Why Mulan is better if you haven't seen the original

Commentary: Better -- but still not great.

Daniel Van Boom Senior Writer
Daniel Van Boom is an award-winning Senior Writer based in Sydney, Australia. Daniel Van Boom covers cryptocurrency, NFTs, culture and global issues. When not writing, Daniel Van Boom practices Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, reads as much as he can, and speaks about himself in the third person.
Expertise Cryptocurrency | Culture | International News
Daniel Van Boom
5 min read

Disney's latest live-action film is a lot of things. Visually spectacular, high-budget and potentially complicit in human-rights abuse. But to fans of the original, Mulan will be striking for what it's not. There's little humor, no whimsy and zero talking dragons. 

This is an issue for many who watched the flick on Disney Plus, where it can be downloaded for $30 in lieu of the planned cinema release. The film has been more harshly received by viewers than critics, with just 52% of positive audience ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and a paltry 2.9 audience score on Metacritic

Read through the comments and a common theme emerges. "When compared to the original, this movie has no heart whatsoever," reads a half-star user review. "Definitely not what I was expecting," said one Rotten Tomatoes user, "all those changes to the story really ruined the movie." According to halfbloodprince, "Critics really missed the mark on this one. No Mushu, no songs, just a watered-down and boring Mulan sprinkled with familiar superhero tropes." 

Not having seen the 1998 original, I was immune to these comparisons. Mulan 2020 takes risks with the source material's formula, but I didn't have the original as a benchmark. So what's Mulan like if you haven't seen the late-'90s classic? It's fine. Completely and utterly fine. 

And that's a problem for Disney.

The House of Mouse has seemingly retold the tale of Mulan in a way different enough to turn off fans of the original, but not in a way that makes it stimulating for people like me who are new to the story. It's what no Disney flick should be: bland.

Mulan 2020
Enlarge Image
Mulan 2020

Reimagined, not remade

Mulan is the 11th live-action do over Disney has released since 2010, when the success of Alice in Wonderland jolted the company into a frenzy of remakes. These films have largely been a financial bonanza. Last year's Lion King was Disney's biggest non-Marvel flick in years, scoring $1.6 billion at the box office.

But Mulan isn't like The Lion King. That was a near frame-for-frame remake, taking the cartoon of yonder and turning it into an uncanny mix of live action and cutting-edge CGI. Mulan is more of a reimagining. 

It's still about Mulan overcoming the barriers placed on women to become a legendary warrior, but there's a completely new villain in Xianniang, a shapeshifting witch who helps out the main bad guy. Meanwhile the removal of Mushu and the musical numbers makes this a much more earnest take on female empowerment. 

And, visually, it's a beautiful one. I'm a proponent of the straight-to-streaming trend we've seen since the coronavirus pandemic began, but Mulan would have been markedly more impressive in a cinema. Its stunning realization of 13th-century China -- mountainous vistas, colorful costumes, vibrant scenery -- is certainly its greatest achievement.

Mulan herself benefits from the glow-up too. The story revolves around her Qi, which is described in almost the exact same way the force is in Star Wars, and how, because she's a woman, she has to repress her abilities. Eventually she lets loose, and becomes a gnarly warrior on the battlefield. The $200-million budget comes in handy here, as special effects and the industry's best choreographers give her badass on-screen moves.

So on a technical level, the film is a success. But artistically? That's a different story. Unfortunately, if you aren't already emotionally attached to Mulan, spellbinding imagery is about the end of the film's magic.  

Remake fatigue

Apart from not being a straightforward remake, Mulan is unlike The Lion King in another key way: The source material is far less pervasive. Films like The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin are cultural touchstones, to the point where you absorb them via osmosis by the time you're an adult even if you've never actually watched them. Seeing those films for the first time in the form of their 21st century remakes is still a novelty. 

Everyone knows the Genie -- and look, now he's Will Smith!

Mulan, as lauded as it is, isn't like that. As a franchise and brand, compared to something like The Lion King, it's a non-entity. For the remake to truly succeed, it needed to be captivating enough to reel in the uninitiated. 

Mulan's big weakness is that it doesn't make you care about Mulan herself. Mushu and the original's songs were dropped to give the film more of a dramatic sweep, but that goal is let down by uninspired characters and a middling story.

The actors speak like they're doing voiceovers for a cartoon, which makes most of them come across as caricatures. Mulan herself has a distinct arc, but character depth and development is limited, if existent at all, for everyone else. It's ironic that the result of this live-action remake is to make characters feel more two dimensional than they do in the actual cartoon.

Enlarge Image

I wondered, as Mulan was wrapping up, how big of a problem this is. Disney movies are for kids, nominally at least, so maybe expecting nuanced characters and a thoughtful plot is folly. But the hallmark of a classic Disney movie is that it's "for" kids but clever, charming and thoughtful enough for adults to enjoy too.

It's this quality that Mulan lacks, and it means the film is unlikely to inspire new fandom. That's seemingly a problem common to Disney live-action remakes, which are high in technical genius but low in soul.  Alice in Wonderland grossed $1.025 billion in 2010 but its sequel, released six years later, drew in a comparatively meagre $229 million. Maleficent tallied up $758 million in 2014, but the 2019 sequel underperformed with $491 million.

In other words, there was nothing to entice people back once they had enjoyed the novelty of seeing their childhood favorites remade with modern cinematic wizardry. If that's the trend, Mulan is poised to continue it. 

If you haven't seen the original, you won't hate the 2020 version as much as the internet does. But that doesn't mean it's worth going out of your way to watch, either.