Mulan (2020)

The adaptation of Disney’s most active Princess until the 2000s and 2010s shot the character archetype through a host of development until Elsa and Anna proved how active Princess could be. Yes, I’m well aware that they’re both Queens now and not even official members of the Disney Princess franchise. Yet, Mulan was always going to be the one that modern princesses were compared to, much like Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Mulan, and Pocahontas were compared to Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora. She was the culmination of their efforts to create a dynamic, driven character that just happened to be a woman. They were going to get there eventually. Where Ariel and Belle had a dream of adventure, Jasmine and Belle wanted to be seen as more than helpless women in a world where men obstruct their path. Much like Aladdin (2019), Mulan (2020) was updated to reflect a more modern lens, especially concerning female characters.

Mulan is the tale of a girl on a journey to becoming a strong woman – a warrior who knows herself inside and out. Mulan (Yifei Liu) herself is shown to have too much “chi,” which in their culture is viewed as masculine energy. While her father, Hua Zhou, played by Tzi Ma, doesn’t have it in him at first to tell her this, it becomes clear that Mulan has more chi than every boy and man in their village combined. His pride is clear, but he also knows that he must protect her from a world that is not yet ready for a woman like her. It’s a tale as old as time. This comes to pass when Mulan overhears her mother, Hua Li (played by Rosalind Chao), and learns that the village people call her a witch. It is when they talk that we are given some insight into their family and cultural motifs, with the Phoenix replacing the Great Stone Dragon as the emissary of their family.

This time, Mulan does not feature fun, pop music interludes, or montages, and the film takes itself darkly seriously, most reflected in the villains and the building conflict. The looming threat of war from Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), a Rouran, and the leader of a great army that he has unified under his banner, is the driving force that pushes Mulan to decide to take her father’s place as a draftee of the Imperial Army. He is also aided by a witch, Xianniang, or Xiang Lang (played by Gong Li), who is partly to explain why he is proving to be such a threat to the Empire as a whole.

Böri Khan, much like Shan Yu, is a villain that is not prone to comedic antics throughout the film. When he is on screen, it is meant to be terrifying, and he conducts himself as such to the bitter end. Xianniang, for her part, works with Böri Khan because she was ostracized for her chi and called a witch, so that was what she became. She is the reverse of Diaval from Maleficent in that she is a human woman who takes on the form of her (essentially) animated counterpart, Hayabusa – who was Shan Yu’s pet falcon. Much like his ally, Böri Khan has a much more understandable motive for his actions – chief among them being the invasion of China. His father died at the hands of Imperial China, and he views his war as justified. He seeks revenge, but also the reclamation of the land seized by China as a result of their earlier conflict. This is how he convinces the tribes to unite under him, though they are wary that he consorts with a Witch – whom Böri Khan is more than comfortable dismissing as a woman, later on, to add to his list of villainous acts.

In a post “Me Too” world, a relationship between a superior officer and a soldier was deemed highly inappropriate – mind you, I’m certain there were complaints of that kind, and others when Mulan was first released in 1998. However, with such a different climate, the decision was made to adapt the character of Li Shang more carefully. In Mulan (2020), Li Shang is split into two characters, Commander Tung (played by Donnie Yen), who is the superior officer in charge of Mulan’s regiment, and Chen Honghui (played by Yoson An), who is a recruit, and thus contemporary of Mulan’s, and a young and ambitious man who finds a connection with her throughout the film.

Honghui’s interest in Mulan is played down in the film’s mid-section, akin to admiration and awe of his (Hua Jun, Mulan’s alias) chi. Honghui seeks to be Mulan’s friend and ally, believing they would be stronger if they worked together. Though, I’m not one to miss the obvious tension between the two when they talk with one another alone. By the film’s end, whether or not they will become romantically involved is not definitive – but there’s always hope.

