‘Mulan’ Remake Won’t Make a Fan Out of You

By Samantha Liu, age 16, Ridge High School, Basking Ridge, N.J.

It’s about that time where Disney plunders a richer past for newly mediocre content, and, as of late, “Mulan” is the unlucky victim. To market Disney+ in mainland China, director Niki Caro struggled to bring maturity to a cheeky original. Gone are shirtless Li-Shang scenes, wisecracking Mushu, infectiously upbeat songs; in their place, wuxia themes and sweeping landscapes. But underneath the diversity points for the all-Asian cast and the grandeur of a $200 million budget lies an empty story: forgettable at best, problematic at worst, satisfying nobody.

Though the remake’s omissions from the original imply somberness, its jolts of absurdity found me balking. In the climactic battle scene, Mulan flings aside her protective armor — flamboyant, maybe, but a bit too ludicrous for an adult film. The juvenility doesn’t end there: There’s a witch who transforms into a million bats (and still manages to die from an arrow); the sets resemble dollhouses under oversaturated skies; and the gaudy costuming feels plucked from a princess movie counterpart.

Caro’s slapdash historical references fare no better. As an addition to the original, a fortuneteller describes chi, the Asian medicinal force, except it’s degraded into a super juice of which Mulan drinks too much. Now, already jedi-like and chi-supercharged, she is literally incapable of doubting herself. I found myself searching for the stumbling, determined teenager of “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” and received instead a Spiderman without Peter Parker. Without the 1998 protagonist’s endearing blunders, Mulan becomes as wooden as the staffs with which she trains.

But if the film seems childish for a heavy historical drama, it still fails to spark joy as a family movie. Thanks to “authentic cultural representation,” which is to say, a Google Translate take on Chinese, all of the characters are austere and distant, poor caricatures of Oriental values. The soldiers, devoid of camaraderie, crack two jokes before being abandoned by Mulan altogether (in the original version, she taught the hypermasculine bunch to cross-dress to save the emperor), while the repeated ad nauseam slogan “loyal, brave and true” casts doubt on Disney’s mastery of the show-not-tell principle. Most of all, it was cringe-inducing to watch Mulan’s parents parrot honor over happiness, so stiffly and stereotypically Asian that they cannot embrace their own daughter. In her attempt to create traditional legitimacy, Caro succumbs to the impersonal, Western notions about Asia. The result is a movie without heart, laughter or warmth — a movie without Disney’s trademark.

In 1998, the young Hua Mulan gazed introspectively into her mirror and sang, “Who is that girl I see / Staring straight back at me?” If she were glimpsing herself 22 years into the future, doomed by future Disney’s obsession with garbled live-actions, she would be asking the same question.