Dir: Niki Caro
Why is there a new version of Mulan?
Haven’t you heard? Disney has been working their way through all their classics and making live-action versions of them, some closely adapted, others ‘refreshing’ and ‘reinventing’ the story somewhat. Mulan is an ideal candidate for that treatment, an empowering female-centric story with wide sweeping vistas and spectacle, a cast filled with Chinese stars such as Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, and Jet Li, it seems like the perfect recipe to continue their success… So where did it go wrong?
Who is behind this adaptation?
Director Niki Caro came to prominence with her film ‘Whale Rider’ in 2002 and has made some moderately successful, modest-budgeted films since then. With this she leaps tenfold to the largest budget ever for a film directed by a woman (possibly matched by Chloé Zhao’s upcoming ‘Eternals’). I found it a little surprising that Disney went with a director from New Zealand, rather than one of Asian heritage for the film, though they did meet with two Chinese directors first, both of whom were male. There must be more Chinese female directors than just Chloé Zhao, and it feels like a missed opportunity to bring another emerging talent to the fore.
Where was this filmed?
This aspect of the production caused huge controversy as it was partly filmed in the Xinjiang region of China, in which there are reports of serious human rights issues. If it weren’t for this, it’d be easy to praise the location as one of the strengths of the film, seeing as it was at least partly shot in actual China and not in front of a green screen elsewhere. The landscapes are truly spectacular.
When do they sing?
They don’t, this is not a musical like the animated film. It does pay repects to the music, as parts of ‘Reflection’ are written into the score, and the music by Harry Gregson-Williams is beautiful. Christina Aguilera makes a return for the soundtrack with an updated version of ‘Reflection’ and a new original song ‘Loyal Brave True’ for the sakes of being Academy Award eligible. In the end, it was shortlisted but didn’t get a nomination. I found the end credits frustrating as first they play Aguilera’s new song, then her new version of ‘Reflection’ followed by the Mandarin-language version of that same song, it means the three vocal songs that don’t appear anywhere else in the film, just felt very similar hearing them one after the other.
What else is different?
Wuxia elements, which make a lot of sense (especially when you know that Ang Lee was the first choice of director) and at times worked well, the image of a city being infiltrated by shadowy figures running over rooftops is always cinematic. However, the story really focuses on the idea that Mulan is supernaturally blessed with great chi, essentially giving her superpowers! This is a silly decision as it undermines some of the other key themes. It’s much harder to argue that she’s brave and selfless, joining the army in the place of her father to protect him, or that she is a strong and independent woman who will work twice as hard to match her male counterparts when she’s so gifted as to be handed a sword and instantly possesses skills that match Donnie Yen’s, capable of defeating an army singlehandedly. The film is also overly FX heavy in places, which at times seemed heavy-handed and too prominent to me. All these things made it too much of a fantasy, when it was so close to being great by means of rooting the story in reality and setting to focus on the central character and her virtues.
How well did it do on release?
The Chinese box office, one of the few places with theatres still open when released, was ‘disappointing’, and from the few markets in which it opened theatrically, it took about $70m. Everywhere else it went straight to Disney+ with them trialling a new feature called ‘Premier Access’ whereby subscribers to the streaming service could pay an additional $30 fee to add the film to the service for them. Disney doesn’t release figures, just highlights, so it’s impossible to know how well the film really did for them financially, though according to Nielsen ratings, Mulan was one of the top ten most-watched streams in the United States the week it was released. Then when it was available on other digital platforms, Mulan was the top-rented film for a week. In October 2020, The Hollywood Reporter said the film was the most popular PVOD title amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the following month Variety reported the film was the sixth-most watched straight-to-streaming title of 2020 up to that point.
Was this worth the $30 Disney Premier Access cost?
That’s a hard one to answer, but for me, no. I would’ve been disappointed to have paid that amount to see this, but that’s partly as I live alone and wasn’t highly anticipating this. For a family, or people who were desperately awaiting this film, maybe it would’ve been $30 well spent, but I’m glad I waited to have it included on Disney+ for no extra cost.
Nominated for two Academy Awards in the categories of Costume Design and Visual Effects, I support the idea of it winning for the costumes, they’re beautiful and colourful, adding so much to the film. The VFX however, I didn’t love the most prominent aspects of, though I’m sure there were other shots where it enhanced footage and perhaps although I’m not thinking of those, they’re what may help it to a chance at winning.