With so many changes to the overall cast, it was quite fun to see that Ling (Jimmy Wong), Yao (Chen Tang), and Chien-Po (Doua Moua) were included. While their characters, and thus their personalities and looks, were changed, their presence is still a welcome one. Their inclusion, while minimal, still allows the Chinese military recruits to have some character beyond silent extras. With them is Cricket (played by Jun Yu), a new character who, in my opinion, is an adaptation of Cri-Kee, with his kindness and name a reference to the animated animal companion. Chi-Fu is also not here, at least by name, with the Chancellor (played by Nelson Lee) as his closest stand-in – though in a much more minor capacity than the animated film. Finally, Jet Li is cast as the Emperor of China, who is concerned with the safety of his people – over the incursions on the silk road, as mentioned by his advisor – and is quick to call on the formation of a new army to combat the threat that is Böri Khan. This also marks the fourth film collaboration between Donnie Yen and Jet Li, even if their characters never cross paths in this film.

Mulan’s family is also given a bit more time to shine – though Grandmother Fa is not present – with Hua Xiu (played by Xana Tang) introduced as Mulan’s younger sister there to round them out. Xiu is more feminine and refined when compared to Mulan, with a demure attitude and graceful elegance. The Matchmaker (played here by Cheng Pei-pei) is looking for that in the women who come to her. She is a woman that is feared in both incarnations, as her words can make or break a woman’s potential marital options. However, by the time Mulan has headed off to train, this proves to be a nonissue – even her Commander, although he believes that Mulan is Hua Jun at this time, attempts to broker a union between Hua Jun and his daughter. At the same time, Mulan, as Hua Jun, is building a rapport with Honghui, which continues past discovering her secret.

One of the most notable changes Mulan makes from its animated counterpart is how and why Mulan is discovered to be a woman. Whereas in the animated film, she is injured saving her friends and fellow soldiers, Mulan makes the conscious decision to leave behind Hun Jun and embrace her true self to save them – though the consequences are much the same, expulsion from the military. The duality of who Mulan is has always been the central theme of her story – too much of a man for the woman’s world and too much of a woman for the man’s world. Her story is used to break down barriers and challenge the social norms of the time that she lives in.

That change is partly why I am more annoyed with Böri Khan’s newly introduced sexism than any other change (including the dropping of Mushu). His fight with Mulan, where he is unconcerned with her gender, still manages to drive home the point that it doesn’t matter that she’s a woman. It just adds a more annoying layer to his character, as if his casual murder of civilians wasn’t enough of an indicator that he was the villain. Instead, Xianniang is the one who is annoyed that Mulan is hiding her truth while protecting those who would forsake her because of it. Xianniang views Mulan as a true warrior, especially when Mulan sheds her identity as Hun Jun, and they cross paths again. However, by making Böri Khan a misogynist, it does make his undoing at the hands of a woman a rather more cathartic end.

Mulan did not seek to shortchange its stylistic approach to combat choreography. While I’ll Make a Man Out of You cleverly portrayed Mulan’s journey from novice to master, played out over 20 minutes of the film’s two-hour runtime. Mulan (1998), being much shorter and animated, had to meticulously depict each facet of every scene repeatedly, which ultimately resulted in the film devoting less time to this critical juncture of Mulan’s storyline. Granted, CGI has become the norm and is just as time-consuming as traditional animation, but that doesn’t mean it has to do all the heavy lifting. Practical effects mean that most of the action can be done with a real actor, or stunt person, with the effects added on later. This led to several powerfully designed fight scenes across the film. Two standouts are the duels that Mulan has against Xianniang and Böri Khan.

Mulan (2020) is not afraid to push past controversy and take its story in a similar direction to its predecessor, and it embraces change when needed to build a deeper story simultaneously. The characters who were brought in allow the world to feel more fleshed out, and dropping the musical numbers from the actual film could focus more heavily on the gravity of the situation they all find themselves in. However, Disney managed to get Christina Aguilera to cover Reflection and perform a new song, Loyal, Brave, True – the former of which is used as an instrumental piece when Mulan finally embraces her true self and saves her allies.

A sequel is in the works, and I hope it builds on the world that Mulan (2020) started in this entry.

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