Mulan review: Disney’s live-action movie lacks the heart, soul, and humour of the animated classic

Mulan review: Disney’s live-action movie lacks the heart, soul, and humour of the animated classic

Reflect before ya act

Text: Emily Heng

I'll cut to the chase: objectively, there's nothing objectionable about Disney's new-age Mulan. As with most of their live-action remakes, it stays largely true to the original. Mulan's war-veteran father is as stern and kind as ever; there's that hilariously disastrous matchmaker appointment; and training montages of men flailing around with buckets and sticks. Sure, there are some notable omissions from the animated feature in its 115-minute run-time, but 2020's Mulan does, essentially, retains its core — one centered around a girl fighting a war in her father's stead. What it fails to do, however, is preserve any of the story's emotional beats.

What you get in its place is an inert and rather hollow re-telling of a familiar tale. In the original, Mulan is far from the most proficient combatant. She is spirited and headstrong, but struggles to grasp basic military skills even under Shang's tutelage. We witnessed her despair when he declares her a hopeless case, got teary-eyed at her determination when it came to scaling that damned pole, and reveled in her eventual triumph at outsmarting the Huns on the battlefield.

Niki Caro's interpretation, however, opts to skip past Mulan's trajectory, painting her a woman brimming with qi; a gift reminiscent to the Force from Star Wars that is meant for "warriors, not daughters." This translates to superior speed, balance, and skill that make her a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield. Mulan is shown — even as a child — to harbour this "boundless energy" that makes her fully capable of kicking a grown woman's a** with the twirl of her fan. Great for moving the plot along, but not so much when it comes to getting your audience invested in the main character.

That, by and large, is the hugest hurdle Mulan faces: a regrettable absence of meaningful interaction, dialogue, or context to make us care about the stakes at hand. We're 90 minutes into the movie before we're even told the name of Mulan's love interest; there's next to nothing disclosed about Yao, Ling, Chien-Po, or Chi-Fu; nor is there any tension surrounding Mulan's deception, to the point where she plays a boy so convincingly Donnie Yen's Commander Tung actually requests she consider his daughter for marriage.

It's safe to say that to fully enjoy the movie — and to convince yourself that your ticket was money well-spent — you must abandon all expectations and preconceptions of it living up to 1998's rendition. Don't head into the theatres expecting realism, either. I gave up on that endeavour shortly after Mulan whipped off her chest plates and armour to charge into battle; a symbolic decision that fell flat seeing how doing so in a real-life situation is likely to get you gored in about six seconds. She also unwound her hair from its practical bun, where it blew majestically away from her face the entire time she thrust her sword about. Is that the mystical qi at work? If so, I, too, would love some of that so I can eat char kway teow with a fan on full blast without having to tie up my hair.

There are bright spots: Gong Li's multi-faceted anti-hero adds a nuanced touch to the trite script; there are engaging fight scenes aplenty set to a beautiful score; and an appearance from original Mulan voice actress, Ming Na-Wen. None of it, unfortunately, is enough to save the film from its various shortcomings.

Mulan is not unwatchable, at any rate — especially if you can forgive how the director took a story packed with heart and humour to deliver a character one-dimensional and tedious. Is she a girl worth fighting for? No, but I suppose I could muster a half-hearted cheer.