We are living in an age where nostalgia and pre existing properties are the most valuable assets a company can possess. More than half of the films that get widely released appear to be sequels, adaptations or remakes of material that has come before. Disney currently presents to be the epitome of this idea as their Star Wars, Marvel and classic animated properties are regularly mined for highly anticipated additions to the release calendar. Their attempts to update some of their most beloved animated properties in live action form have spawned mixed results; movies such as The Jungle Book and Aladdin dominated at the box office, while efforts like Dumbo and Pete’s Dragon came and went without much fanfare. It was only a matter of time before the beloved 1998 adventure Mulan was brought to life in a similar fashion, but the circumstances behind the project have mostly eclipsed the film itself. In addition to getting ensnared into a political quagmire in China, Mulan also became a symbol for the uncertainty of theatrical exhibition as a whole when COVID-19 delayed its release and sent it to Disney+. Everyone has been talking about Mulan all year for a variety of reasons, but now that it has been given a general home entertainment release, it’s time to get down to business…to talk about the film as a film.
The new live action adaptation of Mulan from director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) is one that attempts to satisfy fans of the original animated film while trying to discard some of the more fantastical elements that would keep the film from being more realistic. Absent from this version is the wisecracking talking dragon Mushu that served as a guardian for Mulan, along with the musical numbers that are no doubt seared into the minds of millennials who grew up watching the film on repeat. Recent live action adaptations have received a lot of criticism for bringing nothing new to the table, so the decision to make this more of a historical epic in nature is a fascinating one. The main complaint I have with this adaptation is that despite dropping the more fantastical elements, the characterization of Mulan (Yifei Liu) is like something out of a Marvel movie at times. At the beginning of the film, young Mulan is shown to be adventurous by doing some death-defying climbing and jumping that seems superhuman in nature. The film is attempting to showcase her innate “qi,” a strength of spirit only meant for warriors, but the portrayal could have used a more deft touch. When your protagonist starts out at such a high skill level, where can you really go on her journey that will feel meaningful?
The idea behind the character of Mulan is such a powerful one that resonates with both male and females. Despite what some corners of the internet would have you believe, this feminist story of being yourself in a world that is not accepting of it is one well worth telling. Young Mulan does not feel like she is suited for the traditional path of marriage. There is one early scene with a matchmaker that seems thrown in for fans of the animated film, but the way in which it is executed lacks thoughtful motivation. In this version, since there is also not a cricket friend to bother Mulan, she instead gets distracted by a spider which she easily could have just ignored unlike in the animated film. This olive branch to old school fans is appreciated, but the clumsy way in which it is handled leaves you wishing the creative team would focus on making the best version of the new story they are trying to tell without being beholden to the past. The most effective ways which these allusions work are more subtle moments such as when you get a whisper of the missing songs infused into the score. Fans of the animated film are mature enough to know that this is a different interpretation of the material that might not include direct replications from the past.
It is when Mulan adopts her new male persona and secretly joins the army in her father’s place that the film starts to find its footing. A mass of Rouran warriors, under the leadership of Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), has invaded important outposts that have led to the forced bulking up of the military. Mulan is trying to live her life as someone who is “loyal, brave and true,” but she must hide who she is from everyone in order to protect her family. Mulan makes it to the training camp where she meets Commander Tung (Donnie Yen), who is responsible for whipping all of the inexperienced recruits into shape. Out of everyone in the film, Yen seems the most invested in his performance which makes for a transfixing viewing experience. Throughout Mulan’s training, you get a nice mixture of humorous scenarios with inspirational moments. You also get the dramatic tension of Mulan having some close calls with her fellow recruits, including the dreamy Chen Honghui (Yoson An). The connection that she has with these men throughout the film is pleasant, but the creative team made the wise decision to not undercut Mulan’s hero’s journey by forcing her into a grand romance. Mulan has more important things to accomplish, such as using her innate abilities to save her kingdom from the evil encroaching forces.
Mulan is quite successful on many fronts. In terms of sheer production value, it is hard to top the visual feast that is provided on screen. Everything from the production design to the costumes are intricately crafted to transport you into this world. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the film are the epic battle sequences that you get in the latter half of the film. There are numerous sequences that make you want to sit back in marvel at the sheer scale of what is being accomplished on screen. There is even a sequence in the climactic finale that is sure to conjure up Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the minds of some audience members. The acting is more of a mixed bag; Liu is not terrible as Mulan, but she often lacks a presence behind the eyes to get you as emotionally invested as you should. The poorest showing in the film is surprisingly Jet Li as The Emperor, who at times seems like he is literally asleep in the role. Most of the other supporting roles are pretty strong, including a sufficiently villainous performance from Jason Scott Lee. The biggest issues with the film are all script-based, as the story often struggles to juggle all of the plotlines and characters in a way that is not convoluted. It is easy to pick apart a lot of the little things that do not quite work with Mulan, but when you stop comparing it to the animated film, enough of it works to consider it a good use of your time.
