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Disney fumbles live-action adaptation of Mulan

Half-baked 2020 adaptation falls flat of the colorful 1998 classic, earnings falter following political controversy

In Disney’s 2020 attempt to resuscitate the 1998 animated film, much of the nostalgic charm of the original “Mulan” is deadened for the sake of aesthetic value and purported maturation — not to mention political controversy beyond the screen. 

Rather than pay homage to the playful, accessible 1998 telling of the Chinese legend, Niki Caro’s 2020 live-action adaptation chooses to instead value fashionable cinematographic elements like verdant landscapes and engorged battle scenes. Yet, despite the picturesque backdrops, the Mulan remembered for its vibrance feels vacant and dull in its newest instantiation.

Released on Sept. 4, “Mulan” follows a liturgy of uninspired literalizations from Disney, including Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Alice in Wonderland — all of which are alike in their uncanny and uninteresting retellings. “Mulan” is unique, though, in its method of release, as it is the first of the films to be exclusively released on Disney+. 

Even Disney+ members, though, must pay $30 atop their membership fee in order to view a “Premier Access Showing” — a designation given to the new “Mulan.” 

Disney, here, is at least somewhat visionary in its reinterpretation of the film premier — imagining what an exclusive release might look like in a post-COVID world, where theaters continue to face the pandemic’s economic impact. Those interested in paying the hefty charge for 2 hours of revitalized nostalgia, though, might be disappointed with their “Mulan” purchase. 

The animated film tells the classical Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, a female warrior from the Song Dynasty who disguises herself as a man in order to take her father’s place in war. Yet, “Mulan" was never truly a movie about battle, but instead a bildungsroman about overcoming the structures of patriarchy in the name of family love. More than that, the original classic has established itself in the animation hall-of-fame as a film that made Chinese folklore and culture accessible to young American viewers through a melodic score and silly, anthropomorphized characters. But, in 2020’s  “Mulan,” what should have been left to rest as a classic has now been tainted and commodified into a trite Marvel-ized snooze.

Typical of the Chinese genre of wuxia films, the fight scenes in “Mulan” are fluid and elegant. By paying tribute to classical Chinese landscape paintings in its atmospheric cinematography, the new “Mulan” undoubtedly seeks to impress in its employment of natural landscape shots. Yet, despite the attention diverted to visual interest, “Mulan” still finds a way to be disengaging.

Starring the Chinese actress Liu Yifei, Caro’s adaptation of the coming-of-age tale falls victim to incoherent screenwriting that fails its cast. The decision to remove the canonical songs as well as Mulan’s dragon sidekick, Mushu, are not the only changes Caro made. She also introduces a novel antagonist: Bori Khan, a metamorphosing witch played by Gong Li. 

It is here that Caro begins to probe at something interesting — pitting two women, both victims of patriarchy, against one another. Yet, this blip of political potential remains as underdeveloped as the adaptation’s characters.

These gestures toward political significance — without the proper rumination or execution — ultimately feel, then, like efforts to maintain relevance. Unfulfilled meditations on the patriarchy and cast-diversity (lest we forget they hired a white director) eventually void the original Mulan of its truly subversive ideological value. 

The Disney+ gamble ultimately flopped — the opening-day earnings of eight million paled in comparison to the film’s two hundred million dollar budget. 

The paltry earnings were also complicated by political controversies that plagued the film. The blockbuster flop was partially filmed at a Chinese Turkish internment camp, and the lead actress expressed support of the Hong Kong police. Social media outlets were flooded with posts calling to #BoycottMulan

In a 1998 review of the animated film, American film critic Roger Ebert spoke to its revolutionary cultural import within the landscape of American animation: “The visual style breaks slightly with the look of modern Disney animation to draw from Chinese and Japanese classical cartoon art; in the depiction of nature, there's an echo of the master artist Hiroshige,” Ebert wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times. “If American animation is ever going to win an audience beyond the family market, it will have to move in this direction, becoming more experimental both in stories and visual style.”

Ebert writes of a “Mulan” that was acclaimed because of its expansion of the visual and cultural vocabulary of American animation. Unrestrained by heavy-handed ideological baggage and economic greed, the 1998 “Mulan” will always be remembered as a classic. 2020’s “Mulan,” though, will be lost amidst the sea of soulless and morally-void live-action adaptations that plague the contemporary mediascape.


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