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Review: Mulan (2020)

Mulan (2020)

Directed by: Niki Caro

Premise: A live action remake of Disney’s 1998 animated film. Set in Imperial China, Mulan (Yifei Liu) is a young woman with unfeminine interests. When China is invaded and her father is conscripted into the army, Mulan disguises herself as a man and goes in his place. 

What Works: Mulan is another live action remake of a Disney animated film. This one stands apart from some of the others, namely Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, because it is far less redundant. The filmmakers of 2020’s Mulan have created a movie that stands on its own and is in many respects better than the 1998 film. It’s still recognizable as Mulan but the filmmakers apply a different approach to the material. For one, they embrace the live action format. Some of Disney’s other live action remakes, especially The Lion King, tried to hold onto the qualities of animation and ended up with the worst of both formats. The live action Mulan jettisons the cartoony sidekick characters and the musical numbers. Neither are missed. 2020’s Mulan is also beautifully shot. The landscapes are especially well photographed and the action sequences are done well. This version isn’t quite realism but the visual style has an earthy quality that suits the live action format. It also expands the story in ways that enhance the material. New to the remake is a secondary antagonist, a witch played by Gong Li. Her character is more complicated than the warlord she’s allied with and Li’s character adds an additional layer onto Mulan’s feminist themes.

What Doesn’t: The weakest point of the new Mulan is the casting of Yifei Liu in the title role. She’s not a very interesting or expressive actress and her performance doesn’t convey Mulan’s growth. Some of that is the script’s fault; Mulan begins the movie already a proficient fighter and equestrian so she’s not left with room to grow and the filmmakers skip opportunities to explore Mulan’s loss of innocence as she encounters combat. But Mulan’s interior life is absent in Liu’s performance. Mulan’s fellow soldiers don’t have much personality either. Each of them has a distinct look but that’s as far as the movie gets into characterizing them. Like a lot of Hollywood movies about Asian characters, the new version of Mulan leans into the Orientalism. There’s a lot of talk about honor and chi that steers the characters toward exotic caricature. Jet Li is cast in a small role as the Emperor and Li’s voice is obviously overdubbed in a way that sounds like a 1970s kung-fu movie.

DVD extras: Featurettes, deleted scenes, and music videos.

Bottom Line: The 2020 version of Mulan is a satisfactory remake. The movie fulfills the imperative to do something new while remaining germane to the original idea. It’s no classic but neither was the 1998 film and on the whole the live action version of Mulan is better than its animated predecessor.

Episode: #835 (January 17, 2021)