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Disney’s new Mulan: Pack up, go home, you’re through

The Mulan remake jettisons everything great about Disney’s animated classic and delivers nothing new.

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Liu Yifei as Mulan.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

“Let’s get down to business!” orders the commander of the conscripted army in 1998’s Mulan, as he’s trying to whip his ragtag officers into shape. The line kicks off the excellent montage song “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” a number steeped in irony, because it’s the one thing that the commander can’t do to Mulan — a girl who’s disguised herself as a boy and run away from home to join the imperial forces.

That song, and all of its cheeky irony, doesn’t make it into Disney’s new live-action adaptation of the animated hit Mulan. Though it may be the most highly anticipated of all Disney’s recent remakes, spiritually, there’s little connective tissue between the 2020 version and its predecessor.

But then, there’s also little connective tissue within the new film. Instead, for all its screenplay’s threadbare talk about the importance of cultivating deep understanding, Mulan stays superficial and perfunctory. It gets down to business — and little else.

Mulan’s few bright spots can’t save it from clunky writing

To a degree, every one of Disney’s recent string of live-action adaptations of its animated classics has had to justify itself — its reason for existing. The many films Disney has tried to put new spins on have ranged from beloved ’90s films whose remakes failed to serve much purpose, like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, to older films, like Dumbo and The Jungle Book, which unquestionably benefited from applying more progressive contemporary lenses to their initially problematic tellings.

Mulan seems to fall outside of these two extremes. The 1998 animated film won high critical praise and legions of devoted fans. The plot of this version of Mulan is fairly simple: Mulan has been struggling to behave as a proper young lady when she learns her aging father has been drafted into the emperor’s army.

Disguising herself as a man, Mulan joins the regiment in her father’s place. There, she learns to fight, builds character, and makes friends with the guys. After her gender is inadvertently revealed and she faces disgrace, she chooses to fight as a girl, ultimately saving the emperor, winning honor, and becoming a hero. It’s all straightforward, but the presence of lots of fun side characters, a few strong musical numbers, and thrilling battle sequences, all gorgeously animated, make the original Mulan a standout in the Disney canon.

There’s plenty of potential for expansion and development in its narrative about the Chinese folk hero Hua Mulan, who rose to fame as a great warrior after risking her honor and her life to join the army in an era where no women were allowed. Hua Mulan is the stuff of legend, and like all legends, her character can stand the tests of revision and recalibration. The film also has some awkward cultural stereotyping to undo; and as a story where the hero unquestionably defends the Chinese empire, the new film could also have done more to critique the geopolitics of the 1998 film through the lens of this era of protests and populism.

But the new Mulan doesn’t seem concerned with deeper characterization, deeper world-building, or even a deeper plot. Sure, it’s stylish, colorful, and decently acted, with entertaining action sequences — overall, though, the movie is a rote, flat, paint-by-numbers version of the story you already know.

With better development, these two could have been great villains.

There is some new stuff added to Disney’s 2020 take on Mulan. In particular, where the first film’s villain was an invading, genocidal child-killer, Mulan’s primary antagonists are both new characters, Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and the fighting female sorcerer Xianniang (Li Gong), who each have their own reasons for standing against the emperor. Their backstories and individual motives could have made for a rich and complicated story arc, but instead, like every other potentially interesting thing in Mulan, they’re barely given more than a few lines of exposition — never enough depth or screen time to be made interesting.

At primary fault here is a weak and non-cohesive screenplay. Mulan credits four cisgender white people for the script, and I spent the entire film being mad at all of them. The script is clunky, humorless, and full of jarringly awkward exposition. Characters we love, in particular Eddie Murphy’s comical dragon Mushu, have been excised. Others who’ve been imported from the 1998 version get introduced without clear definitions, as though the writers hope the audience will simply insert pre-established characterizations from that other film into this one. That would be fine if this were a Mulan fanfic or direct sequel, but it’s incredibly frustrating to see in a standalone film more than 20 years removed from the animated feature.

Again and again, plot ideas are introduced but never delved into. Mulan apparently has extraordinary qi (the energy that powers all living things according to many Chinese spiritual practices), but we don’t know why hers is so much stronger than most people’s, or why she’s so inherently ashamed of it, since powerful qi is a highly desirable (and non-gendered) attribute in Chinese culture. A couple of nonsensical third-act plot points are tossed in for convenience and then hand-waved away.

