Mulan Review (2020)

There seems to be no stopping the train of Disney remakes. The House of Mouse is pretty determined to give all their classic animated catalogue the live action treatment and the results have been rather hit or miss with audiences. The remakes have ranged from slavish copies (The Lion King) to trying to take a few creative liberties (Aladdin, Jungle Book), but most have largely stayed faithful to their animated source material. So much so that the biggest question around these remakes has been, “Why bother?”.

Mulan, on the other hand, seemed to be taking a different route. Skewing more towards a more sombre, war epic, the trailers and promotional material showed a film that wasn’t afraid to make changes, shedding problematic elements (like the controversial Mushu) and doing away with musical numbers that wouldn’t tonally match the movie’s direction. This looked like it would be a remake that took risks and might actually be worth doing and I have been looking forward to it for a while. So, when I found out I could access the movie early on Disney Plus, I gladly paid my $39.99 NZD.

And Mulan 2020 is fine…I guess?

Most viewers will be familiar with the story of Mulan, so I won’t break it down here because fundamentally the narrative between the 1998 version and the live action remake remains the same. While there are new characters and a few new subplots, there are whole scenes that more or less lifted from the animated movie, with a few twists here and there. The main differences between the two films are, as mentioned, the lack of musical numbers, the replacement of Eddie Murphy‘s Mushu with a more traditional Phoenix. Though less whimsical in nature, this wasn’t as big a departure as I thought it would be.

The film’s biggest strength are its visuals. Helped tremendously by New Zealand’s natural beauty, the film just pops with vibrant hues, the colour-soaked vistas, the bright costumes, everything just culminating in a treat for the eyes. And when director Niki Caro lets the camera slowly move across the scenes it really gives you a chance to take it all in, giving you time to take in the loving artistry used to create this world.

And while the film exceeds in the visual department, the rest of the film was a little flat for me. The main cast did a reasonably good job in their parts, with Yifei Lu adequately handling the role of the titular Mulan. But there was something about the characters that just failed to emotionally connect with me. Maybe I was unfairly comparing the movie to its animated predecessor, but it just felt like the original animated movie had just a bit more heart and managed to convey things a little more succinctly than the latest iteration.

This also extended to the movie’s score. Harry Gregson-Williams has created a perfectly serviceable soundtrack for the film but when compared to Jerry Goldsmith‘s original work, it pales in comparison. The only moments that really shine are when Williams incorporates an instrumental version of some of the songs from the animated feature. I couldn’t but help wishing that more of the song cues had featured in the Willams’ score.

Personally, I think Mulan 2020 should have deviated more from its source material in order to prevent comparisons. As it was, with so many moments that could be linked back to the 1998 version, it was hard not analyse the scenes against each other. And unfortunately, in most aspects, I think the animated movie did it better. There were fewer lapses in logic, scenes like the training of the soldiers or the battle with the avalanche were just more impactful and the camaraderie between Mulan and the fellow soldiers felt more earned than they did here.

The editing of some of the fight scenes also let the film down. The fight scenes featured lots of cuts, jumping from one cut to the next without really letting you take in the full choreography of the fight. I think a few wider shots that stuck with the fight as it was taking place would have helped improve the action.

If Mulan 2020 was taken on its own merit, it is a decent war film and would be a good time pass, but audiences are sure to compare the movie to the animated version, and it doesn’t quite manage to fill its predecessor’s shoes.

I give Mulan 2020 a 7 out of 10, and unless you really must see it early, I would recommend you wait until December for the movie to be free on Disney plus.

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