Disney has taken flak for its live-action “reboots” over the last few years: Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and even fan-favourite The Lion King were not immune to critical fallout and audience indifference.
The studio’s newest foray takes the beloved 1998 animated movie Mulan and brings it to life in a flourish of colour. Of all the Disney remakes so far, Mulan is perhaps the brightest and most engaging, and it’s a real shame that it’ll never be presented on huge movie theatre screens.
Originally slated for a March release, that dream was quashed by COVID-19, leaving Mulan floating in the ether for the past six months. Now Disney is offering it up at a price, and if you’re willing to pay extra, you can watch it all you want.
I’m not here to tell you if it’s “worth it” to pay — I take no responsibility for your personal decisions — but I will say that after viewing Mulan, I felt happy and fulfilled, and it’s definitely been a while since a movie has made me feel that way. (Sorry, Tenet.)
It’s good, then?
As with most Disney movies, there is always that feel-good element. The basic story of Mulan, which most of us are familiar with at this point — a young girl, Mulan (Liu Yifei), heads to war dressed as a boy, since societal convention holds that no girls can become warriors — inherently makes you cheer for her, and it’s heartwarming to watch her succeed.
Back in 1998, the story was just as relevant but not as much a part of the current zeitgeist, where everyday impediments and roadblocks women face are rightly being exposed. Though it’s based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan (first transcribed in the sixth century!), the story is still resonant now, and the bile rose in my throat as Mulan, throughout the first quarter of the movie, is shut down at every turn despite being clearly exceptional in the ways of battle. Her family knows it, her whole village knows it, yet because of her sex, she’s denied any opportunity. Instead, she’s slathered in makeup and beautiful clothing to be married off to a stranger. To hell with dreams, ambition and talent!
Knowing this still happens around the world and in our own families is infuriating, and the message of Mulan is more effective via human actors than it was as an animated film.
Will fans of the original be fans of this version?
Most of the diehard fans are 22 years older now, so obviously there will be some differing points of view. I am not of Asian descent, nor am I a woman, but the movie was a joy to watch for me, so I can only imagine how important it must be for those cohorts of people to have representation onscreen. There is nary a non-Asian face to be seen in the movie.
Watchers of the original will most likely feel that nostalgic pull, and I’d be surprised if fans of the 1998 version don’t connect with this film. There has been some grumbling about missing character Li Shang, who played a role in the animated movie and eventually became an implied love interest once Mulan’s true identity as a woman was revealed. Sentiment aside, Li Shang wouldn’t quite work in this modern take, and the leaps and bounds of #MeToo have made it unnecessary for every woman in every movie/TV show to “find a man.”
Producer Jason Reed told industry publication Collider that they were “uncomfortable” with the sexual love interest, and made up for it by splitting Li Shang into two characters: “We split Li Shang… one became Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) who serves as her surrogate father and mentor in the course of the movie. The other is Honghui (Yoson An) who is (Mulan’s) equal in the squad.”
Indeed, the producers made a good call here, as seeing Mulan ultimately reject any male companionship works in the context far more than her riding off into the sunset with Honghui.
What are the best elements of the movie?
As the centrepiece of the film, Liu is a pleasure to behold. Her character is at once powerful and vulnerable and she’s magnetic even when she doesn’t say a word. Mulan doesn’t depend on a single soul; she is her own being and makes her own choices, even if a man is saying “no.”
The supporting cast is excellent (Jet Li as the emperor? C’mon), and while there are little excerpts of humour, the movie could stand to have a few more jovial moments. It leans into the seriousness without providing enough levity, but that’s a small quibble.
Above all, it’s gorgeous to look at, with astounding, detailed costumes and vast Chinese landscapes. Again, it’s a real shame that cinemas aren’t playing this title, but maybe down the line it’ll get a theatrical release. (As of this writing, Disney is not planning one.)
So what’s the bottom line?
Bursting with mesmerizing scenery and framed by uplifting storytelling, Mulan is the feel-good movie we’ve been waiting for since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Finally, finally, something to make us forget.
‘Mulan’ is available for Disney+ users with Premier Access starting Sept. 4. Premier Access viewers can watch ‘Mulan’ before it’s made available to all Disney+ subscribers on Dec. 4, 2020. Disney+ is offering Premier Access to ‘Mulan’ for $34.99; once you have Premier Access to ‘Mulan,’ you can watch as many times as you want on any platform where Disney+ is available.
‘Mulan’ will not have a theatrical release in Canada.