Disney’s Mulan is a 2020 action film based on the animated film from 1998 with the same name. Originally based on the “Ballad of Mulan”, a Chinese folktale, Mulan’s live-action version was aimed at becoming the first “blockbuster” of 2020, a year when the COVID-19 pandemic has ruined the release of several key films. Mulan was released on Disney+ and in some countries it had a theatrical release. Mulan’s problem was it got caught up in the wave of anti-China sentiment due to the treatment of the Uighurs by the Chinese government, especially considering that the movie was filmed in Xinjiang province, a Chinese province where most of the Uighur labor and re-education camps are situated, thus, giving it a mixed reception from western audiences. In China too, the audiences did not enjoy the live-action adaptation stating that it mismanaged the character development and some of the cultural aspects. The movie however, did get a favorable reaction for its amazing visuals and action sequences.
The story begins with Hua Mulan, shown to be a young, adventurous girl who disappoints her parents, who as traditionalists want both their daughters to be wedded to good young men and be loyal, traditional wives. Though her sister does well in this aspect, Mulan continues to be anything but traditional. In a scene, attempting to show her utter lack of traditional, “womanly” qualities, Mulan is forced to meet with a matchmaker to demonstrate her suitability as a future wife. Mulan, flustered, attempts to pour tea in front of the matchmaker, but a spider causes a panic that destroys the tea kettle, and the matchmaker runs out, calling her a disgrace in front of her family.
Meanwhile, as we are being shown all this, the scene cuts to an imperial outpost which is invaded by Rouran warriors, under the leadership of a warlord called Böri Khan. They are assisted by the witch Xianniang, who uses her magic to pose as a surviving soldier and report the attack to the Emperor of China who then issues a conscription decree ordering every family to contribute one man to fight Khan’s forces.
Imperial soldiers arrive in Mulan’s village to enlist recruits and her elderly and frail father Hua Zhou is forced to pledge his service as he has no sons (interestingly in the original Ballad of Mulan, Mulan had no sister but rather a very young brother. Wonder why Disney changed the same?). Realizing that her father has no chance of survival, Mulan flees with his armor, horse, and sword to join in his place. Mulan arrives at the training camp, which is run by Commander Tung, an old comrade of her father. Alongside dozens of other inexperienced recruits, she ultimately becomes a trained soldier under his tutelage without exposing her true identity – which seems unlikely but okay we will accept that hiding your long hair and tying up a cloth around your breasts, is all that is needed to convince everyone that you’re a man.
The Khan’s army continues to advance, forcing Tung to end training early and send his battalion to fight which leads to a decent battle although not on the epic scale of battles we are accustomed to seeing in movies based on Chinese history and folklore. Mulan chases some troops on her own, but is confronted by Xianniang, the witchm who mocks her for pretending to be a man. The witch attempts to kill Mulan, but her attacks are stopped by the leather with which Mulan’s chest had been bound to hide her identity (so basically the leather cloth isn’t just a fashion accessory). Mulan removes her disguise (nothing fancy, just lets her hair flow and lets her breasts breathe freely, the usual), returning to the battle just as the Rourans begin attacking her fellow troops with a trebuchet – a weapon which is woefully inaccurate against soldiers but is efficient against buildings. It is odd that many movies, ignore such basic military tactics. Mulan uses discarded helmets and her archery skills to maneuver the trebuchet into firing on a snowy mountain, triggering an avalanche that buries the Rourans. So not only were the Rourans terrible with their military tactics, they also lacked basic common sense.
Mulan rides back to camp and rescues Chen Honghui, a soldier she befriended in camp and who in time, would serve as a “romantic interest” for her. Having revealed her true gender, she is expelled from the army and begins her return home. On her way, she is confronted by the witch, who reveals that she was also shunned by her people and fights for Böri Khan only because he treats her as an equal. Additionally, she reveals that the attacks on the outposts have been a diversion, as Khan’s true plan is to capture and execute the Emperor for having his father killed. Risking execution, Mulan returns to her battalion to warn them of the impending capture. Tung decides to believe her, and allows her to accompany a unit to the Emperor’s palace. This is one of the great tragedies that prevent the movie from becoming interesting – everything is accomplished in a super convenient manner. It is like a big disclaimer shouting the word FICTION is being advertised in every scene of the movie.
The witch Xianniang, posing as the Imperial Chancellor, meanwhile persuades the Emperor to accept Böri Khan’s challenge to single combat, while removing the city guards from their posts. The guards are murdered, and the Rourans prepare to burn the Emperor alive. Mulan’s unit distracts the Rourans while Mulan goes to save the Emperor. Böri Khan tries to snipe her with an arrow, but Xianniang, sympathetic to Mulan and disillusioned with the warlord (this also happens super quickly and conveniently. Apparently she got him all the way to his goal only to foil it and die as a bird), transforms into a bird and sacrifices herself by catching the arrow. Mulan kills Khan, but not before he disarms her and destroys her father’s sword. She frees the Emperor, who offers to let her join his personal guard. She declines the offer and returns to her village. I wonder if Michael Kelso would shout BURN if he were there in that hall.
Mulan is reunited with her family, coming to her village in a badass way. No more arranged marriages for her, no sir. An emissary from the Emperor, under the leadership of Commander Tung, arrives to present Mulan with a new sword, while making a personal request that she join the Emperor’s Guard opening the gateway for Disney to unleash more dull, predictable movies on unsuspecting people.
The problem with the movie is the script – everything is so predictable and stereotypical, from the behavior and the story. Good girl overcomes prejudice and sexism to defeat evil and be a champion of the people. There is a severe lack of imagination at Disney. Basically converting their own animated shows into live-action movies and then expecting fools to pay double to watch the same. No wonder Mulan, which was made on a budget of around $200 million only managed to make about $66.8 million. It is possible it could have made and maybe will make more on the online streaming services and from DVD sales but it is smart to say, it was not as successful as Disney expected it to be. Sure, Coronavirus can be blamed for it but the truth is not so simple. The movie lacks imagination and also any good action sequences – the fighting scenes though beautifully shot, are quite dull for any person who has watched Chinese movies and the battle sequences in many of these, far outperform those in Mulan. But hey, Mulan is supposed to be a family film hence chopped off heads and gruesome deaths, won’t really bring in the audiences. Sadly from the looks of it, the lack of these also did not do much.
An average film to stream on a boring Sunday if you’re tired of watching re-runs of your favorite shows. But don’t expect to be awed.