I wrote this review before news came out that “Mulan” was filmed in China’s Xinjiang province, where one million people, primarily Muslims, are being detained. Knowing what I know now, I cannot in good conscience support the film the way I did after first seeing it. As an art form, the film is beautiful, as I say in the following review, but the truth behind the film colors my view of it irrevocably.
As an avid Disney fan, I am so disappointed in Disney’s complicity in this situation. The message of this film is to empower all people; it is disheartening to learn that, by filming in a location where the Chinese government is committing terrible abuses against human rights, the company that created the movie does not agree with the empowering message the latter is meant to have. By publicly thanking a province where millions of Muslims have been detained unjustly in the film’s credits, Disney has tarnished the uplifting message they were trying to convey with Mulan’s story.
While my review of the film itself remains overwhelmingly positive, my thoughts on the execution and production of the movie are the exact opposite. All of the positive aspects of the film itself still stand, but the fact of the matter is that those purely aesthetic positives do not matter anymore. If the past few months of quarantine and political and racial unrest have taught me anything, it’s that I have to be able to see myself in the mirror and be proud of the reflection that I see. I no longer can say that I believe others should watch “Mulan,” support it financially or commend Disney for its creation. As a Muslim myself, I could not let my review stand without saying this.
When Disney started to release live-action reboots of their animated classics, I was always excited to watch them. A lot of people thought — and continue to think — the worst of these new films, but because they stick close to the originals while enhancing some of the best aspects of them, they are classics in their own right. Disney modernizes the films, often making them more empowering for women, which is something that’s fitting for the 21st century. However, when I first saw trailers and heard about Disney’s new “Mulan,” I expected the worst. A “Mulan” remake with no music, no humor and no Mushu … I didn’t know what Disney was thinking.
But, for possibly the first time ever, I am so, so happy to admit that I was wrong about that.
The plot is almost the same as the cartoon that we all know and love: Mulan (Yifei Liu, “The Forbidden Kingdom”) takes her father’s place in the war by dressing up as a man. But the story does vary slightly, most obviously in its change of villain. Instead of the Huns being the main antagonists, the creators picked a slightly more historically accurate villain in the Rouran. However, we do see another historical and creative liberty in the addition of a “witch,” (Li Gong, “Curse of the Golden Flower”), who is meant to be a reflection of Mulan, as they are both women whose power is feared by men who try to control them.
One of the biggest problems with remaking “Mulan” is the inevitable comparisons that invites to its animated predecessor. But you really can’t do that with this movie. Not only because the plot has changed slightly, but also because the new film intensifies all aspects of the cartoon. While the animated “Mulan” was full of some iconic Disney songs and scenes that still hold up today (does anyone else remember Mushu screaming “Dishonor on your cow!”), the new film is much more serious. It is, above all, a war film, which is why Disney is able to step away from the humor and lightheartedness of the old movie. And frankly, due to the nature of the film, it’s a good thing that they didn’t try to detract from the seriousness of the plot.
You have to watch “Mulan” without comparing it to the animated film; you have to appreciate it for the film it is on its own. And when you don’t compare it, you can finally enjoy it for what it is: a beautiful piece of cinema. Even the battle sequences, the darkest of all scenes, were striking. The gray, dusty shots seem to have airbrushed silvers in the sky, making them glow despite the tragedy unfolding onscreen. And the rich colors of red and gold are prevalent in almost every other scene, making for a film that seems at times more like a painting than a movie. And even though Mulan doesn’t break out into song as often as her cartoon counterpart does, little traces of the old Disney songs remain in the new film’s score, as a little reminder and “thank you” to old fans.
The most incredible part of the movie is its message. By making the film more serious, Disney successfully empowers its heroine. Mulan has always been one of the strongest and bravest role models of all the Disney princesses, but her character makes more of an impact in this remake. By setting the story in a world where misogyny runs rampant, even more so than in the cartoon, Mulan’s story is so much more meaningful. Her role, and the role of all other women in her village, is to be “matched,” to just be a wife to a strong, warrior husband. But Mulan becomes much more than that: She herself becomes the strong warrior for all other warriors to look up to. The men in the film, from her father Zhou (Tzi Ma, “The Farewell”) to her minor love interest Honghui (Yoson An, “Mortal Engines”) to her commander Tung (Donnie Yen, “Rogue One”), all respect her by the end of the movie, both as a warrior and as a woman.
It’s not a perfect movie, but it does have meaning. “Mulan” does the same thing that so many of the other reboots have done: empowered the main female protagonist and made her more than a mere “princess.” Just as Belle became an inventor and Jasmine a sultan in the new films, Mulan becomes a true warrior in this movie, one who is reliant upon herself and can serve as an inspiration to all little girls watching the film.