I’ll admit that I haven’t been the biggest fan of Disney’s live-action adaptations of their classic animated films. For the most part, they’ve all been easy cash grabs that do little to contribute to the spirit of their originals. Sometimes, like with The Lion King, they’re nothing more than glorified tech demos that nearly remake the original scene for scene. Mulan follows in the same vein, although it can at least be seen as going in an upward trajectory as Disney seems to be getting better at their own live-action adaptations. While Mulan has some wonderful action sequences, the stiff story and lack of charm leaves much to be desired.
Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei) was never like the other girls in her village. While they were being all cute and womanly, she would be running and chasing chickens and getting into trouble like the boys. As the eldest daughter in her family, it was her duty to follow the order of things and bring honor to her ancestors. But when the Emperor decrees that one man from every family must serve the Imperial Army to defend the country from Northern Invaders, Mulan goes behind her cripled father’s back and hides herself as a man so she can serve in his place and prove that a woman can be as much as warrior as any man.
Mulan follows most of the big plot points of the original animated film, but it does change many things as well, some of which are for the better and some for the worst. The wise-cracking dragon Mushu, for instance, has been removed entirely, and instead replaced with a magical phoenix that doesn’t really do much except randomly show up and fly around in the sky, reminding you that it’s there instead of Mushu. While I understand his removal from the film, they could have at least given the phoenix something to do. There’s also no adorable Cri-Kee, either. Mulan’s love interest remains, although instead of it being her commander, she falls in love with one of her fellow recruits, which actually makes a lot more sense.
Shan Yu, the leader of the Hun army in the original, may be gone but that’s in name only. He is replaced with Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), as the grizzled warrior looking to avenge the death of his family at the Emperor’s hands. This is where the biggest addition to Mulan comes in place. Bori Khan is the main villain, but at his side is a powerful witch (Gong Li) who can shapeshift into any creature or person. She’s a nice addition to the film, but unfortunately they don’t give her much to do besides Bori Khan’s bidding. The film attempts to mirror her story to Mulan’s by showing her as a powerful woman who isn’t accepted by this male driven society, only instead of continuing to fight for good, she turns towards evil. The only problem is that the story is more concerned about Mulan and doesn’t devote enough time to properly explore her character. The intent is there, and her character has the most potential out of everyone, it’s just that she somewhat comes and goes depending on when it best suits Mulan.
Perhaps my biggest disappointment with Mulan, however, is its lack of charm. That’s mostly because the film forgoes any songs at all and instead focuses solely on being more action driven. The film will inject parts of the original score into the background to remind you how you should be feeling during any given scene, like during training when they not so subtly hint at “I'll Make a Man Out of You.” Same with “A Girl Worth Fighting For” which is resolved to a generic conversation around the dinner table. Even when Mulan was getting dressed up to go visit the matchmaker, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the original and how much personality it had. With this, it was as if they were just going through the motions. There’s nothing all that remarkable or memorable about this live-action Mulan unfortunately.
Mulan relies mostly on nostalgia and memories of the original to get you through its nearly two hour running time. It may be pretty to look at with some gorgeous backdrops and solid action set pieces, but the story feels stiff and lifeless. It’s better than many of Disney’s other recent live-action offerings, but honestly that’s not saying much.