After months of anticipation, and numerous mentions on Essential Millennial about it (here and here), the wait is finally over. Disney’s Mulan 2020 live-action remake has finally been released, and it’s quite different from the original in a number of ways. If you don’t know the plot of the original Mulan from 1998, there’s a massive gap in your education and your upbringing. Go and watch that as soon as you can, and then come back here because we have a lot to discuss.
Disney did its best to right a lot of wrongs with its 2020 version of Mulan. One of its greatest strengths is that it includes an all-Asian cast. Now, I know it seems tough to imagine how this story, being what it is and where it comes from, could have been told without an all-Asian cast, but remember that Hollywood is notorious for whitewashing its films and in the past caucasian actors have been played a number of Asian roles. Not to mention, minorities are still highly under-represented on the silver screen, so this really is a step in the right direction.
Furthermore, the particular actors cast in Mulan are, for the most part, really great. Yifei Liu fits effortlessly into the role of Mulan, bringing it to life and making a name for herself with western audiences. She acts alongside familiar faces, like that of Gong Li (who plays the badass female antagonist, Xianniang) who many will recognise from Memoirs of a Geisha (a film which is problematic in itself for its use of Chinese actresses in roles which should have been Japanese), and Jet Li (who plays the benevolent Emperor of China).
From minute one, the live-action remake is a visual treat. From bright green Sulphur-spewing volcanic craters to the radiant gold imperial throne, every location was beautifully thought out and planned to be visually impressive and dramatic. I found myself wishing I could pause to take screen grabs every few minutes. In addition to being just generally pretty, the music too is a delight – especially for those familiar with the 1998 animated original.
Though Disney decided to remove the musical aspect of the film, much to the dismay of fans, many of whom know all the lyrics off by heart, the score (composed and conducted by Harry Gregson-Williams) does include some tunes from the original soundtrack. This time round, the creators decided not to include songs, in an effort to distance the remake from the original – which was a massive flop in China, and criticised for being too westernised. The little musical easter eggs, though, were a great way of reminding those that did love the original that they haven’t abandoned it entirely.
The familiar melodies blend seamlessly into scenes, evoking a delightful nostalgia, despite not bringing the songs back entirely. The dialogue too, includes lyrics from some of fans’ favourite songs, like a Girl Worth Fighting For, which will have older viewers chuckling with glee. This was such a subtle and quirky touch, that the pleasure of recognising the lyrics in the dialogue almost outdoes the enjoyment we would have felt had the songs simply been rerecorded as they were for Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast remake. And thank the gods we didn’t have to sit through another of their attempts at adding new music to a remake of a classic!
Another lovely touch, and one which highlights Mulan 2020’s connection with the animated original, was the inclusion of Christina Aguilera. The veteran songbird not only redoes the original theme Reflection (although why she had to sing the same song slightly differently for this one puzzles me) but she also performs the film’s new theme Loyal, Brave, True which, arguably, is even better.
While the credits roll, audiences can also hear Yifei Liu’s Mandarin version of Reflection – worth staying in the cinema (or on your sofa) a little longer to listen to because it’s lovely. For those of you who are too lazy to watch the credits, I’ll do you a small favour:
But that’s enough about the music, the film has many other merits. The greatest of which, in my opinion, was Gong Li’s character, a phenomenal witch named Xianniang. Xanniang is one of the film’s greatest deviations from the original Disney classic, and I’m sure many fans will be lamenting her inclusion in the plot.
Her character immediately appealed to me because it echoes the way powerful women have always been vilified by the men in charge. Xianniang, branded as a witch despite referring to herself as a warrior, holds the power to destroy or possess everyone she encounters, and yet, she is selective about when she does so. She could easily defeat the man she works for, but instead goes along with his will as long as it benefits her. Likewise, she could easily defeat Mulan – the ostensible hero of the story – and in fact, comes very close to doing so, but chooses not to.
The connection formed between her and Mulan is one of the most important messages this film presents to us. Women have been marked as witches throughout history when they’ve chosen to embrace their true power, but when women come together, no matter how different they are, and no matter how much society tries to pit them against each other, the greatest changes can be made.
I’m probably in the minority here, but as a twenty-something female viewer, Xianniang was a truly relatable and even aspirational character, and perhaps a hero in this story that deserves more credit. Not to mention, her bold, IDGAF sense of style in the film is fabulous, and have you seen Gong Li? The woman is hot. And did you know she’s 54? Like I said, aspirational.
Another commendable aspect of the film was the way it seemed to embrace sexuality as being more fluid than previous Disney films have suggested. When one imagines a Disney narrative, there’s very often a romance between a female and male protagonist – the princess and her prince charming. Mulan in 2020, however seems to embrace the attraction between two men, with Mulan disguised as Hua Jun and Chen Honghui (portrayed by Yoson An) – since Chen Honghui was under the impression Mulan was a man for most of the plot, those intimate sidelong glances scream of a homoeroticism that has long been lacking from kids’ films despite being present in real life. There’s even a delicious tension between Mulan and Xianniang, and I’d argue that of all the things the film lacks, a kiss between those two is at the top of the list).
The only other thing the film is really missing is a realistic adherence to the rules of gravity. Its understandable that for younger audiences, they’d have to adjust the fight scenes – of which there are many – to be less gruesome than they would have been in real life ( or a Tarantino flick) but did Mulan really have to abandon the earth’s gravitational pull altogether? There are men running up walls and leaping twenty feet into the air, for Pete’s sake. It kind of snaps you out of the moment when you’ve been really invested in the scene and something that silly happens.
All-in-all, I really enjoyed this movie, and the prolonged anticipation didn’t even ruin that for me. I wouldn’t recommend it for very young audiences on account of all the fight scenes and the darkness the plot entails, but the lessons this film teaches are important and valuable, and the way it demonstrates that Disney and Hollywood, too, have learned a few lessons is highly satisfying.
Once again, Disney has released a Mulan movie with a strong and inspirational female lead, except this time it’s even better because there are two of them.
Essential Millennial Rating: 4 out of 5 avocados