Loyal, brave, true. These three traits serve as the guiding themes of the live-action remake of the beloved Disney classic “Mulan” (1998). The film was released Sept. 4 on the streaming service Disney+ after five months of delay due to COVID-19.
Having grown up a huge fan of Mulan’s fierce character as an unconventional Disney princess, I had high expectations for what the live-action remake of the film would bring, and the magic of the story was met. The animated film follows the young, clumsy Mulan as she secretly takes her aging father’s place in a war between the Chinese Emperor’s imperial army and the Huns, an invading army from the North. Guided by Mushu, the guardian spirit of the Fa family, and her own determination, Mulan manages to rise in the ranks of her army, saving them from attacks and protecting the Emperor from assassination. The film is sprinkled with comedic characters, catchy songs, and compelling action.
In the new film, Mulan is portrayed by Liu Yifei, Donnie Yen as Commander Tung, and Yoson An plays Mulan’s new love interest, Chen Hong. While nearly the entire cast is Chinese or of Chinese heritage, the film was directed by Niki Caro, a white woman, and written by a team of four white writers. The makeup of this production team makes it difficult to deem the film fully representative of the culture it depicts, as reflected in the overall underwhelming ratings it received in China.
The new adaptation nonetheless strives to more closely match the tone of the original Chinese poem, “Ballad of Mulan,” instead of simply remaking the occasionally culturally-inaccurate animated version. In the live-action film, Mulan’s surname is changed from the anglicized Fa to the name she is given in the original poem, Hua. Additionally, the opposing army in the new film is led by Rouran invaders, not the historically inaccurate Huns from the animation.
Another prominent change is the film’s shift from a musical to an action-drama. The original songs are cut lyrically from the film, but their instrumentations are echoed in its score, which adds nostalgic value to scenes throughout the film. Though she does not sing her moving ballad “Reflection” from the original, the new film plays with this motif by capturing Mulan thoughtfully glancing at herself in her sword. Christina Aguilera, who sang “Reflection” for the first film, returns to record the powerful new theme song, “Loyal Brave True,” which plays in the credits. Lyrically, this new song is superior to “Reflection,” in that it emphasizes Mulan’s ambition as a warrior, depicting her with even more ferocity and strength than the original.
The film thoughtfully omits much of the insensitive banter that occurs between characters soldiers Yao, Chien-Po, and Ling, including their original number, “A Girl Worth Fighting For.” In lieu of their song, the three men discuss the superficial features they desire in women, while Mulan and Chen Hong argue that a woman’s value is more than just physical. Chen and Mulan quickly develop a connection, which rightfully shows that Mulan chooses to associate with a man whose values align with her own and who truly appreciates her strength.
The film replaces the anthropomorphized dragon sidekick of Mushu with a silent ancestral phoenix that guides Mulan on her journey. This phoenix serves more as a symbol than an actual aid to Mulan, as it never physically intervenes in her battles. While Mushu is undeniably iconic and greatly missed, the soaring phoenix from this film reflects the power that Mulan has within her, and its appearances compel her to harness it. This underscores the empowering feminist message of the film and does so with quiet grace.
Another interesting addition to the film is Xian Lang, a powerful conductor of magic who takes the form of Shan Yu’s falcon from the original film, shapeshifting between falcon and human to help Kahn strategize his attacks. As the plot builds, Xian reveals that she is not innately evil, but vengeful toward the society that cast her out for her power, and she undergoes a complete character transformation by helping Mulan defeat Khan by the end of the film. Though this plot twist is predictable, it conveys the important message that strong women can work together to fight oppressive evils, even when it seems all odds are against them.
Overall, I am more than satisfied with the outcome of the new adaptation of “Mulan” — a mature, refined take on the original story that maintains the magic that made it so memorable. The film gives the viewer a much more sophisticated insight into the social and cultural context of the story and amplifies this with extreme cinematic precision and beauty.
Streaming the movie currently costs $29.99, but it will become available for regular subscription streaming on Dec. 4 of this year.