Yifei Lui stars as the titular character Mulan in the 2020 Disney live-action "Mulan" film

Review: Live-Action ‘Mulan’ Misses Its Aim

It’s an understatement to say that we’ve been anticipating this big budget, live-action Mulan film for years. With a full Asian cast (go away, White Savior) and a female director (woohoo Niki Caro) at the helms, Mulan had so much going for it. 

Written by Jamie Hare and ChinLin Pan

A hell of a year for Mulan

This film, like many, endured the consequences of the pandemic outbreak in the U.S. Mulan, originally scheduled to release in theaters on March 27, was postponed not once but thrice. First, Disney Studios postponed the release to July 24. Then, Disney postponed it to Aug. 21. And once again, the studio made the ultimate decision to schedule release for Sept. 4. But instead of watching the film theaters (*cough* Tenet), movie goers can opt to watch Mulan at home (safety first, right?) on Disney Plus. For a streaming fee of $29.99. WHAT. And that’s already on top of the subscription. 

The official image for Disney Studios releasing its 2020 live-action "Mulan" film on its streaming service, Disney+.
Official Disney+ promotion streaming Disney’s live-action “Mulan”

The extra $30 fee, a huge turnoff to many watchers, is an extra deterrent that affects the reception of Disney’s live-action Mulan. For families, the price is reasonable. For individuals living on their own, the extra cost may not be feasible. AND TO TOP THAT OFF, Disney Studios meets us halfway and will stream film for free for all Disney Plus subscribers on Dec. 4. Three months later.

Geeky ladies and germs, we’re not even going to get into the #BoycottMulan controversy revolving around lead actress Yifei Lu’s statements about Hong Kong police… Because then this article wouldn’t actually be a review. But perhaps another time…

Read our review of Disney’s live-action Mulan:

Warning: Some spoilers ahead!

What worked in Disney’s live-action Mulan:

Hua Zhou

Seasoned Asian American actor Tzi Ma stars as Mulan's father, Hua Zhou, in Disney's live-action "Mulan"
Seasoned Asian American actor Tzi Ma stars as Mulan’s father, Hua Zhou, in Disney’s live-action “Mulan”

Mulan’s father Hua Zhou narrates the film. His voice, calm and a tad solemn, is the first thing you hear when you start watching. Tzi Ma stars as Hua Zhou and he’s one of the most underrated seasoned Asian American actors of our time. The patriarch’s lines when he’s speaking to his young daughter in the beginning of the film remind the viewers of Chinese cultural values. Deep down, he is secretly proud of his daughter’s strong feminist spirit. But he must protect her from society, otherwise life would be even harder for her.

Mulan and The Witch

The Witch and Mulan fight in Disney's live-action "Mulan"
The Witch and Mulan fight in Disney’s live-action “Mulan”

The writers added the Witch (Li Gong) into the story, and her presence makes an excellent and also necessary addition. Li Gong is an absolute goddess; her wardrobe and makeup stunning. Kudos to those respective departments. Their interactions brought something new that the animated film did not have, specifically the Witch made Mulan realize she was a liar. She wasn’t true. She can’t be true as long as she falsified her identity to her regiment. 

Game of Thrones fans may appreciate some aspects

From left to right: Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and the Witch (Li Gong) in Disney's live-action "Mulan" film
From left to right: Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and the Witch (Li Gong) / Image credit: Disney Studios
  • The first time we see the Rourans (they replace the Huns in the live action), we are reminded of the Dothraki from HBO’s Game of Thrones. The Rourans aren’t as savage but the cinematography of the Rourans were reminiscent of the Dothrakis’ scenes.
  • When the phoenix rises from behind Mulan, its strong but delicate and vibrant reddish-orange wings span across, it reminds us of when Drogon expanded his wings behind Daenarys at King’s Landing.

Mulan is a female-led film

Mulan, with the production budget of $200 million, has become the most expensive film directed by a woman. New Zealander Niki Caro also directed Whale Rider, The Zookeeper’s Wife, and North Country. Out of the four screenwriters attached to the film, three are women (Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin, and Lauren Hynek). Many of the department heads were women. The DP (director of photography) and the first AD (assistant director) were all women.

What didn’t work:

The cartoonish tea scene

The town Matchmaker tries to teach Mulan how to serve tea properly as her sister and mother (right) sit beside her in Disney's live-action "Mulan"
The town Matchmaker tries to teach Mulan how to serve tea properly / Image credit: Disney Studios

The tea scene at the beginning proved cartoonish both in color and in action. It paid homage to the animated Mulan, but it was also shot for shot just like the animation. Without the presence of the dragon and cricket sidekicks in this live action film, perhaps the cartoonish aspects of the film were not necessary. 

The Witch’s purpose

Li Gong stars as Xianniang, the Witch in Disney's live-action "Mulan"
Li Gong stars as Xianniang, the Witch in Disney’s live-action “Mulan”

The Witch is mysterious but it quickly becomes clear that her existence is solely to move the plot forward by the second half of the film. Mulan would not even have discovered Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee)’s true plans had The Witch not turned and divulge that information.

The pacing was off

Some scenes dragged on while other scenes were too quick. The film starts off strong but with a rather slow pace. Did we really need to see a young Mulan jump on the roof to catch a chicken for five minutes? And the training scenes near the halfway point of the film also proved to drag on. It’s not until the second half of the film where the pace quickens but then is rushed to the ending. For example, the Witch meets her demise and we don’t even get a moment to appreciate her help and grieve. 

Some of the fight scenes could’ve been better 

Mulan stands with her fellow soldiers in the Emperor's Imperial Army in Disney's live-action "Mulan" film
Mulan with her fellow soldiers in the Emperor’s Imperial Army / Image credit: Disney Studios

Some of the fight scenes, particularly the scenes where characters appeared to fly onto walls and gravity stopped working for them, were a stark reminder of the tropey style of Chinese-produced dramas based in ancient China. 

Other fight scenes were reminiscent of ‘90s kung fu era films, where it’s too obvious the actors are hung on wires. 

And last, the gore is toned down tremendously. Which is a disadvantage for the film. The realities of war should’ve been portrayed and addressed. All of Mulan’s comrades face imminent death (or downright should’ve died) but cheated death instead. How are the viewers supposed to appreciate the triumphs if there’s hardly any losses?

Jet Li is unrecognizable

Jet Li as The Emperor in Disney's live-action "Mulan" film
Jet Li as The Emperor in Disney’s live-action “Mulan”

As the Emperor, Jet Li is unrecognizable under so much makeup, which was disappointing. An actor of this caliber deserved more screen time.

Conclusion

The film had uneven scenes and uneven pacing, and the film lacked exposure for Donnie Yen or Jet Li. These two actors were highly underused. After stripping out the animated sidekicks and the musical numbers, the film is left to portray “The Ballad of Mulan,” but overall, the film felt too toned down and could have been better. Disney’s live-action Mulan gets 2.5 out of 4 stars. 

Have you watched Disney’s live-action Mulan? Are you waiting until it’s free to stream on Disney+? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or tweet us @geekgalsco.

Read more of Jamie’s articles or read more of ChinLin’s articles.

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Featured image credit: Disney Studios

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