Mulan (2020) ☆☆(2/4): Stick to the animation version, please

“Mulan”, the live action remake version of the 1998 Disney animation film of the same name, is a pointless and unnecessary product which dissatisfies me a lot for many reasons. Although it is not incompetent at all in technical aspects with a few saving graces to notice, the movie is deficient in charm, humor, and spirit in comparison as trying to be more serious and respectable than its original version, and I must confess that I came to have a strong urge to revisit its original version when the movie was over.

As many of you know, the movie went through several setbacks during its production. While it was originally planned by Disney in 2010, it had been stuck in the pre-production period for next several years without much progress, and then its production was finally started in 2018 after director Niki Caro was hired in 2017, but then its initial theatrical release date in US got postponed due to the ongoing COVID-19, and then it was eventually released on Disney+ a few weeks ago while it got released in movie theaters in case of several other countries including South Korea.

Along with Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” (2020), “Mulan” was expected to give considerable boost to movie theater business, but it turns out to be quite disappointing even compared to “Tenet”, which is at least impressively ambitious and challenging despite being too murky and superficial for me. While it surely tries some female empowerment as expected, its attempts are mild, clumsy, and problematic in my inconsequential opinion while unwisely eliminating or modifying what makes its original version so special and precious, and it only comes to us as something which is no more than a soulless American imitation of run-of-the-mill Chinese epic drama films.

After the prologue scene which emphasizes how special its heroine was even when she was a little girl, the movie promptly moves forward to several years later. Now growing up to be a young woman expected to get married sooner or later, Mulan (Yifei Liu) tries to follow her parents’ expectation on her, but, alas, her plucky spirit turns out to be quite irrepressible during her meeting with a local matchmaker, which becomes disastrous despite her sincere efforts. While understanding well that his daughter is very different from other girls in their rural village, Mulan’s father cannot help but feel more concerned about her future, and Mulan feels guilty about causing another concern to her dear father.

Meanwhile, their kingdom is suddenly threatened by a bunch of barbarians led by Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), a vengeful dude very determined to avenge his father’s death. With the considerable assistance of a powerful witch named Xianniang (Gong Li), he and his army invade more and more into the kingdom, and the emperor of the kingdom accordingly orders the mobilization of more troops to fight against Khan’s army, which leads to the conscription of one man from each household all over the kingdom.

When the emperor’s order is delivered to Mulan’s village, Mulan’s father promptly steps forward as the only man in his family, but he has not been well enough after getting injured with the previous war, and it is highly likely that he will die in this war. Although he is willing to die for his country as well as his family’s honor, his family members are devastated by his adamant decision, and that is why Mulan comes to decide that she will go instead while disguising herself as his son.

Right from her first day in a barrack for training recruits, Mulan faces a number of expected difficulties, and the movie gives some humorous moments as she manages to maintain her disguise, but then it falters in story and character development process. As showing more of her physical skill and talent, Mulan comes to earn some respect from other soldiers around her, but her budding friendship with one particular soldier is rather contrived, and the same thing can be said about their commander, who simply functions to remind us again of how special she is because of her ‘chi’ (It is basically same as the Force in Star Wars flicks, you know).

During the second half, the movie delivers several action sequences as required, and Caro and her crew members including cinematographer Mandy Walker try as hard as possible, but the overall result does not impress me much on the whole. Although its production design and costumes look wonderful on the surface, they do not surpass what I observed from those recent Chinese epic drama films, and the action scenes in the film often feel artificial, probably due to using too much CGI on the screen. To be frank with you, the original version has more style, beauty, and grandiosity, and that reminds me again of why live action movies cannot beat animation films in certain aspects.

The main cast members acquit themselves well although most of them are stuck in their thankless roles. While Yifei Liu diligently carries the film as demanded, Donnie Yen, Jason Scott Lee, Gong Li, and Jet Li are wasted due to their flat supporting characters, and Tzi Ma, who has been always dependable in case of playing your average stoic Asian patriarchs, manages to bring some sense of life and history to his character.

In conclusion, “Mulan” fails to bring honor to its original version, and I only become more nostalgic about how much I was awed and impressed by those key moments in the original version. Even if you can put aside the growing controversies surrounding the production of the film, the movie is not entertaining enough as being hampered by its many glaring flaws in terms of story and characters, so I strongly recommend you to stick to the original version.

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