A young Chinese maiden disguises herself as a male warrior in order to save her father. (from IMDb)
With that said, I have no attachment to the original Mulan story going into the 2020 update. Still, I found that director Niki Caro took some very odd artistic liberties in her handling of the material. Fans of the original animated movie will be disappointed to learn that Murphy's beloved fast-talking dragon Mushu is totally absent from this movie--along with the "lucky" bug that served as sort of a sidekick to Mulan. For better or worse, there are no singing numbers in this adaptation (in my opinion, it was a nice change-up), and surprisingly enough, the romantic angle of the 1998 story is completely dropped. Other huge changes begin with the addition of a witch who can change into a bird (OK?), and a "phoenix" that brings protection to Mulan (in a similar way to what Mushu did for Mulan). Lastly, Mulan is explained to have supernatural powers called "chi" and she only really becomes a hero when she stops trying to hide her chi and otherwise embraces it (in this case, it seems like "chi" could otherwise be interchangable with "The Force"). Some other plot shifts happen here and there, but Caro & Co. do pretty well to try to reference and honor the original animated story, yet also go to great lengths to make some changes so this Mulan is something new.
Overall, 2020's Mulan is a well-cast, entertaining Asian action/drama. I've seen a lot of disgusted comments online about how Caro's biggest changes (like the addition of "chi," the phoenix and the witch character) have nothing to do with Chinese culture and are insulting because of that. Other diehard fans of the 1998 film are sickened by the lack of singing, the absence of Mushu, and the missing romantic subplot. While I see points to all of those objections, I found the story entertaining and engrossing regardless. Perhaps my lack of attachment to the original (and my lack of knowledge, otherwise, of the Mulan legend) allowed me to enjoy this version a lot more than those who are closer to the source material and previous iterations.
Still, while I did find myself really enjoying this Mulan, it definitely doesn't all work. The 1998 animated movie had some really, really goofy (and not "witty" goofy) corny comedy. There are a few moments in this Mulan that emulate those oddball moments--from Mulan's failed meeting with the Matchmaker, to the other men in her regiment who goof around and share a few silly moments (like Cricket cuddling with whoever is sleeping nearby). Otherwise, the tone of 2020's Mulan is pretty straight and serious. The film's musical score, provided by Harry Gregson-Williams, works for the movie, but doesn't stand out as anything special. In fact, his score often closely resembles his 2010 Prince of Persia score, which, coupled with the stylized action in both films, made me think of that movie quite a few times while watching Mulan. A sweeping score (even something as unique and memorable as 2000's Shanghai Noon by Randy Edelman) could have really helped elevate the overall feel and impact of this movie. (Kind of like how Alan Silvestri's Back to the Future score, or John Williams' Star Wars, Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones scores take the movies to a whole different level.)
Otherwise, Yifei Liu is wonderful as the title character, Mulan. She's got a sweetness to her and a hidden fierceness that she's able to pull off well from scene to scene. I'm not sure she's believable for being mistaken as a man when she needs to be, but it all works well enough for the story. Any problems that seem to stick out about her character were no fault of Yifei Liu's, but of this update of the story. For one, Mulan is now a bit more like Wonder Woman than the Mulan of the 1998 film. In that movie, she learned how to be a soldier alongside her male comrades, and of course, she had some supernatural help from the dragon Mushu. Here, she has the supernatural power of "chi," and was also trained by her father to be a warrior at a young age. So, by the time she goes off to war in place of her father, she is forced to "hide" her chi and hide who she really is in order to conceal her identity. (I did, however, like the change where she assumed the name "Hua Juan" instead of... "Ping.") They also made the big mistake of omitting the scene from the animated film where she gets severely injured from a tussle with the main villain, and that is how she is discovered for who she really is. Here, they try to draw a little bit of a parallel (with a not-so-subtle death-and-rebirth metaphor), but it heavily involves the weird witch character instead, which they also use to add a little extra "girl power" to the movie. Mulan is a powerful enough warrior without having to make her seem like she wields extra, supernatural power, so I'm not quite sure why they decided to go that route. In the same way fans have maligned Disney's Star Wars sequels for making Rey seem super powerful and like she can do everything without having done anything to earn it, Mulan is rich with chi in the same way Rey was super strong in The Force; it kind of cheapens the impact of her underdog story some.
The content for this Mulan is mostly PG-13 because of the war violence. There's almost no blood shown in the movie (although there is a little bit), and there are quite a few deaths caused by soldiers being slashed with swords, stabbed with spears, or being thrown around. It's too rough for younger viewers, but it's still on the lighter side than a Lord of the Rings PG-13, or even the aforementioned also-Disney movie Prince of Persia, which was surprisingly pretty bloody. The only real noticeable blood in this Mulan comes after Mulan slashes the witch's palm with her sword, drawing a couple droplets which we see fall to the ground. There's also another scene--much like the animated movie--where Mulan's troop rides into a field which is littered with dead soldiers. This is shown dimly lit, so it's not graphic, but the sight of helmets piled high and dead bodies strewn about may be unsettling to some. Lastly, the witch character will be disturbing to some for sure. In one of her first scenes, she possesses a man, and we see their shadows merge into one. She ends up possessing a couple other men during the film, and this is a much darker spiritual theme than what the animated movie offered. The movie also presents her as kind of a damaged woman-gone-astray - the yin to Mulan's yang, so to speak. It makes her whole character puzzling, really - especially if her evil powers don't seem to have much to do with her being evil.(?!) Oh--and for anyone who finds spiders unsettling, Mulan's meeting with the Matchmaker is upended when a spider descends from the ceiling and startles Mulan's sister. (And the camera focuses on the little pest for a few shots.)
Overall, I was surprised to have enjoyed this Mulan as much as I did. To me, as an adult, I thought it was a lot more enjoyable than the 1998 animated venture (although I still appreciate good animated films, so age probably has little to do with it in my case.) Some of people's beefs with this Mulan are warranted, but for the most part, I think it deserves better than the bad rap it's been getting. If you're a fan of the cast or the original, give it a shot--just know this isn't quite the film you may remember.- John DiBiase (reviewed: 10/13/20)
Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not exclusively on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion and experience of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's overall rating.
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