Review | Niki Caro’s Vision of Mulan Kicks Some Fantastic Phoenix Tail

Mulan has always been one of my favorite characters in the pantheon of Disney princesses. She was well ahead of her time. Clearly, Mulan broke the mold for many princesses and their origin stories — before and after her creation. She broke stereotypes on many fronts and above all, she is incredibly selfless.

That got me thinking about my favorite ever Disney princesses, and where Mulan falls in that list.

What made the original Mulan so interesting was how layered it was. On the surface, it was a light-hearted film about a female character trying to bring honor to her family. It was a fantastically funny film emphasized by a great, comedic performance from Eddie Murphy as Mushu. However, when you examine deeper, this is much more than an animated comedy. It was a story about discovering your true inner-self and challenging society’s boundaries.

Today, the live-action adaptation of Mulan proves every bit of that sentiment.

A Visual Achievement

First and foremost, 2020’s Mulan is strikingly beautiful. Most notably, the training montage among a mountainous backdrop. The Walt Disney Co. filmed the new live-action movie from the dunes of the Taklamakan Desert to the multi-colored mountains of the Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park.

Honestly, I haven’t seen sweeping shots of snowy capped mountains this gorgeous since The Lord of the Rings. Unsurprisingly, many of the film’s scenes were filmed in New Zealand.

The film’s opening act is also eerily similar to our first glimpse of a young Diana Prince running across Themyscira in 2017’s Wonder Woman. While this version may be significantly darker than the animated film that was released in 1998, there is a level of vibrancy oozing through the screen from the film’s first moments.

In terms of cinematography and costume design, expect to hear #Mulan’s name called during this year’s Oscar nominations. @DisneysMulan is a remarkable feat of beauty.

No Mushu, No Problem

This is not the Mulan you grew up watching. There is very little comedy in this film. In fact, the first element of comedy doesn’t occur until 30 minutes into the film.

Given the serious tone of the film, it is clear removing Mushu from the film was the right choice as he would have clearly been out of place. Even further, our first taste of the 1998 soundtrack doesn’t occur until nearly an hour into the film.

In several scenes, the idea of Mushu is replaced with the image of a Phoenix. What does it represent? Mulan is a film about the central character’s journey to find herself. Despite saving her fellow soldiers, we see her cast out after revealing her true gender.

In Mulan, Mushu is appropriately replaced with the Phoenix in literal and metaphorical ways.

Like a phoenix, we see Mulan’s spirit and bravery rise from the ashes to fulfill her duty for China. Most importantly, she fights to bring honor to her family. Her transformation was beautiful.

One of my favorite scenes of the film occurs at the end of the second act when her comrades openly stand up for her in front of the general, Commander Tung played by Ip Man and Chirrut Imwe himself, Donnie Yen. Watching Mulan’s bravery and loyalty be rewarded was handled very well.

Niki Caro did a phenomenal job emphasizing the very essence of Mulan. Her determination and spirit are unrivaled. Her will and strength to become a soldier and fulfill her duty to China are unmatched. On that end, the film is extremely successful.

Let’s go back to the beginning. Within the first ten minutes, we are introduced to a shape-shifting, witch named Xian Lang, played by the amazing Li Gong (Miami Vice, Memories of a Geisha). The creative decision to make Xian Lang an outsider was brilliant. In a foreshadowing move, we see her disguise herself as a man in order to help Böri Khan invasion, who is played by Jason Scott Lee (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Lilo & Stitch) .

At first, I admit that I was not the biggest fan when it was revealed that a witch would be introduced into Mulan’s story.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

It was clear from the beginning that Mulan and the witch had much in common. They were both outsiders. They struggled to find their place in a male-driven society. However, there was a pivotal scene during the third act that felt a bit rushed. The dynamic between our heroine and the witch was strong, but needed more time in the first and second acts to make the moment more emotional.

challenging societal norms

As mentioned earlier, Mulan is about challenging and overcoming society’s rules. In Chinese tradition, the sword has always been symbolic for men bringing honor to their family. The concept of dark magic threatening the power of a sword fits beautifully here. We see Mulan’s expression of terror when her family sword is lost.

When she defeated Böri Khan without a sword, it was a triumph. It symbolized Mulan’s rise as a hero and warrior for China. Director Niki Caro deserves a ton of credit here. Her fully realized live adaptation of Mulan not only beautifully represents the culture of China, but it continues to cement Mulan as a major character young females can continue to look up to.

One of the fascinating aspects of the original Mulan was the exploration of the ramifications of war. That concept is even further fleshed out here during several scenes in the second act. There is a significant level of fear expressed from Mulan and her comrades due to the upcoming battle against Böri Khan.

Personally, I don’t recall I’ve seen a live-action Disney film with a higher death count. There are several violent scenes ranging from soldiers being killed by arrows on horseback to ninja stars. In one scene, blood is seen dripping from the witch’s claw-like fingers. In another, Mulan kicks an incoming spear to impale one of Khan’s soldiers during battle.

Important characters make open death threats towards others. For fathers and mothers reading this review, this is not a film for kids. However, this is a direction by Disney that I hope continues to be explored.

What didn’t work?

As you can probably tell, I really enjoyed this adaptation.

Ironically, the film suffers from an identity crisis of its own. While I loved the original film, there are moments in the recent Mulan where the previous soundtrack is shoved down your throat. Since it is so wildly different than the previous Disney remakes, I think Mulan would have benefitted more from removing the original film score and making its own.

That brings us to the soundtrack, which is incredibly underwhelming. As a film score nerd, one would think Mulan had all the ingredients for a sweeping and energetic film score. I have no idea what happened, but it’s as dull as it gets. Harry Gregson-Williams is a very good composer, but this is an arrow that completely missed the mark.

While I enjoyed the fresh take on the original story, I think fans are clearly going to have a problem with the lack of happiness and joy in the film. The original Mulan is such a treasure. It’s light hearted and features one of the all-time great Disney performances by Eddie Murphy. You’re not going to find that in this remake. Personally, I didn’t have a problem with it given the tone of the film. I enjoyed Mulan’s transformation in this film and it was felt mostly after the first act.

Final Verdict…

Mulan will easily go down as one of the top tier live-action Disney remakes. Personally, the recent remakes of The Lion King and Dumbo were beyond underwhelming. They simply failed to retain the same magic that made the originals so special.

If you haven’t seen Mulan yet, then I have great news. Niki Caro’s vision instantly makes Mulan’s character one want to believe in. WARNING: this is nothing like the original Mulan. If you expect that going in and you’re like me (wanting something fresh from Disney), then you’ll really appreciate this film.

Grade: 8/10

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