In Disney’s 1998 animated film Mulan, the titular heroine’s mantra is that she will “bring honor to us all,” even if she must do so by unconventional means. The line is so tied to that movie that no doubt you now have the matchmaker’s musical number stuck in your head. And when the trailer for the live-action remake was first revealed, star Liu Yifei’s intonation of those same words were audiences’ first indication that the new movie would honor the spirit of its predecessor. However, the 2020 film expands that mantra into three specific virtues: loyal, brave, and true, which guide Hua Mulan (Liu) from the family in which she is a misfit, to the Imperial Army in her father’s armor, to a showdown with the encroaching Rouran threat.
It’s also a handy metaphor for how Disney approached remaking both the beloved (if imperfect and Westernized) animated film, as well as the Chinese legend itself: by building out the more simplistic themes from the 1998 adaptation into a multifaceted dilemma for today’s Mulan regarding her place in the world. After all, while our protagonist is clearly brave and loyal, her subterfuge bars her from being true—lending a surprising yet welcome solemnity to the live-action film, while still capturing some of the whimsy for nostalgic audiences. It’s a difficult edge to walk, updating the story while satisfying those who still belt out “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” at nerd karaoke. Mulan doesn’t entirely succeed, but the fact that, like its heroine, it tries is invaluable.
The “Chinese-assisting production” has already stumbled, Disney falling prey to its own Western biases again in placing Mulan in both the wrong region and time period. With that in mind, the bones of the story are much the same: As the Rourans (replacing the Huns) threaten to invade China, the Emperor (Jet Li) calls upon every family to produce one man to join the fight. Blessed as he is with two daughters, disabled veteran Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma) is ready to take up his sword again, knowing he will not return. Instead, Mulan steals his sword and armor in the night and goes in his place. Her father, fearing for his daughter’s life more than the family’s honor, sends their ancestral phoenix after her for protection (replacing Eddie Murphy’s wisecracking dragon Mushu).
Disney made it clear from the first announcement that this Mulan would not be a musical, which automatically takes away a lot of the levity. Without those breezy numbers to break up the narrative, this is a rather grim tale of the looming threat of war as well as the more immediate danger of what will happen to Mulan if she is found out. An interesting dimension that the remake adds is the notion of qi: a special power that Mulan learns at a young age to hide, even moreso than her tomboy tendencies. It makes Mulan doubly unconventional, while setting up fascinating parallels with her true enemy: Gong Li’s warrior witch Xiannang, rather than the all-bark-and-no-bite Rouran leader Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee).
But before that inevitable confrontation, they have to make a man out of her.
The absence of the musical numbers is felt more keenly in some places than others. This version maintains some of the irreverence of the training camp, the dark suspense of the Rourans’ approach, the somber strings of Mulan pondering how to be the perfect daughter and the soaring strains when she figures out how. But there is not the same musical framework, so that these moments feel like they occur in a vacuum. This is especially the case for the reiterations of “Reflection,” animated Mulan’s “I want” song (which live-action Mulan never sings) yet so recognizable that the audience has a Pavlovian response whenever it scores Mulan’s especially daring moves.
Loyal, brave, and true are the characters etched onto Hua Zhou’s blade, and the standard to which Mulan holds herself while at the Imperial Army’s training camp. Knowing that she can never be true and making her uneasy peace with that dishonesty—even as Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) reminds the trainees that the penalty for deceit is expulsion—she pushes herself to wholly embody the other two. This focus sacrifices some of the Mulan-failing-as-a-man slapstick of the animated film in favor of a nobler arc; unfortunately, all the focus on her being loyal and brave makes it less important for her to be true. At one point, the movie seems to shrug and basically quote Meat Loaf: Two out of three ain’t bad.
This partly manifests in the decision to split the character of Commander Li Shang into two personas: father figure Commander Tung, who encourages Mulan’s use of qi; and love interest Honghui (Yoson An), a fellow recruit who seems ready to follow her into battle from their first meeting. Splitting Mulan’s attention between two men she wants to impress for very different reasons ultimately undercuts the stakes of her disguise, because even when one doubts her sincerity, the other will still see the truth.
The most exciting addition to the story is Xianniang, who coolly shapeshifts from falcon to Imperial Army soldier to herself, wielding fearsomely sharp talon-nails and mastery of the forbidden qi. She is a clear foil to Mulan, down to how she embraces her magic where the other woman has always hidden hers; there is literally a “we are not so different, you and I” scene between them. Xianniang brings the much-needed fury that Mulan has always lacked, the ire of a woman trapped within what men determine is her proper place—mustering her own power within those limitations, but still constrained.
It will likely come as no surprise that the strongest scenes between the two women, which allow the live-action film to suddenly pass the Bechdel test with flying colors, occur during their early showdowns. By the time Mulan is racing toward the destiny we already know she will fulfill, Xian Lang’s story unfortunately reverts to familiar, ultimately undermining, tropes.
Alternatively, Mulan also has a sister in this version: Xiu (Xana Tang), whose sole purpose seems to be to represent the “perfect daughter” that her parents want, but also the physical manifestation of who Mulan is fighting for. Except Xiu is hardly in the film except in the start and end, and she and Mulan talk of little other than matchmaking and (charmingly) spiders. Ultimately, keeping Mulan an only child was the better bet.
That advice applies to the film overall: In adding in so many extra characters while still following the general throughline established by the animated version, this remake hinders itself with the need to leap from plot beat to plot beat. Often that makes for a faster-than-ideal narrative in which we see Mulan overcome sexism (except that we got too few first-act examples of such) and gain the respect of her fellow soldiers and her emperor (only, she doesn’t seem to have done much more than be a woman with a sword who refuses to back down).
And yet, those are the moments that best distill the live-action Mulan to its essence. The dazzlingly choreographed fight scenes are a marked improvement over the animated film’s stylized sequences in that they better highlight Mulan’s cleverness and resourcefulness. Her fighting may be amplified by qi, but she would not succeed as often as she does if she were not constantly observing surfaces upon which to jump, or objects to turn into weapons—finding new uses for everything within her reach.
The live-action Mulan easily stands on its own, and earns its way into the Disney canon less through inventive musical numbers and more through a very 2020-appropriate interrogation of how women can break out of their traditional roles. Yet it’s still not as subversive as it could be, and still represents a Western movie studio’s blind spots about Chinese culture. Hopefully improving both of these aspects will be the destiny of the inevitable 2040 remake, but for now, this new retelling without a doubt presents a worthy role model for young girls and boys.
Mulan premieres on Disney+ on September 4.