A confession: in my teenage years, a group of friends and I became strangely obsessed with the songs of Disney animated musical Mulan, culminating in a live, onstage group performance of ensemble tune “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” that will surely go down in history as “being on the bill during the charity concert’s runtime.” We weren’t great, but by God we knew (most of) the words.
So when I sat down to watch Disney’s latest live-action remake of the 1998 film (though at home instead of at the usual crowded screening), I felt some trepidation. Would this latest attempt to reboot an old classic retain the charm of the original? Would it work with the songs I’d once known cut from the runtime?
And how would the story of Mulan – a young woman who eschews her traditional role to take her aged father’s place in the army – be updated for a new age?
Two hours later, I had my answer – and like its title character, I’d learnt that there were two distinct sides to Mulan. Directed by Niki Caro and starring Liu Yifei in the title role, this new iteration of the story is bold enough to go in a very different direction from the cartoon, take bigger risks in changing the source material and deliver some genuinely gorgeous cinematography and action.
With ingenious fight choreography, stunning filming locations and more innovation on display than in any previous animation update, Mulan is genuinely one of the best-looking live-action Disney films in a long while. There’s a certain dark irony in that it’s now the only one most fans won’t be able to see in cinemas.
The other downside? Somehow, the characters and story feel more flat than they did in two dimensions, which much of the wit, fun and characterisation of the original lost somewhere in translation.
The basic story, of course, is the same – desperate to be a warrior, young Mulan is instead told by her family she can bring honour to them by marrying well. But when her beloved and injured father (Tzi Ma) is conscripted into the army, she sees her chance to take his place, earn her stripes and prove her honour in the fight against nomadic warlord Rori Khan (Jason Scott Lee).
Unlike the animation she doesn’t have a wacky dragon sidekick, with Eddie Murphy’s Mushu dropped in favour of a silent phoenix guardian, and her lucky cricket is turned into a slightly less fortunate member of her troop. The older film’s commanding officer and love interest Li Shang also gets the chop, instead turned into two separate characters portrayed by Donnie Yen and Yoson An.
But it’s Mulan herself who perhaps gets the biggest change. In this version of the story she isn’t just a plucky recruit who works hard to prove her worth – she’s actually mystically powered, able to connect to her chi and perform death-defying feats her fellow soldiers couldn’t dream of. In fact, Mulan’s “powers” end up forming a surprisingly significant portion of the plot, especially as she’s contrasted with enemy witch and fellow woman-in-a-man’s world Xian Lang (Gong Li).
But despite leading to some great action scenes, there’s something oddly unsatisfying about Mulan’s new status. Whereas before she struggled to prove her worth, here she turns up like a disguised Clark Kent, only holding her superior abilities at bay until she decides to indulge them.
Meanwhile, her army cohorts – a disparate if memorable bunch in the animation – barely make an impact in live-action, getting little screen-time or development and making their eventual (inevitable) acceptance of Mulan less convincing.
Overall, there’s a lot to enjoy in Mulan. The visuals and fight choreography, the filmmaking, and even some of the music (see if you can spot the Easter eggs for the original songs in the score and dialogue) are real highlights, and it’s just a shame the rest of the film falls comparatively flat. On reflection, a little more of the 1998 film’s fun and charm wouldn’t have gone amiss.