Disney’s recent history with live-action adaptations of their animated classics has been a mixed bag at best. There seems to be no real hard-and-fast conventions as to just what gets added or changed in the transition from 2D to 3D. New songs are added, new characters, new plot threads–all, presumably, in service to whatever will help reinvent a decades-old classic for a new generation. Unfortunately, in the case of Mulan, it seems that the calculations were botched right from the start.
It’s a familiar story. Hua Mulan (Yifei Liu), the eldest daughter of an aging and wounded father, secretly steps in to serve in the military when one man from every family is called upon to defend their corner of China from invaders. To do so, she disguises herself as a man–keeping her secret from both her superior officers and comrades. It’s roughly the same take as the 1998 animated version, which also adapts and westernizes a 6th-century Chinese poem called The Ballad of Mulan, with some vague historical accuracy tossed in for good measure. Gone are the anthropomorphic animal companions and songs many grew up with. The Huns have been swapped out for the more accurate but less familiar (and presumably less lyrically-inclined) Rourans, led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) rather than Shan Yu. There was even an attempt to give the Rourans some genuine depth beyond just being the bad guys with a B-plot about patricide.
But ultimately, these vague stabs at making a down-to-earth, historically influenced war movie only serve to make Mulan feel muddled and confusing. The military training montages trip over themselves to evoke familiar and distinctly American WW2-style war movie tropes–it even starts to feel like an early episode of Band of Brothers at one point–while also trying to preserve some of the slapstick comedy from the animated version and maintain the illusion of historical authenticity. The effect is a strange in-betweenness that feels hollow and could potentially be attributed to the film’s distinct lack of behind-the-camera diversity, especially within the writing team, something the film’s director Niki Caro has faced criticism over.