Mulan (2020) – Film Review
Cast: Liu Yifei, Donnie Yen, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Gong Li, Jet Li, Tzi Ma
Director: Niki Caro
Synopsis: Following an enemy invasion, the Emperor decrees that one man from every family must fight in the Chinese Imperial army. Disguising herself as a man, a young woman rides off to war, taking her ailing father’s place…
Review: It is hard to look past the fact that since Disney started to up the ante with their live action remakes, it has been a lucrative venture. From 2015’s Cinderella to last year’s The Lion King, these six films combined have brought home a near total of six billion dollars in box office receipts. However for all that success, one could make the case that these films have (admittedly some more than others) done very little to justify their existence. It comes a relief to say, that after some utterly soulless adaptations, Mulan brings the honour back to these live action remakes.
When an invasion from Northern invaders, the Rourans, threatens the safety of the country and its people, the Emperor (Jet Li) decrees that one man from every family is to be conscripted into the Imperial Army, to stand and fight. With her father’s health in decline after spending many years of his life fighting for his country, Mulan bravely decides to take a stand. In order to save his life, she disguises herself as a man and takes his place in the army, knowing that if her true identity is revealed, it would have deadly ramifications.
When looking at these live action remakes, it’s next to impossible to not compare them to their animated predecessors. Furthermore, it’s probably an understatement to say that the 1998 animated adaptation would have been an important film for anyone growing up in the 1990s. At its core, there was an empowering message for girls and women everywhere: to not let societal constraints restrict them from being who they want to be. Yet, for all the wonderful things about the animated adaptation of this classic tale of a legendary Chinese warrior, historical inaccuracies meant its reception in China was far from the one Disney would have hoped. Hence for this new adaptation, much has been changed as it strives for a more realistic, gritty tone that honours the tale of the legendary figure it depicts.
For starters, there are no spontaneous moments where a character bursts into song, and the comic relief that was Mushu is also nowhere to be seen. Instead, the intent is clearly there to faithfully depict the story of this legendary figure as accurately as possible. Liu Yifei gives a sincere performance in the titular role. She imbues her with the three characteristic traits that ultimately define who she is a person: loyalty, bravery, and being true to who she is. She also has the added bonus of being an extremely skilled warrior. Unlike the animated film, the majority of her fellow recruits are barely given any development, save for Honghui (Yoson An) and her commander General Tung (Yen), both of whom serve as replacements for General Shang: her love interest in the the animated adaptation.
The 1998 film’s villain Shan Yu, was a suitably ominous and terrifying foe that you would not want to cross paths with. In his place comes Bori Khan, who in spite of a concerted effort to give him some backstory and flesh out his motivations, is a very one dimensional antagonist. His severe lack of charisma and screen presence prevents means he is nowhere nearly as intimidating as his animated counterpart. A completely new presence in this version, Gong Li’s Xian Jang, a witch who fights alongside Bori Khan, had potential to be an exciting antagonist. Though her presence here feels completely unnecessary, as her role is underwritten, consequently taking the spotlight away from Bori Khan.
The film’s battle sequences are breath-taking to watch. The assured direction from Niki Caro, combined with the use of stunning practical, mountainous sets, provides rich visual majesty to Mandy Walker’s cinematography. With Mulan marking only the second time being the second time Disney has backed a female directed project with a budget of over 100 million dollars, the studio has put their money where their mouth is. Instead of using the nostalgia of these animated classics, as an excuse to merely print money, they have delivered a live action re-imagining that actually justifies its existence. Though in a year where cinema releases have been severely blighted, it’s a real shame that the film didn’t get the big screen treatment it deserved.