Let's get down to business: the live-action ‘Mulan’ disappoints

Disney’s reimaging of a fan-favourite story fails to live up to its animated predecessor

This latest version of Mulan doesn’t hold up.

Disney’s new live-action Mulan is an overtly white interpretation of Chinese culture and a subpar adaptation of its animated antecedent, disappointing its $200 million production budget—and fans—on both fronts.

I adored the 1998 original animated Mulan growing up and was tentative about the live-action adaptation, but I wanted to support an all-Asian cast in retelling the legend of my favourite heroine. I was let down.

The film, despite boasting a dazzling cast and breathtaking backdrops, was disenchanting—it was shallow and unrecognizable in the context of both the 1998 animation and original Chinese folklore. For a director who cut the animation’s most memorable characters and well-loved musical numbers in pursuit of realism, Niki Caro certainly dedicated a wearisome amount of screen time to Mulan’s superpower and a shapeshifting witch.

Mulan’s courage is meant to be empowering and her growth moving, and a key element in eliciting such an emotional reaction from the audience lies in how we identify and empathize with her character and journey.

In the animation, Mulan’s interspersed moments of conviction, weakness, and playfulness shape her character. She enlists in the Chinese army unskilled and inexperienced, and she excels because of her relentless determination. The live-action Mulan, however, is born with a superhuman amount of qi—vital energy—granting her at birth the skill and strength she should’ve earned.

Mulan’s superpower also diminishes the feminist values central to her story. The adaptation connotes that her abilities and distinction over her male peers can be chalked up to a superpower she didn’t work for.

There’s no place for the unyielding perseverance that characterized “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” the animation’s unforgettable training sequence. This Mulan has no room to grow and no need to prove herself.

The live-action Mulan doesn’t need us to root for her, and she lacks the nuances that made her animated counterpart captivating. Once a film loses sight of the very heart of its protagonist, what’s left for the audience to invest in? Certainly not accurate representation of Chinese culture—the film’s odd, misguided obsession with honour and the empty symbolism of the phoenix, among other oversimplifications, was disheartening. Mulan (2020) failed remarkably in its attempt to capture Chinese viewership, and I wonder if the overwhelmingly white production crew has anything to do it.

Even in moments meant to be poignant or heartfelt, the film falls flat.

For example, in the animation, Mulan’s return home and reconciliation with her father is intimate, taking place in their garden beneath the flowering magnolia tree; in the adaptation, this evocative scene becomes an awkwardly composed spectacle in the village square, surrounded by onlookers.

In its closing lines, the film makes a last-ditch effort at capturing the emotions it failed to evoke in its audience: “The girl became a soldier, the soldier became a leader, and the leader became a legend.”

Missing emotional investment from the audience, the line comes to nothing, instead serving as the prosaic summary of an inefficacious film.

It’s beyond me how Disney managed to spin Mulan’s story into two unemotional hours of cultural insensitivity and flimsy screenwriting, but there it is: the live-action Mulan.


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