Released on Sept. 4, 2020 to theaters and Premier Access on Disney+, the live-action adaptation of “Mulan” has received praise and criticism alike. A remake of the 1998 animated Disney feature of the same name, “Mulan” tells the same story of a young woman who defies her place in society to save her father and country from northern invaders. Although an exceptional film, external circumstances have cast a shadow over it that cannot be ignored.
Fans of the 1998 animated version of “Mulan” will undoubtedly hope to see aspects of it in the 2020 release. While this new “Mulan” is intentionally different from its predecessor, there are many ways in which it pays homage to the film, such as the return of Mulan’s friends Yao, Ling and Po. Although not a musical production like the original, remnants of the beloved songs do find their way into the story. A gentle, instrumental version of “Bring Honor to Us All” plays while Mulan is preparing to meet The Matchmaker. Later, although not actually to a tune, Commander Tung quotes the line “tranquil as a forest, but on fire within” from “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” to Mulan. However, the most prominently used song from the original is “Reflection,” which has evolved from Mulan’s vocal solo in the 1998 original to the warrior’s soaring orchestral anthem in the 2020 remake. To top these references off, the film features a cameo from Ming-Na Wen, the voice actress for Mulan in the original film.
The best feature of Disney’s live-action “Mulan” is its strong, feminist message. The two lead women of the film are Mulan, played by Yifei Liu, and Xianniang, played by Gong Li. While these two women are posed as enemies, they both have been shunned by their communities due to their “unnatural” abilities, and are seeking the freedom to be themselves, fully and unhidden. It is Xianniang’s words that lead Mulan to abandon her disguise and let her true power shine. Even though she is a woman, her friends are quick to stand behind her, believing that if she could be trusted as a man, then she can be trusted as a woman. They know she is capable and are comfortable and confident with her leadership. Her value then is not in her manhood, but in herself. She need not prove her worth any further just because she is a woman. This message is important because women across the world today face discrimination for their womanhood, forced to take on more “masculine” personality traits to succeed, and then are chided for not being “feminine” enough. If a woman bears masculine traits, though, doesn’t that mean these traits are feminine as well? Why must they be limited to one kind of person? “Mulan” displays the folly of such limitations and clearly shows that a woman in and of herself is enough to be successful.
Despite how well the film was made, “Mulan” is not without its dark side. A boycott of the movie was called for after Liu came out on social media in support of the Hong Kong police, who had come under international scrutiny for their violent treatment of pro-democracy protesters. In addition, filming was done in part in the Xianjiang region of China, where the government has been enacting human rights violations against Uighur Muslims and other Muslim communities. In light of these events, the film comes across as nothing short of hypocritical. One cannot champion social justice while turning a blind eye if it meets personal needs. For Disney and the filmmakers to have ignored such wrongs seriously damages the film’s ethos.
Despite these problems, the fault of humans doesn’t have to negate truth. “Mulan” is still a well-made film, and its message is still needed. It is just marred now, as things far too often are in this imperfect world. Whether to watch “Mulan” or not is up to the viewer, but the film now exists in a context wider than itself, and this must be kept in mind.