MMT Review of MULAN

“I believe Hua Mulan.” Soldiers speaking to Commander Tung in Disney+’s Mulan

I did not know, but was extremely prayerful, that Disney would send out a screener for its latest remake MULAN, which premieres Friday, September 4. So, when I received the actual link last Friday, on my birthday at that, I squealed with joy! I had no doubts that I would be entertained, since I enjoyed the animated 1998 Disney film of the same name, but was concerned about any changes – many were definitely needed – and how this live-action version would fare amid the current pandemic.

Now, I was not going to post again until after the Labor Day weekend, but I couldn’t not talk about this film. And let me tell you, if I believe nothing else, I believe this is the best Disney live-action flick I’ve ever seen. I’m not just saying that because Mulan is a fave character, but because this movie has it all – it is visually stunning, exciting, inspiring, and moving.

Based on the narrative poem “The Ballad of Mulan,” the film follows the journey of Mulan (Yifei Liu), who as a young child displays a strong “Qi” (chi) or energy flow and is not the typical girl in her community. As an adult, she is just as enigmatic and has no desire to adhere to the societal standards of having a matchmaker locate a husband for her to wed. But, she is loyal and determined to bring honor to her family so she agrees to the former. However, when the Emperor of China commands that all households send one son to train for battle against Northern invaders, Mulan secretly leaves home to protect her father Zhou (Tzi Ma) – who is too ill to fight and has no male children to take his stead. In the process of hiding her identity and fighting for her country, Mulan not only discovers herself, but the things that truly matter.

I loved everything about this remake. First, unlike the original, it focuses first on Mulan as a child, and gives a bit of backstory before it plunges into who’s invading China. And, also unlike the cartoon, the Northern invaders are not Huns – a historical and geographical inaccuracy with the animated film – but their leader Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) is still out for vengeance for the loss of his father at the hands of the Emperor (Jet Li).

There are also changes with nods to the original, like it not being a musical but the score paying an instrumental homage at appropriate times in the film. Or references to the cricket (from the infamous matchmaker scene in the 1998 version) – both the physical creature and also now the name of one of Mulan’s fellow soldiers. And there is no loudmouth dragon, a la Eddie Murphy, for comic relief, but a fantastical CGI Phoenix creation that represents the ancestors protecting and guiding Mulan on her journey.

Another diversion from the original is the introduction of the villain Xianniang (Li Gong), a witch who conspires with the invaders to conquer China – with the expectation that she would finally secure acceptance and a place that she can safely call home.

“The witch serves me and therefore all of us. She knows who her master is.” Bori Khan (Mulan, 2020)

Hands down, Xianniang is one of the best characters in Mulan, as she serves as an antagonist for Hua Mulan but also an alternate representation of someone not being perceived nor accepted for their true self. Even with all her power, she’s considered a means to an end, not a person with full agency.

What I love most about the film is, in making it a more cohesively female-driven film for all audiences, it also pays respect by having part of Mulan’s agency demonstrated in her decision to choose what she deems most honorable, devotion to her family.

And the soundtrack, although mostly instrumental in film, has three vocal gems at the end credits – which include a new song (see video below) by Christina Aguilera entitled “Loyal Brave True,” Aguilera singing an updated version of her classic “Reflection,” and lead actress Yifei Liu singing a Mandarin version of the latter.

My only complaint, if you can really call it that, is that I wish more was added! Since it’s 2020, and Disney clearly had no issue with updating, could we have a bit more substance? Maybe added scenes with dad’s injury, or the Emperor and Bori Khan’s father, or who the matchmaker selected for Mulan, etc. But, in sticking to the family format and the already 115-minute time frame, I can understand the limitations.

From the magnificent choreography and stunts, to the family-oriented displays of violence without gore or gratuitous injury, to the sound moral lessons, with a great score underlying it all, the new MULAN is a film with something for everyone. After seeing it, I have no doubts that word of mouth will bring in large audiences – regardless of streaming versus the big screen.  I give it 4.5 out of 5 on the MMTrometer.

Until next thought, Thomasena

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