Disney's Mulan (2020)
Disney's live-action take on Mulan has (finally) arrived, offering a sweeping epic that marks one of the company's best adaptations to date. Check out our full review.
If you are anything like me, you have been impatiently waiting for the release of Disney’s live-action Mulan since the start of the year, if not earlier. The push from March to September was disappointing, but release day finally arrived.
Mulan premiered on a screen – a Disney+ screen as opposed to the Big Screen – yesterday to a lot of hype. Some good hype, some bad, but hype nonetheless.
We were in the ‘good hype’ category and Mulan did not fail to deliver.
As expected, this film has something for everyone. It follows Mulan from village girl, to male soldier, to warrior, to hero of China. A hint of romance is peppered in amongst impressive martial arts, artists and battle choreography, and there is just the right amount of humor rearing its head in an otherwise more serious adaptation.
For those of you dying to know if this version strays miles away from the beloved 1998 animated film, I do not think it did. This film brought a renewed depth to the story of Mulan and included, albeit briefly, some of the most memorable parts of the animated film.
Ultimately, if you approach the live-action film knowing that there are no typical Disney songs, no Mushu and no Shang as we know them from the animated version, you have already confronted the toughest perceived defeats of the film. This acknowledgment opens you up to a new, awe-inspiring Mulan – one that still maintains the Disney magic from beginning to end.
The ‘Disney message’ is more pronounced and arguably more powerful in this film than the animated film. Being loyal, brave and true is the sun around which Mulan’s world revolves, moving beyond animated Mulan’s struggles with what her reflection shows and achieving a comparatively elusive notion of honor, and culminating in the most significant virtue of all – devotion to family.
In one interview, director Niki Caro noted how important devotion to family is in Chinese culture. This is not the only aspect of Chinese culture beautifully cultivated in this movie. Chinese painting, history and cinema not only influences this film, but breathes life into it. The cultural roots run deeper and may introduce some viewers to aspects of Chinese culture to which they were previously unaware. For example, qi (or ‘chi’) plays a significant role and largely explains why Mulan is special in a way that assists her in becoming the hero of China. The idea that Mulan’s qi is weakened by her lie in holding herself out as male soldier Hua Juan is powerfully integrated into the story and Mulan’s development.
The story is narrated in part, immediately immersing the viewer in an atmosphere reminiscent of folktales and legends being passed down. We know that Mulan is different; that her date with the matchmaker ends in spilled tea and broken china and that Mulan takes her ailing father’s place in the imperial army. All this happens in the animated film too, though it is thoughtfully executed in a new way, thanks to many factors but not least to the use of color, music and some truly picturesque frames.
New or replacement characters also add intrigue to the film. Mushu’s role is replaced by the phoenix – a spirit guide who urges Mulan on and will, as a phoenix would do, rise from the ashes. The stern, handsome Shang’s role is split across two characters in the live-action film: Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) and Honghui, a fellow soldier in the army (Yonson An). Commander Tung strictly plays the mentor role, while Honghui is the potential love interest. This choice enabled more of a friendship to develop between Honghui and Mulan, unlike the animated film in which Shang was both potential love interest and commanding officer, limiting the scope of any playfulness or flirtatious interaction.
Mulan also has a sister, Hua Xiu, in this film, which assists in introducing Mulan’s protective streak early on by protecting Xiu from what she fears most – spiders.
Probably the most significant character addition is Xian Lang or “The Witch.” This character gives the villain role (in this film, filled by Xian and Bori Khan and his army) more substance as the story makes clear Xian and Bori’s motivations for seizing China. There are also a couple of great scenes between Xian and Mulan where both women relate to one another as women striving to find their place in the world. One particular exchange between the two hits home Mulan’s journey toward being loyal, brave and true, which is not explored on such an emotional level in the animated film as it is here.
This film is admirably an absolute powerhouse of women. From director Niki Caro, to Mulan herself, Liu Yifei, to Christina Aguilera returning with “Loyal, Brave, True” and a new version of the classic song “Reflection”, Disney recruited only the best who, in turn, delivered the best. Caro had the following to say about accomplished actress and martial artist Liu Yifei:
“The reason I knew she was right for this movie was not just because she is a brilliant actress and a smart, strong, kind human being, but because she never complained once… Yifei is a genuine warrior.”
This statement arose in the context of Yifei’s audition which was plagued by jet lag and lack of sleep from Beijing to Los Angeles in which she was then made to meet with casting on arrival, deliver five scenes in her second language and then undergo a grueling training audition. I don’t know about you, but I am hard-pressed to speak in full sentences in my native language when jet lagged, let alone engage in technical, choreographed combat, so casting here was undoubtedly done right.
Mulan’s costuming and choices related thereto also struck me as particularly significant. Mulan physically sheds her armor when she sheds the lie of Hua Juan, and letting her hair down is a nice touch. Unlike the animated version, Mulan does not cut her hair when she decides to join the army, she simply wears it up. I thought this was an interesting choice, one that emboldened her transformation from male soldier to female warrior (not to mention made for some killer marketing photographs with that majestic lengthy hair blowing in the wind). It also enforces a real sense of self and proud femininity which a woman can maintain even when they wield a sword and lead an army, because Mulan says so.