Why would a 130 billion dollar company want to make a live-action remake of Mulan and risk tarnishing the name of its empowering lead character? In a time where originality is fading from the spotlight and comic-book franchises are drawing attention from character-studies, live-action remakes have risen to popularity. Each of these quick cash-grabs, supposedly offering a “new perspective,” have met opposition from critics and fans alike. Disney has released 13 of these remakes in the last decade alone, amassing a total of over $6.5 billion in revenue. Some promised a more dramatic take, others saw their version as a new classic for the younger generations. While Mulan might be the former, even if it’s a desperately surface-level attempt at doing so, Niki Caro’s version will not be a classic anytime soon.
Originally released as an animated film in 1998, Mulan tells the story of a defiant and courageous young woman who flees her home in order to protect her father from another war. With her ancestors guiding her, Mulan disguises herself as a man so she can fight for the Imperial Army. In preparation for my review, I decided to revisit the original one, wanting to not only refresh my memory of the story but also provide a basis upon which I could compare it with the new one. A story of female-empowerment and bravery, the original Mulan is both comedic and powerful, whimsical and grounded and, above all, inspirational. The live-action Mulan, released in early September of this year, is none of these things and fails to introduce anything new that resonates. Mulan is a jumbled, uninspired and formulaic catastrophe with not even an insightful perspective to back it up.
While Niki Caro was going for a more grounded and realistic approach, Mulan ends up more artificial than the film it’s based upon. The characters aren’t developed in any meaningful way and are just tools in order to complete a checklist of ideas that needed covering. They’re either shallow and half-baked, or exact copies of ones from the original film, only with worse development. Even with 4 people working on the screenplay, Mulan is one of the worst written films that I’ve ever seen. I laughed more during this dramatic adaptation than I did during the original comedy. The atrocious screenplay, mixed with Niki Caro’s confused direction and the pitiful acting from the entire cast, creates a viewing experience of both torment and joy. Moments intended to incite feelings of tension or despair, fail to have any emotional impact on the viewer. The pacing is all over the place, and the desperate comedy is juvenile. If Niki Caro was trying to appeal to an older audience by fueling this film with hyper-masculine action, the attempt to do so is misguided as she throws away the most important parts of the film.
The theme of the original Mulan is female-empowerment and the objection to stereotypes and gender norms. The remake pays more attention to its flashy and excessive camera movements than it does to actually strengthening the impact of this message. Therefore, the story’s development is left for the third act, carelessly shoved into laughable dialogue in which characters explain the moral of the film. These unrealistic moments leave the audience with a haphazard and insincere lesson. The visuals of the film — while excessively stuffed with CGI — are beautiful, but a futile attempt at distracting from the film’s substance issues. The motivations of the two antagonists aren’t expanded beyond basic desires for money and power, resulting in a lack of conflict in the film.
The changes to the story seem unmotivated as if the only purpose they serve is to make the film different enough to actually warrant a release. The decision to make Mulan’s love interest a fellow soldier, instead of a captain and son of the general, only hurts the film, abandoning his paternal relationship. The removal of Mushu seems hypocritical as well, replacing him with a flying Phoenix which is incredibly unsubtle and contradicts the realistic tone of the film. Mulan is riddled with continuity errors, choppy editing and uninspired camera movements. A soulless copy, Mulan lost over $130 million, and I like to think of it not as a result of the pandemic, but instead their disorganized execution of a beloved story. I’d watch the original 10 times again before I ever revisited this remake, and I hope that Disney realizes that what they’re doing isn’t supplying new stories to a new generation, but instead taking away the charm and nostalgia from the older ones.