From the Shelf: Mulan (2020)

The “From the Shelf” segment is a series of reviews that were written months ago, but until now have sat, well, on the shelf.

By Christian DiMartino

The response for Disney’s latest cash-grab remake Mulan has been a bit all over the place. Critically the film has been well-received, but with the general population, it appears to have ranged from “eh” to “bleh.” There is a good chance that people went into it with a negative perception though, seeing as director Niki Caro made a bold move by removing all of the songs, along with the character of Mushu (played wonderfully by Eddie Murphy in the 1998 original).

Said move, surprisingly, is kind of what peaked my interest in this new Mulan. Disney is of course going through this phase where they feel the need to remake their animated classics, because not only is it lazy, but also, the nostalgia factor alone should be the draw. Their results have been… so-so. I loved The Jungle Book, I went for Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and (I know I’m alone here) Tim Burton’s Dumbo. Otherwise, eh, they haven’t really done it for me, mostly because some of these films have failed to justify their existence. They have done nothing to spice up the narrative, and so what you get on the screen is just expensive leftovers. Take last year’s The Lion King, cutting-edge visually but, what for? The film made a billion dollars, but nobody really liked it. So yeah, hearing that Mulan was going to be something different- more like a traditional Ancient Japanese war film- sounded like an experiment that just might pay off.

Having now seen Mulan, it appears that I’ve been left with quite the conundrum. I want something different out of these live-action remakes, rather than the same bloody movie all over again (which Dumbo delivered upon), and now that I’ve gotten said different movie, well… perhaps watching it on the big screen would’ve made the difference. No, I did not fork $30 over to Disney+ for it, but the movie I saw reminded me a bit of Wendy, which I reviewed a few days ago. I admire what’s onscreen before me in terms of its visuals and I admire Caro’s efforts to bring us something new… but as it turns out, what’s new also isn’t as interesting as it was before.

Perhaps the problem lies in our memories of the previous film. In trying to attempt something different with Mulan, Caro has made the same film over again, just minus the music and the fantastical Disney elements. Again, a bold, admirable move… but also there are still shades of the previous film within it, but this time it’s devoid of charm and humor. In trying to avoid doing the same thing, Caro does the same thing, but it’s drastically different, and I hate to say it… but maybe they should’ve just made the same film over again. Or, to maybe save some time and some money, maybe they should just leave these movies alone altogether (as I type this, I can hear the corporate heads from Disney’s laughter).

Speaking of business, let’s get down to business (wink) and discuss the plot. If you know the original, you know the plot, but eh, here we are anyways. Mulan (Yifei Liu) is a young Chinese (I said Japanese earlier, oops) maiden who is essentially told at a young age that she is to be a proper lady. In the eyes of her family, she is not. She has a sense of adventure and a certain energy to her that make her come across as more of a force to be reckoned with than a “proper lady.”

That’s probably because she would rather be the force to be reckoned with than the proper lady. Yet whenever her father is under attack, Mulan feels it’s time to break the mold. Mulan ultimately disguises herself as a man, and joins the army. All the while, a war is brewing and yada yada.

The money is really on the screen here. Mulan is filled with beautiful colors that splash off the screen, exotic locales that dazzle the eye, visual effects that, for the most part, get their money’s worth. The costumes in particular are the best part of Mulan, and don’t be surprised if they win an Academy Award.

I also admired the way Caro managed to tap into Ancient Chinese culture. It’s a pretty cool time period, and Caro definitely captured it. There is much to admire in Mulan, and yet at the end of the day, I cannot put my finger on it. Maybe it’s because the original film was just done so well. It’s not one of my favorite Disney movies, but take a scene here whenever Mulan is training. Her commander says something along the lines of, “I’m going to make men out of here.” Hearing something like that, there is no way that you will not long to hear Donnie Osmond.

In trying to do it’s own thing, Mulan still kind of depends on its old thing. It’s not a bad film- it’s decently well made and it has its share of cool action sequences and visual grandeur. But I wish it had found a proper middle ground. Like Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book– it managed to take the original story, add a darker side to it, but still maintain the charm of the original. Mulan could’ve done with a similar touch up. As it stands, it’s a film that’s easier to admire than enjoy.

Grade: B-

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