulan – to act a certain way. Clearly, only men were allowed to challenge societal rules, even in supporting Mulan. And yet, even after the way she had been treated – beaten down by the patriarchy, exiled from the army for being a woman – she still decided to help Imperial China because it’s the honorable thing to do. So in the end, there is no questioning Mulan’s honor, but I was a little disappointed because it didn’t feel like Mulan really accepted herself until men accepted her.

Major spoiler, but killing off Gong Li’s character, Xianniang, is an absolute travesty because I love Gong Li so much. Mulan and Xianniang were meant to serve as narrative foils: two powerful women who have been victims of patriarchal oppression. But Xianniang represents a sense of jadedness that has resulted from the poor treatment she’s endured, whereas Mulan is young with the potential of paving a new path to a more hopeful, more “honorable” outcome. In the end, Mulan convinced Xianniang to betray Böri Khan and instead “do the right thing.” I get that narratively, it’s impactful, but Xianniang was such a bad ass character that it sucked to see her sacrifice herself for the greater good.

The cinematography throughout the movie has some stellar moments. My favorite were the wide shots of the scenery which are absolutely gorgeous. The colors are vibrant and with natural landscapes, the scene really comes to life. And the score! The flourish of the score calls back to the animated film, and as someone who carries that movie in deeply my heart, it was an effective musical element that resonates with nostalgia and and emotion.

Mulan - live-action still
Liu Yifei as Mulan in Mulan (Courtesy of Disney)

My absolute show-stealer was Tzi Ma, who is also in Netflix’s Tigertail. His portrayal of Hua Zhou carried each scene he was in. Even in silence, the way Hua Zhou looked at his daughter, Mulan, and at his family, you could see the love in his eyes and how desperately he wanted to protect them. The conflict in upholding honor and tradition is a very pertinent theme in Mulan, certainly, but that struggle is one Hua Zhou deals with too as he combats with how to support his rambunctious daughter while also protecting her from society’s expectations of women.

Liu as Mulan was okay. That’s really all I could say. I will admit she had a command of her martial arts ability. This is a complaint that I have had with this actress for many years now, but her facial expressions leave a lot to be desired. She has a lot of silent moments and some that do stand out where a gaze or a tear speaks volumes to how she feels. But to me, each expression share a very similar absent gaze. I don’t necessarily get the power and passion that I expected from a formidable heroine. Maybe it’s because Liu’s Mulan possesses a silent power, as opposed to the characterization from the animated Mulan. Plus, I actually found her acting more enjoyable when she’s disguised than when she’s Mulan because she gets to be more expressive.

Now for a quick rundown to other actors I adored in the movie. I absolutely did not recognize Jet Li as the emperor which stunned me. That alone might be a testament to his acting and to the make-up crew. Jason Scott Lee was formidable as Böri Khan who was intimidating and imposing (though the misogynistic attitude and his enslavement of Xianniang the screenwriters imparted onto him was not my favorite. Shan Yu in the animated film didn’t seem to look down on women as Khan did in this movie.). Yoson An as Honghui, Jun Yu as Cricket (yep, Cri-Kee has been personified into a human being), Chen Tang as Yao, Doua Moua as Po (instead of Chien-Po), and Jimmy Wong as Ling were quite delightful. And Donnie Yen, whew! I thought I would hate his character Commander Tung, and there was a moment where I disliked him because he looked down on Mulan for her gender, but once he moved past that, Tung is well-meaning and he commanded the appropriate respect that came from his role.

Donnie Yen as Commander Tung in Mulan (Courtesy of Disney)

And I want to end my review on my favorite small (maybe big) scene. The one moment in the movie that made me get up and scream and shout with delight was from my favorite cameo of all time: the literal queen Ming-Na Wen. I kid you not when I say I physically got up from out of my seat and started flailing about and squealing with delight. Of course, I wish she had more screen time and more lines, but it was a lovely, sweet homage to the original Disney actress for Mulan. It was a beautiful way to honor both Wen and Mulan.

So, despite all my nit-picky complaints and how defensive I am about the 1998 Mulan and my initial low expectations of this live-action, I have to admit that I enjoyed it both as a standalone movie and as an homage to the animated film. It is a steep price to pay to watch it, though, so I don’t know if I can recommend it on that basis. And if you’re someone who is boycotting this movie, I respect and understand that too.

Disney’s live-action Mulan is begins premium streaming on Disney+ September 4.

Disclaimer: though I personally enjoyed this movie to a degree and have much praise for the cast and crew in their work, I do not endorse the political statements made by the leading actress and I stand with Hong Kong.

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