Movie review: mulan
Christian Felan ’23
In what has become a recent trend at Walt Disney Pictures, yet another Disney animated classic has been reimagined on the big screen in live-action. Mulan, originally released in 1998, is the latest installment of Disney’s series of remakes. However, because of social restrictions put in place in response to the ongoing pandemic, the scheduled premier for Mulan was repeatedly pushed back. This forced Disney to instead release the movie on Disney Plus September 4.
Since then, the movie has received mixed reviews.
In the movie’s release, debates ignited over the cast selection, cultural representation, and changes to the plot, ultimately ending in the classic cinema argument: Original vs. Remake. But, regardless of your reception of the movie, it is undeniable that the story of Mulan is one of Disney’s most celebrated pieces of work, and this film represented a generation of cultural diversity and female empowerment, a cinematic path often led by Disney.
In 2015, it was announced that a remake of the 90’s Disney classic was in effect and being produced by Jason T. Reed and directed by Niki Caro. The casting team notably had a lot of pressure on selecting the actors and actresses to take on these iconic roles. However, I would say the casting team pleased their critics calling for an ethnically accurate cast, with most of the main cast being Chinese-born actors/actresses including Liu Yifei as Mulan, Jet Li as the Emperor, Donnie Yen as Commander Tung, and Yoson An as Chen Honghui, the only main cast exception being Jason Scott Lee of Los Angeles who played Bori Khan.
The movie itself was expected to be very different from the original. In an age where people are particularly cautious with what they say or do in public, it was almost certain that 2020 Mulan would reflect the social values and ideology of today, especially from a company as influential as Disney.
One key aspect of the movie that was sure to be on notice was its representation of the Chinese culture. Many people who have watched the original have complained that the depiction of the Chinese people, including their unifying accent, mannerisms, and uneducated lower class, results from Western unfamiliarity with Chinese culture. In response, 2020 Mulan puts great detail into much of the foreign language, fashion, and infrastructure of ancient China. A drastic difference also occurred to the villain of the movie. Originally led by a villain named Shan Yu, the remake offered an alternative group of outlaws led by Bori Khan. The remade villain could be argued to be a bit more humanized, as he is allowed more screen time for us to familiarize with him, learning that he actually has a reason behind his rampage and is not just on a ruthless tear across the country. But, of course, the biggest cultural correction that differed new Mulan from old was the absence of Mulan’s charismatic ancestral dragon, Mushu. Voiced by Eddie Murphy, he was quickly discovered to be absent from trailers and it caused a social media outrage. The character’s dismissal was due in large part to his bad reception in China. The Chinese explained that the dragon is culturally symbolic and represents strength and fortune to its descendants. Instead, the miniature dragon was replaced by a Phoenix, which took on more of a majestic role than a comedic one, having no lines and appearing more fluent than tacky. This all plays into the objective the producers had of representing ancient China as the sophisticated and elegant society it was. So, although 2020 Mulan may have sacrificed some of its comedy and nostalgia, it took pains to properly represent the ancient Chinese culture and gave more unique personalities to its people.
The other topic that was of great significance throughout the movie was the idea of female empowerment and independence, often touched in a great deal of modern female-starring movies. It can be said that the push to tackle this issue in the movie caused major changes to its plot. From the beginning, it is noticed that unlike the original where Mulan is hopeful to be matched, remade Mulan is dreading the idea of being tied down, only attending tea to bring honor to her family. The remake also places an inherited Chi into Mulan, making her a gifted athletic warrior. Her efforts to hide her talents from the others at camp, as opposed to struggling to keep up, sends a message of female underestimation. But perhaps the greatest effect this social stance had on this movie was the dismantling of the army commander and Mulan’s love interest, Shang Li. Perhaps having a male commander as the love interest of a female soldier would trigger modern sensitives to inappropriate displays of masculinity in the workplace, The movie split Shang Li’s character into a fellow soldier and potential love interest, Chen Honghui, and into a mentor, Commander Tung. However, despite traditional expectations, no romantic relationship evolves in the movie between Mulan and Chen aside from some intimate conversations. I see this as an effect of a movie that emphasizes female independence and a break from the traditional stereotype of male reliance. This is a bold step away from the pack, especially for a company who has perfected the “Girl gets the Boy” closing scene. But in 2020, bold ideologies like these have shaped who we are and how we perceive ourselves.
In the end, you have to appreciate the great lengths the producers of Mulan took to properly represent a people and their culture. The folks looking for a nostalgic movie reminding them of their childhood animated Mulan are bound to be a little disappointed in a film that accurately represents our current times and the changes in societal ideology.