Who is this live-action “Mulan” for? Fans of the original “Mulan,” like myself, love the Fa ancestors (renamed Hua in the live-action), Mulan’s grandmother, Mushu the tiny dragon, the cricket, General Shang, the songs, the humorous moments—all of which this live-action version lacked. The film was practically unrecognizable as the “Mulan” fans know and love, given the numerous changes that have zero added value, and take away from the beauty the original story once possessed. This version is a faint echo of the original film.
It is difficult to accept that there is not one single song. I was so anticipating the live-action rendition of “Reflection” and “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You.” Not only did I not receive my favorite songs in action, but instead heard the instrumental version of “Reflection” played in two moments of the film, a cruel tease, a sour reminder of the greatness this film could have been.
“Mulan” is a story of rejection. Rejection of sexist traditions, rejection of gender roles and, indeed, the live-action is a rejection of the original film’s major elements. It even rejects the original names. The character’s names are completely different, like Mulan’s friends in the army. Originally she called herself “Ping,” and in the film, she goes by “Jun.” Her friends are Yao, Ling and Chien-Po and, in the film, have completely different names except for Yao. General Shang, the hottest character and love interest in the animation is nowhere to be found.
What seemed like an attempt at an interesting twist was the addition of a new villain. Instead of the Huns attacking China, the film attempted to add a historical reference to the Silk Road trade and used the Rourans as the villains. At the helm of the Rourans is not Shan-Yu from the original but a man named “Bori Khan.” With them is Xianniang, a witch who has a “powerful chi,” like Mulan, which gives her supernatural abilities, and can shapeshift into other characters and animals. This twist is probably the most interesting part of the plot. The female villain, Xianniang, is considered a “witch” because of this power—something that she has been exiled for. By bringing in Chinese culture and legends into the film, Mulan’s abilities are likened to superhuman power, unlike in the original. Mulan’s supposed powerful chi is what makes her an unrealistically amazing fighter with no previous fighting training. Additionally, the live-action lacked the counter-cross-dressing scene when Ling, Chien Po and Yao dressed as women at the end of the film.
The film is undoubtedly and inherently feminist. However, there were too many scenes where female empowerment is the only main point and had nothing else to offer. The battle scenes were uninteresting. Even as a feminist, feminism is not enough to keep me invested in these dull, gritty drama scenes that I am supposed to swallow.
One of the most significant and enjoyable parts of Mulan’s original was her transformation. We saw her fail, falter and mess up, but in the live-action, she was born a great warrior with zero practice. Even though she was the daughter of the great Fa (Hua) Zhou, she still had a learning curve, and we still got to see her become a great fighter. The way she was in the live-action—already a superior warrior—is unrealistic. It gives Mulan no arc at all. The film highlights female empowerment more than Mulan’s journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance. “Reflection” is a song of one questioning their identity, the journey of filling the gap between what one is and what one wants to be. This “Mulan” showed little of this.
I really wanted to like “Mulan,” but it gave me no choice as it presented itself as two hours of deep disappointment. Put simply, this was not “Mulan.” One of the greatest aspects of the original “Mulan” is that it was a film that simultaneously didn’t take itself too seriously and discussed serious questions implicitly. I cannot stress how uncompelling the drama was, how boring it was without comedy and how the lack of faithfulness to the original was extremely burdensome to witness.
The complete disregard for a musical “Mulan” is highest on the list of offenses for me. I was looking forward to the idea of an amazing, musical and lovely live-action “Mulan,” and one that does justice to the Chinese culture being celebrated. I was disappointed on both fronts: the film was written and directed by non-Chinese folk. The director’s vision leaves integral chunks of the original out, as an attempt to make it more “realistic,” but this argument does not justify the lack of subtler storytelling.
While Director Niki Caro had claimed to have done extensive research, studies and hired experts to properly respect and celebrate Chinese culture, I don’t understand why they didn’t just hire a Chinese director. They tried to respect and celebrate Chinese culture by staying true to Mulan’s original legend; however, this feels like white people telling POC stories once again.
The argument is that it was meant to be appealing to the Chinese audience and honor the ancient legend (specifically a poem) of “Mulan,” which existed long before the feature animation. Disney could have found a way to respect the Chinese culture by hiring Chinese writers while still maintaining its original elements for fans of the original.
And further, the most crucial question is: Who is this live-action “Mulan” for? It’s not for the kids—there is too much drama and no songs. This isn’t for the fans of the original since this “Mulan” is an unrecognizable, metamorphosed version of its predecessor. So who would enjoy this movie? It’s an honest question, one that I might never know the answer to.