It was never going to live up to the animated version.
How could it? Disney’s original 1998 film grossed over $300 million at the box office, earned countless accolades, and became a cultural staple for an entire generation. Sequels and adaptations are seldom as good as their originals, and “Mulan” is no exception. It joins the ranks of “Aladdin," “The Lion King," and “Dumbo” (Remember “Dumbo”? Because I don’t.) as yet another Disney adaptation that trades the charm of its animated predecessor for, well, nothing.
China’s under attack. The emperor (Jet Li) orders one man from every family to fight, and Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei) enlists as a man so her disabled veteran father (Tzi Ma) doesn’t have to. There’s a bunch of punching and kicking, some buckets of water make it up a hill, an imaginary phoenix shows up, and — poof! Mulan has saved the Imperial Army, the Emperor, and all of China, thus restoring honor to her father, her family, and, presumably, her cow.
It’s not a frame by frame adaptation of the animated film, by any means. Gone are Mushu, Li Shang, and the Huns. Instead, Mulan faces off against the Rouran invaders, who are led by Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and aided by a spiteful witch named Xianniang (Gong Li). And there are no more musical numbers either; the only remnants of classics like “Reflection” and “A Girl Worth Fighting For” are the subtle cues in the score and occasional snippets of lyrics-turned-dialogue.
That being said, there are still plenty of callbacks: the matchmaker fiasco, the training camp montage, and even the part where Mulan gets unwelcome visitors during a midnight lake bath. But as much as I love seeing Liu Yifei royally bungle a tea pouring or Donnie Yen showing off his incredible martial arts skills, it still feels like something’s missing. The scenes feel empty, like pale imitations of the original.
And the film, in general, also feels empty. The camera lingers on scenes to milk the emotional impact that’s not there to begin with. Characters undergo inexplicable and unearned personal transformations. The plot marches forward with little rhyme or reason, and the writing feels bland, as though the screenwriters were just playing connect-the-dots with the outline of the animated original. The visuals are beautiful, yes; the sweeping shots of the Chinese countryside and lavishly decorated Imperial City are appropriately grandiose for a film with access to Disney’s pocketbooks — but all the production value in the world can’t save a movie without a soul.
Why this is the case isn’t a huge mystery. Take the matchmaker and training camp scenes, for example. These are wacky, unrealistic set pieces, tailored specifically to a medium where you can be wacky — where you can animate a matchmaker almost inhaling a cricket and burning her butt on hot coals, or where (with the help of a rousing 3-minute training anthem) it’s possible for a bunch of scraggly neophytes to become kung-fu masters.
The real mystery is why they kept those scenes in the first place. If Caro’s goal was to make a film that was more serious, more realistic, and more faithful to the original “Ballad of Mulan,” why stick so closely to the Disney-fied version? “Because nostalgia!”, some might say (Disney’s marketing department, I would imagine). But as a Chinese boy who grew up in the early 2000s, I can confidently say that the nostalgia for “Mulan” is not for its storyline: it’s for the spirit, the whimsy, the charm — all of which are painfully absent from this film.
But I knew this, going in. And I was actually pretty okay with it. The original would always be there, buried under piles of VHS tapes in my garage, fond memories of Mushu and musical numbers intact. It would be refreshing, I thought, to see a version that took a different approach, one that was — as Disney had so publicly touted — more respectful of Chinese culture.
Well, it didn’t really do that either.
The film is really more of a caricature of Chinese culture than a celebration of it. Take Mulan: a hero who’s supposed to excel because of her heart, her cleverness, and her character. Caro’s Mulan is made inexplicably good at martial arts, because how on earth could you have a Chinese protagonist who’s not good at kung-fu? And there’s also the concept of “qi,” which is explained about ten times, each making it seem more like the “The Force” than the actual Chinese spiritual belief, and ultimately serving as little more than an excuse for characters to snatch arrows out of the air.
Like that white kid in your East Asian Studies class who spent a summer abroad, it tries desperately to prove its mastery of the nuances of Chinese culture — with unspectacular results. No matter how many times it repeats the word “honor” or throws in a CGI phoenix, the film still doesn’t feel authentic. The makeup, the oversaturated colors, the overwhelmingly golden glitz and glam of the Imperial Palace — it all reeks so heavily of orientalism, like this white travel magazine fantasy of what China is.
And honestly, I was kind of irked. It’s 2020! How have we not figured this out by now? As the movie concluded and the credits began to scroll, I wondered: How is it that —
Directed by Niki Caro
— a movie with an all-Chinese cast —
Screenplay by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin, Lauren Hynek
— about an ancient Chinese heroine —
Costume Design by Bina Daigeler
— doesn’t feel —
Score Composed by Harry Gregson-Williams
— Chinese at all? —
Produced by Chris Bender, Jason Reed, Jake Weiner, Tendo Nagenda
— Oh. I see.
As I’ve said, I’m a huge fan of the original “Mulan.” Did it suffer from orientalism? Yes. Did it have its fair share of white overrepresentation? Yes. Was it a respectful and nuanced portrayal of Chinese culture? Definitely not. But that’s not what I expected it to be; I expected a Disney movie, with all of the caricature and whimsy and humor that that entails. If I wanted to watch a Chinese movie, I’d find something by Zhang Yimou or Wong Kar-wai.
The live-action adaptation tries, and fails, to be that respectful and nuanced portrayal, while also giving up on the signature Disney flair. It’s not “Disney” enough to be American and far too American to be Chinese — leaving us with a film that, to use an oft-repeated mantra, is neither loyal, brave, or true to anything at all.
—Staff writer Kalos K. Chu can be reached at email@example.com.