Warning: this review contains spoilers for both versions of “Mulan.”
That was my initial response as the film concluded. It was . . . okay overall, but far inferior to its animated counterpart. In summary, the movie was just your generic, stale Disney slag.
Of course, the price tag for this feature film was far from ordinary, and not in the pleasant way. At a cost of $30 PLUS a Disney+ subscription, “Mulan” charged steakhouse prices for the quality of a McDonald’s.
“Mulan’s” attempt to accurately portray Chinese culture is an abject failure – even according Chinese critics themselves. SupChina’s Dennis Yi, drawing from other sources published in Chinese, provided critique on the inclusion of Chinese cultural iconography:
One review (in Chinese) compared the incorporation of ‘authentic’ Chinese cultural elements into the movie with ‘the taste of General Tso’s Chicken’: “It is cooked in a wok and served with chopsticks, but that doesn’t make it Chinese food…. you can gain magical spear-kicking abilities by being yourself is hardly [a value] shared by the Chinese.
The biggest flaw the movie faces, however, are the characters – or rather the complete lack of character.
The relatable, enjoyable Mulan in the original was replaced by essentially a kung fu robot. I’m perfectly fine with a woman being the strong, powerful protagonist when the story works and she is written well, but the modern Mulan fails at both counts.
One of the joys of the original Mulan was watching her grow in skill with the rest of the army, feeling the same satisfaction and joy she does when she finally succeeds. Skill isn’t given to her, she has to learn it and earn it – which she does.
The modern Mulan, however, has nothing to learn because she’s a master at everything even before she steps foot in the camp. The movie’s explanation — that she waved a staff around as a kid, therefore she’s mastered every single art of combat — is incredibly weak and barely explains her unrealistic talent. Wielding a staff is extremely different from wielding a sword, let alone archery on horseback — which she executes perfectly on her very first try. Because she must have mastered horseback archery in the 15 seconds we cut away from her during the battle scene. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s the kicking arrows into the hearts of her enemies while backflipping. Maybe the chickens taught her that?
Mulan’s spirit ‘sidekick’ in this adaptation manages to be somehow both better and worse than the original’s Mushu. In the original “Mulan”, Mushu was a small dragon spirit wannabe who, after failing to wake up the spirit first tasked with bringing Mulan home, goes and helps the protagonist become a war hero in the hopes this will help him to become a spirit again.
By comparison, in the remake the Dragon is replaced by a phoenix, who never says a word or even interacts with Mulan all that much. I personally prefer the former – the dragon had more personality, better relationship, and a much closer connection to Mulan than the phoenix does. I would’ve liked to see the phoenix play a similar role, or at least a bigger one in the movie! However, in the phoenix’s defense, a more realistic adaptation would require less of a comic relief than a spiritual guide. Having the phoenix be a simple guide without saying a word is arguably how a spirit companion would more faithfully act, thus the replacement here is serviceable — though this does raise the question, why doesn’t everyone have a similar spirit?
The side characters are tolerable. The only time they become annoying is in the final battle, when they, still being newly-trained soldiers with no exceptional battle experience, singlehandedly defeat the villain’s elite henchmen without so much as a scratch.
The witch, an entirely new antagonist introduced in the remake, is a confusing, largely redundant waste of potential that feels like she was solely inserted by the Disney profiteers to make Mulan more allegedly empowering and feminist. For example, it’s stated that she has enough power to simply kill the main villain with ease and take over herself- yet instead, she opts for the highly successful battle strategy of “use your chest as the main protagonist’s shield”. Is that really the best the “powerful” witch could do to help the main character out?
“Mulan” isn’t a terrible movie, despite these flaws. It’s watchable. However, it doesn’t stand out, either among the Disney remakes or movies as a whole. Unlike the original, whose charm, emotion, and endless vault of quotable lines will have people always returning, the modern remake of “Mulan” has none of those. It’s stale, reeking of raw grabs for profit.
Save your $30, just get a Disney+ subscription, and watch the original for an extra charge of zero instead.