Live-action ‘Mulan’ tanks for fans of Disney’s animated classic hoping for a closer adaptation

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Image used with permission from Walt Disney Studios.

Actress Liu Yifei plays Mulan, whose family has her dressed up to impress the local Chinese village matchmaker in the live-action movie based more on the original Chinese story than the 1998 original animation.

Hanna Jung

“Loyal, brave, true.” 

In the 2020 live-action movie adaptation of “Mulan,” this phrase either appears or is repeated quite a few times to represent the title character’s beliefs and family symbol.

And that’s one of the many changes the Disney+ video on demand version makes from the 1998 animated one, which features classic sidekick characters such as Mushu the Dragon and Li Shang and memorable songs like, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” and “Honor to Us All.”

The older production — at just over 90 minutes long — featured tension-filled action sequences mixed with comical scenes that brightened up the audience’s mood. The progress of the original Mulan’s journey toward finding honor was inspiring to many young girls — and boys — in the once-neglected Asian-American community. 

It’s clear from watching the 2020 “Mulan” and other recent adaptations of Disney animated classics (“Lion King,” “Aladdin” and “Beauty and the Beast”) that the producers want to forge new ground; so old school “Mulan” viewers need to be prepared for that before streaming this nearly two-hour film, which was originally scheduled to be released in theaters in March but got shelved because of the coronavirus pandemic that shut theaters down nationwide. (It’s available only to Disney+ subscribers willing to pay $29.99 to watch it, but it’ll be available to them for free starting Dec. 4, which is less than a month away.)

The 2020 “Mulan” lacks iconic songs and even removes one of its most loved characters from the animated version — Li Shang. Once again, die-hard “Mulan” fans would have a difficult time appreciating what director Niki Caro (“The Zookeeper’s Wife”) has done here.

At a production cost of $220 million, the film does include instrumental snippets of the new “Reflection” sung once again by singer-songwriter Christina Aguilera, but the actual song does not appear in the movie’s soundtrack until the ending credits. It’s baffling why Caro could not find certain spots to at least play parts of the song.

For viewers who have never watched the animated version or any previous live adaptations of the original Disney movies, “Mulan” will not serve up as much disappointment. The live-action Mulan (Liu Yifei, “The Third Way of Love”) embodies the empowering female character we’ve become accustomed to seeing since “Hunger Games” introduced us to Katniss Everdeen, but the plot overall cannot be considered a first-rate film. 

Based on the Chinese legend of Mulan, the movie introduces us to a much younger version of the protagonist, who within the first 10 minutes shows off her ability to defy gravity and “fly,” similar to the characters viewers have seen in previous martial arts classics as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Like Everdeen, the girl grows up to become a lady who offers herself as a substitute for someone else who is expected to face battle. The only difference here is that Mulan has to pretend she’s a man because at that period of time in Chinese history, women weren’t allowed or even expected to join the military and fight for China.

For those new to the Mulan story, seeing how far the protagonist can carry out this deception can get quite engaging and funny at times, especially when some of Mulan’s fellow soldiers-in-training repeatedly ask her why she smells so much and that she should take a bath (of course she can’t do that with anyone else watching). So it does get a bit nerve-wracking when Mulan takes the risk to clean herself up, and another soldier just happens to catch her in the pool.

Another actress worth watching for is Gong Li (“Leap”), who adds some flavor to the film as a witch being used by the main antagonist seeking vengeance against China’s emperor. With her agile skills and majestic ability to shapeshift into an animal, this hawk-like woman fascinates viewers and plays a significant role in female-empowerment. Again like with “Hunger Games,” Caro does a noteworthy job using bird symbolism with Li’s character as well as with Yifei’s.

Following in the heels of movies like “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Farewell,” “Mulan” is also the first Disney film to feature an all-Asian cast. But Mickey doesn’t go far enough, as the director, screenwriters and cinematographer are all of a different ethnicity. 

Given that the story’s setting and plot revolve around China and its culture, we would have thought it an ideal situation for including as many Asians as possible into these crucial production roles. That is definitely a huge loss and oversight on Disney’s part.

Disney should consider producing films with a purpose other than raking up extra revenue, especially when it comes to making live-adaptations of an animated work. Many hardcore fans of classic Disney animated works can only hope Disney movie studios will not ruin the next one. Can anyone say “Coco” with an all-Latino cast?