Mulan comes to Blu-Ray in a 1080p presentation that is truly stunning. This is a visually rich film with beautiful shots of nature and villages throughout where you can see an incredible amount of detail. All of the minute aspects of the production design and costumes present very clearly with an immense amount of texture and subtle details. The vivid colors really pop from the greens of the foliage to the splendid colors featured in the costumes. Even in areas where bursts of colors would seem less apparent, such as the training camp or on the battlefield, the hues leap off the screen. The white levels are handled beautifully, along with the intensely deep blacks that do not appear to suffer from any compression artifacts. The skin tones look very detailed and natural all around. This presentation is definitely a standout on the Blu-Ray format. A 4K UHD Blu-Ray version is also available to purchase, but this was not made available for me to review.
The Blu-Ray disc comes with a DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio track that conjures a very specific mood that transports you back to this era in history. The luscious score from Harry Gregson-Williams is showcased beautifully here with a gently enveloping use of the surround speakers. The dialogue comes through crystal clear without ever being overpowered by the sound effects or the score. The sound design is just as precisely thought-out as the on screen visuals with all of the sounds positioned just right in the mix. Ambient details create a really nice soundscape of environmental chatter and subtle weather sounds. The only issue with this track is the lack of depth in the low end that you would expect in a more action-driven film such as this one. As a whole, the track is clear and balanced, but response in the low end does not engage your subwoofer in a way that feels substantial. This is a lovely sounding release that has some shortcomings that prove to be a bit of a bummer to those with a serviceable home theater system.
- Updating A Classic: A 15-minute featurette in which the cast and crew discuss adapting the animated film while paying respect to the original poem, their relationship to the original material, the importance of finding the right director for the material, the process of casting the film, the massive undertaking getting the production design right and much more. The best parts are learning how Jet Li’s daughters pressed him to take part in this film and how Donnie Yen has watched the original film over 100 times with his daughters. The subtitles are formatted quite nicely for the non-English language speakers.
- Mulan By Another Name: A seven-minute look at the process of casting Yifei Liu from finding the right person to handle the dramatic moments as well as the physicality. You get some fun looks at Liu training and having her costumes developed.
- Being Bad: A seven-minute look at the villains in the film Böri Khan and Xianniang in which participants discuss the character motivations, the casting, training, costumes and more. This also delves into why they felt the need to create the character of Xianniang (Gong Li) to enhance the story.
- Reflections of Mulan: A four-minute look at creating the score for the film and how they folded in some of the cues from the original film to honor it. You also get a look at Yifei Liu recording an updated version of “Reflection.”
- The Original Mulan: A two-minute look at how they honored the original film by inviting the voice of the animated Mulan, Ming-Na Wen, to pass the baton to this new version. It is really lovely to get her thoughts on the character and what she means to so many people.
- Deleted Scenes: Six scenes of unused material totaling seven minutes are included here featuring more sewing action with Mulan, an unfinished scene of Mulan meeting Xianniang in the forest, Mulan being saved by a phoenix and more. There are some nice moments in here that are worth checking out. You can view these scenes with optional audio commentary from director Niki Caro.
- Music Videos
- Reflection: Included are a concept video and a lyric video for the 2020 version of the song by Christina Aguilera, as well as both the Mandarin and English version as performed by Yifei Liu. The latter performance mostly takes place in a big recording studio with clips from the film interspersed.
- Loyal Brave True: Included are both a concept video and lyric video of the new song from Christina Aguilera, both in English and Spanish. The concept video has some really cool animation behind Aguilera as she performs.
Mulan is a film that is best approached by not comparing it to the original animated film. If you carry certain expectations in your head, you are going to be let down. If you judge it on its own merits, it still has flaws, but they are balanced by some impressive filmmaking and engaging character moments. Mulan at least makes the attempt to offer up something other than a shot-for-shot remake of the animated film. Disney has provided a Blu-Ray with a pretty stellar A/V presentation and some interesting supplements to round out the package. This one is worth checking out at least to see a moving story of female empowerment. Recommended
Mulan (2020) is currently available to purchase on 4K UHD Blu-Ray, Blu-Ray and DVD.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Disney Home Entertainment has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.