At a few points, narration attempts to wedge in whole emotional arcs that would have been nice to have seen unfold onscreen. This voiceover thing happens most distressingly at the film’s emotional climax, which was so muddy, I wound up having to stop and rewind to see if I’d missed some major dramatic shift that led up to it. I hadn’t missed it — it just wasn’t there.

The weak writing makes Mulan’s gender issues a lot messier

The lack of emotional development especially shortchanges the movie’s main plot thread — Mulan battling, and ultimately coming to terms with, her gender. The new Mulan, I’m sorry to say, offers a much more binary reading of gender than its predecessor, which was frequently unsubtle in the way it coded Mulan’s refusal to accept her assigned gender, offering multiple readings of the character.

In the original film (as in the folklore), Mulan was able to pass successfully as a man until she was inadvertently unmasked; in the new film, she isn’t fully able to pass. It’s implied that her love interest, the new character Honghui (Yoson An), knows her gender long before she decides to reveal herself. And that’s a key difference that the live-action film doesn’t come close to pulling off — making Mulan’s gender reveal make sense and feel satisfying.

To be clear, Mulan doesn’t need to work as a narrative story of trans or nonbinary identity to be successful. The original Mulan is a great film, whether you read it as a trans man coming to embrace his identity or as a cisgender girl finding empowerment to be herself.

But in this film, regardless of how you read Mulan’s gender, the story fails to present this giant conflict in a way that feels compelling. Mulan’s guilt over hiding her cis identity is what drives her big emotional shift — only we don’t really see or feel Mulan’s internal conflict, apart from a couple of repeated references to her failure to embody “truth.” What we see onscreen far more often than Mulan feeling guilty for deceiving everyone is Mulan being preoccupied with successfully passing as a man, a classic trans mentality that invites us to empathize with her as a potentially trans character.

Mulan reaching for a sword in the live-action Mulan film.
Mulan’s sumptuous art design can’t save it.

And because we see Mulan leaning so strongly toward presenting as transmasculine, the film’s conflation of “true” identity with the gender you’re assigned at birth, and Mulan’s ultimately abrupt embrace of her womanhood, feels a little like ... transbaiting. If queerbaiting in the modern sense involves intentionally including overt queer subtext in a work in order to capitalize on a queer audience, only to later textually reject the possibility of queer relationships, then this version of Mulan feels a lot like that for trans identity, a tantalizing tease to trans viewers that ultimately reinforces a gender binary — like it wants to have its gender reveal party cake and eat it too.

I’m reluctant to place too much blame on the film’s director, Niki Caro, for this, especially when her most famous film, Whale Rider, deftly explores a girl’s emotional growth in very similar circumstances to Mulan, without ever shortchanging her female empowerment. I’m even less reluctant to blame Mulan’s actress Liu Yifei, who does her best to imbue personality into a lifeless and humorless script. But the script problems seem to dictate how flat the movie feels as a whole, and neither director nor star succeeded in rejuvenating the words on the page.

It’s still nice seeing Mulan as a live-action story; it’s a relief that the original film’s stereotypical jokes, language, and characterizations have been excised, and there’s enough entertainment happening onscreen that most viewers will feel like they’ve, you know, watched a movie. As you’d expect from a Disney film, the art direction and scenic design are especially well done. Caro’s direction is strong at various points throughout the film, particularly during the action sequences, which are often clever despite some awkward editing. The cast boasts a litany of Asian all-stars, from martial arts legends Donnie Yen (Mulan’s commander) and Jet Li (the emperor) to Li Gong’s fascinating antihero.

But the film doesn’t really do anything with them. The original film, with all its moving parts, still managed to nudge multiple characters along paths that felt like growth. Without more attention paid to character development, in this film, character decisions largely just seem to happen out of nowhere. And it’s not like the film gives us anything else interesting in exchange for all the things it’s left out.

The new Mulan is about 20 minutes longer than the original film, yet I honestly couldn’t tell you what the new film spent most of its time on, given how fully it dropped so much of the original film. There’s none of the animated movie’s well-drawn characterization, comic relief, or fun singing and dancing, which was often juxtaposed against its sobering commentary on the horrors of war. In live action, Mulan is just bland, dry storytelling, perfunctory and joyless.

Like many viewers, I’d wanted great things from this film. Indeed, many hoped Mulan would be the crown jewel of Disney’s recent remake project. This film falls far short of that — and that’s not even considering its controversially high $30 streaming ticket price. Most viewers will be watching the new Mulan on Disney+ alongside the 1998 version. With the original Mulan right there, this kicker is just too easy: Accept no substitutes.

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