“Mulan” Review: Visually Stunning Remake Aims to be a Modern Myth, with Mixed Results

by Ben Hiett

The first thing I did after seeing Disney’s live-action remake of “Mulan” was go to the source of all useful knowledge, Wikipedia, and look up the Chinese folk ballad on which both this movie and its animated counterpart are based. 

I did this because the whole time I was watching this movie, I felt as though I was watching an ancient legend unfold before my eyes. With its sweeping scope, picturesque visuals, and archetypal characters, “Mulan” seeks to tell an earnest story of legendary proportions via the medium of modern cinema.

I would caution prospective viewers from going into this film expecting a direct translation from animation into live action. Several elements of the original have been either changed or removed. Mulan’s comedic dragon sidekick Mushu is notably absent, while the role of Mulan’s commanding officer and eventual love-interest Li Shang has been split into two characters, her commanding officer Commander Tung and her fellow soldier Chen Honghui.

Meanwhile, the iconic musical numbers have been removed, though the score, composed by Harry Gregson-Williams of “Narnia” fame, deftly incorporates many of their melodies to great effect. Still, whenever I heard these musical callbacks, I couldn’t help but miss the gleeful energy these songs brought to the original.

Whether or not viewers will approve of these changes, there’s no doubt that all of them are deliberate. Director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider,” “The Zookeeper’s Wife”) seems more intent on adapting the ancient Chinese folktale for modern audiences than remaking the classic animated musical. As a result, “Mulan” is much more a martial arts epic than it is a Disney fantasy.

Nevertheless, the movie still toes the line of Disney’s family-friendly brand. I can only guess its PG-13 rating was given for the mere presence of battle scenes, because these sequences are relatively idealized and bloodless. Not that they are dull or poorly made; on the contrary, these sequences’ sharp visual polish and hyper-stylized action made them some of my favorite scenes.

In terms of cinematography, I cannot overstate how gorgeously cinematic this movie is. From the pristine landscapes to the ornate costumes, this film is bursting with color. Beyond pure aesthetics, the way in which Caro and her cinematographer Mandy Walker (“Hidden Figures”) intentionally frame shots and move the camera through scenes represents visual storytelling at its finest.

While “Mulan” excels on a technical level, its character building and narrative pacing are serviceable at best. The cast is not to blame for this, as most of the actors effectively embody the essence of their animated counterparts while also making the roles their own. If anything, it is Liu Yifei as the titular heroine who gives the movie’s most underwhelming performance, with her acting fluctuating from quietly strong and understated to emotionally absent and stilted. 

Even so, despite it being nearly half an hour longer than its animated predecessor, the movie often rushes through crucial story beats, seemingly under the assumption that viewers will accept what happens because they’ve already seen it once before. Moments meant to convey a sense of awe, excitement, or catharsis end up feeling empty and unearned because not enough time has been invested in developing these characters beyond broad-brush generalities.

However, as I sat watching the movie’s spectacular final battle, I wondered if maybe that was Caro’s point. After all, the legends that last do so because of their timeless, universal themes. Nevertheless, these myths are products of their own historical and cultural contexts, which can lead to the characters and their motivations feeling distant and unbelievable to modern audiences. Additionally, these characters are often moral archetypes that are meant to be instructive rather than relatable.

In the same way, “Mulan” is an epic tale of honor, courage, and the importance of truth. It is also a visual masterpiece, and its successes on those two fronts make it worth seeing. However, for viewers who primarily watch movies for their nuanced, empathetic characters, this broad-brush retelling will most likely leave them feeling adequately entertained but emotionally uninvested.

Ben Hiett is a Senior Molecular Biology major and the Arts and Entertainment Editor for Cedars. When he’s not pretending to study, he loves watching movies, looking them up on Wikipedia afterwards, and hanging with the boys.

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