Mulan review: Live-action remake on Disney Plus a timely, moving take
While the release of Disney’s live-action Mulan remake has faced several delays due to the coronavirus pandemic, its long-awaited debut on Disney Plus feels perfectly timed. The movie’s messages of female empowerment, bravery and devotion to family all are particularly moving as we navigate a changing, uncertain world.
As in the beloved 1998 animated film, Mulan (Yifei Liu) struggles to strike a balance between embracing her abilities and honoring her family in China. As a woman centuries ago, she’s told it’s her duty to bring honor through marriage. But from a young age, Mulan‘s father sees she’s blessed with a special energy, or “chi.” As she gets older, it’s not only Mulan who must face the struggle of hiding her abilities; her father also experiences the heartrending pain of having to overlook his daughter’s skills just because she’s a girl.
“Chi is for warriors, not daughters,” her father tells her as a child. “Soon, you’ll be a young woman, and it is time for you to hide your gift away.”
This oft-repeated narrative leads Mulan to feel like she belongs in neither a man’s world nor a woman’s world. She’s told by her family to “learn your place,” but that proves to be quite challenging when that place seemingly doesn’t exist.
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The remake, which is punctuated by jaw-dropping stunts of sword-wielding warriors twisting mid-air, adopts a more serious, dramatic tone than its animated predecessor. This is evident in the absence of songs like I’ll Make a Man Out of You and Honor to Us All. While catchy tunes are a big part of the appeal of many Disney movies, their inclusion here would have felt forced, and Mulan’s compelling storyline is enough to carry the film. There is a powerful instrumental rendition of Reflection that plays alongside a moving montage of Mulan embracing her skills later on in the film, which feels like a sufficient nod to the beloved music of the animated version.
The weightier tone also means humor is scaled back. We don’t see Mulan’s witty grandmother in the remake, and Mushu is notably missing. Instead, Mulan’s father invokes the power of a phoenix — a symbol referred to throughout the film — to watch over Mulan. The lack of humor also manifests in an adult Mulan who’s less spunky and rambunctious than her animated counterpart, which takes away some of the charm that makes her so relatable and lovable. But it’s ultimately a minor loss that makes way for a fearlessly driven and focused character.
With the elimination of some old characters, we are also introduced to new ones. The remake gives Mulan a sister, likely as a means of juxtaposing the main character’s unrestrained behavior with that of a “well-mannered” daughter. The lucky cricket from the animated version is reimagined as a fellow soldier named Cricket, and there are some attempts to weave mild humor into his role, but none of the jokes really stick the landing.
We’re also introduced to Xianniang (Gong Li), a witch who often takes on the form of antagonist Böri Khan’s bird. She also takes on the likenesses of male victims when she needs to carry out a scheme. Like Mulan, Xianniang struggles to be accepted, and is therefore driven to serve Khan in exchange for his promise to provide “a place where your powers will not be vilified.”
The introduction of Xianniang brings greater dimension to the story as we come to see the parallels between her life and Mulan’s. They are both outcasts who opt to disguise themselves to fit in. The key difference, of course, is that Mulan uses her guise to fight for good, while Xianniang defends evil, and we are introduced to the possibility of what Mulan could become if she were to let the bitterness of her exclusion take over her heart.
Xianniang’s character development and evolving relationship with Mulan is one of the film’s most striking attributes. Seeing two women fight for a place in the world while uplifting each other is refreshing and inspiring, particularly at a time when issues brought to light by the MeToo movement continue to impact women across industries and walks of life.
The film’s ending offers a beautiful resolution to the struggle between balancing personal needs with a desire to serve family. We’re often told, particularly through movies and TV shows, that these two priorities are mutually exclusive. It’s refreshing that Mulan is able to finally find her place and purpose while also exhibiting devotion to her family.
That sort of devotion to family and helping others takes on special meaning today. As everyday life is upended by the coronavirus pandemic, many of us have found ourselves reflecting on the relationships that matter most. Uncertainty provides an opportunity to appreciate all we have right now, and a chance to support those in need. Mulan’s acts of love and devotion to her family are a touching reminder that we can tap our own skills and abilities to help others.
The film is also a testament to the power of bravery. As Mulan’s father tells her, “There is no courage without fear.” It’s natural to feel apprehensive about the state of the world, and about our purpose and fate. But having the courage to carry on and be the best, most authentic version of ourselves despite that uncertainty is one of the bravest things we can do. Continuing to fight, against all odds, for ourselves and those around us is truly the feat of a modern-day warrior.
Mulan is available to stream on Disney Plus starting Friday for $30 in the US, in addition to Disney Plus‘ regular subscription fee. It’ll become free to anyone with a standard Disney Plus membership on Dec. 4. Mulan is also available in international markets including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several Western European countries.
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