The New ‘Mulan’ Is a Huge Departure From the Animated Film—and Better For It
OK, there are no singing or talking dragons. But a strong vision for how empowering this tale could be, and welcome lavish battle sequences, make up for that loss of fun.
The first time you see Hua Mulan in the new Disney live-action film, she is a young girl in a field, wielding a staff like a warrior training for battle as her father, Hua Zhou, looks on with admiration.
“If you had such a daughter, her chi, the boundless energy of life itself, speaking through her every motion, could you tell her that only a son could wield a chi?” Hua Zhou, played by Tzi Ma, says in a voice-over. “That a daughter would risk shame, dishonor, exile? Ancestors, I could not.”
Sunbursts on director Niki Caro’s lens cast a soft light on the ease, grace, and strength with which the young girl already has mastered martial arts technique. Her gifts are unusual for a girl in her village, but, at least at this point in her life and at least by her father, not underappreciated or, more, unknown.
From moment one, this Mulan establishes itself on a divergent path from the equally beloved and criticized 1998 animated Disney musical, which featured a hammy Eddie Murphy voicing a talking dragon, songs like “Reflection” and “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” and revolutionary steps for both Asian representation and feminist heroes in mainstream, family-friendly film. They were steps that were subsequently and intensely scrutinized for remixing the folklore of “The Ballad of Mulan,” westernizing and misrepresenting Chinese culture, and a clumsiness in the gender politics of Mulan’s journey.
This Mulan’s path is one of course correction, lending more space and, with it, majesty to the character’s battle-worn hero’s arc. There’s a more sincere celebration of the Chinese history and virtues at the heart of the tale, and, most importantly and finally, agency for Hua Mulan.
In the animated film, Mulan’s strength and combat prowess only present themselves once she poses as a man and is respected as such. Here, they are inherent and cultivated.
Just as it is her decision to assume the identity of a male soldier-in-training, it is also her choice, later in the film, to reveal herself as a female warrior. She is not exposed in shame, but announced with self-proclaimed dignity. As an orchestra sounds the familiar chords of “Reflection,” it’s a moment that earns its goosebumps.
Yet there is much that those who studied up for the pandemic-delayed release of the film by revisiting the cartoon version won’t recognize. (Disney+ is day-and-date making the movie available to stream Friday for a hefty $29.99, in addition to the monthly $6.99 subscription fee.)
Say goodbye to Mushu and characters bursting into song. Some might say there goes the fun, too.
They’d be right to an extent, in that this Mulan is so successful in recasting the narrative in a more authentic and empowering light—fully coming alive about halfway through the film when Mulan rises as a warrior—that any allegiance to the lighter, comedic broad swings of the animated version are labored and comparatively juvenile. Slapstick scenes, like Mulan’s awkward meeting with the Matchmaker or the antics of her buffoonish army comrades, seem out of a different movie.
But that tension between faithfulness to the familiar film and telling the story anew underlines why, in many ways, this might be Disney’s most successful live-action adaptation yet.
Too often these efforts adhere so strictly to recreating indelible moments, to the extent that last year’s The Lion King essentially just reanimated the original with more sophisticated technology, and the question of “what is the point?” crashes with a loud, fun-ruining thud. Then there is the case of something like Dumbo, which frolicked with the idea of reinvention so fecklessly that the spirit of the classic essentially evaporated.
This Mulan finds itself struggling in the early sections to break free from a sense of duty to restage bits from the cartoon, never quite achieving the necessary whimsy and thus is a chore to get through. But after a bit of self-conscious throat-clearing, it arrives at its own vision of how the story deserves to be told, one that works so well because it doesn’t fully lose sight of the story’s identity and roots along the way.
When you watch the 1998 musical Mulan, you may laugh at Murphy’s line readings, cringe at the dated cross-dressing gags, and sing along to the music. But what you’ll be most struck by is, even in the confines of a family-friendly Disney movie, its emotional gravitas.
The stakes are immediately established, and are as formidable as they are brittle. A daughter is told she can only bring honor to her family through feminine poise and marriage, and is dealt the crushing shame of failure. When her father must go to war to fight for China, a surefire death sentence given his physical condition, she steals away in the middle of the night to take his place. She knows she will save his life, but also that she will bring yet more shame to her family in doing so—a worthwhile cost.
Large, conflicting themes are in constant and acute battle: honor and duty, family and country, and then also family and self. The profound loss and sadness of war isn’t skipped over, and battle isn’t glamorized. As far as Disney movies go, the sheer body count is harrowing, as is the certitude with which the characters pledge, “Prepare to fight. If we die, we die with honor.”
The gender politics are messier. Sure, there are nuance-free platitudes to celebrate: Girls are as strong as boys; there is greatness inside of everyone waiting to blossom; the greatest warriors are those who can be themselves. But there are also problematic lessons, too: Only when acting as a boy did Mulan discover she was strong; female heroism only exists in fantasy.
From a plot standpoint, the new film’s most noteworthy changes are that Mulan’s love interest from the animated film, Li Shang, is no longer her captain but her fellow soldier, Chen Honghui, played with crush-worthy wily swagger by Yoson An.
And it’s not a wisecracking dragon that guides Mulan through her journey of discovery, but a shapeshifting witch (played by the inimitable Gong Li), who at first presents as her foil before, to quite emotional effect, serving as the catalyst for her self-actualization. This arc is so great, it only further exposes how poorly drawn true villain Bori Khan is, a weakness which threatens to deflate the whole film. (Strangely, Disney has had similar issues with the villains in “live-action” versions of The Lion King and Aladdin.)
Hua Mulan left her family and assumed the identity of Hua Jun, masquerading as a man as she trained under the virtues that a warrior must be brave, loyal, and true. Hua Jun is brave and loyal, but also a lie. At some point, Jun must die so that Mulan can live. Caro directs with a sensitive hand to the emotional heaviness of these moments, which soar in a powerful collaboration with the performance of Liu Yifei.
The Chinese-American actress won the role in a casting search of over 1,000 hopefuls, and transcends even the high expectations of the person tasked with inhabiting such a complicated role.
Caro stages her combat scenes practically, highlighting the extreme physicality demanded of Liu. And while a few of the camera angles and tracking choices dance between disorienting and merely flat, centering all of them is Liu’s fierce intensity. There’s a lush marriage between delicateness and precision, and beauty and power, in these sequences. Liu lets Mulan’s hair cascade down her shoulders and toss naturally through the air as she wields her chi, like her father foretold in those early scenes.
Most striking is that, for all that formidable force, Liu never sacrifices vulnerability, inviting you into the bravery and the fear involved in giving permission to yourself to be who you are and unleash the possibility of who you can be. There’s undeniable significance in watching the Chinese-born actress in a role like this giving a performance this great, justifying the scrutiny the casting process was under.
There’s a moment near the end of the film, too, that acknowledges the similar significance of the animated film, imperfect as it was, and the representation it brought. For Disney fans who have an attachment to the movie, it’s quite an overwhelming scene. And therein lies the unique demands a film like this faces, but also the watershed reward if it gets it right.
There are fans who fear betrayal. A culture and a history that demands respect, authenticity, and visibility. Themes that are revolutionary and essential, but also fragile and laden with tripwires. Through it all, there must be entertainment.
This Mulan suffers plenty of imperfections and disappointments. But, in that, maybe there’s honor, too.