Bringing Honor To Us All?

Disney’s latest live-action film ‘Mulan’ comes to us from the comfort of home.


Patrick Deliz, A&E Writer

After almost eight months of postponement, Disney finally released its newest addition to its live-action collection on September 4th. Led by an all-Asian cast, ‘Mulan’ might be the best live-action we have seen from Disney.

The [Slightly New] Storyline

Many years ago, in the Chinese Village of Tulou, Hua Mulan [played by Liu Yifei] is seen helping her father, Hua Zhou [played by Tzi Ma], chase chickens, while disappointing her mother and most of the villagers, as it was unladylike. A statue of a phoenix, the symbol of Mulan’s ancestors, is damaged in the chaos. Zhou uses this moment to talk to Mulan about how she has a very strong ch’i and that she must find balance. Ch’i means that she has superhuman balance and strength that only men are supposed to have. In traditional Chinese culture, ch’i is believed to be a vital force forming part of any living entity.

Years later, Bori Khan [played by Jason Scott Lee] and his barbarian forces ride on horseback towards the Great Wall. The Rouran’s are able to capture a Northern outpost by launching a surprise attack, dealing a drastic blow to the Chinese forces. Hearing of this attack and similar ones in five other northern cities from his Chancellor [played by Nelson Lee], the Emperor of China [played by Jet Li] demands additional forces to protect China. However, unbeknownst to him, his Chancellor was impersonated by a sorceress- Xianniang [played by Gong Li], a powerful witch with a strong, unbalanced ch’i- in an attempt to trick the leadership of China.

Mulan, now a teenager, is preparing to find a groom. Despite her objections to the process, Mulan goes along with it. Joined by her mother [played by Rosalind Chao] and her sister [played by Susana Tang] they meet with the town matchmaker [played by Cheng Pei-Pei]. The meeting starts according to plan, but disaster strikes when a spider crawls down from the ceiling. Outside, they hear an important announcement that the emperor of China is requesting more men to defeat the Rourans. The messenger gives conscription notices to each man who is eligible to fight. Despite not being required to fight, as he is a veteran, Hua Zhou is the first to step forward to bring honor to his ancestors.

Later that night, Mulan talks to her father as he prepares to head off to the war. He discusses his previous conflicts and his sword which has “Loyal”, “Brave”, and “True” engraved into it. He again reminds Mulan of the Phoenix and how his ancestors will watch over him. Once her father goes to bed, Mulan steals his armor, sword, and horse, and rides off towards the camp. The next morning, he sees his conscription notice is gone and replaced by Mulan’s decorative comb. Hua Zhou and Hua Li pray their ancestors will protect her.

As Mulan rides, a Phoenix flies above, reminding her of what her father said. Mulan arrives at the camp and realizes she must be more aggressive to fit in, and changes her name to Hua Jun. Later that night, Mulan volunteers to keep watch over the camp rather than bathe with the other soldiers. She uses this time to train and better herself. Despite not fully understanding what it is like to be a man and making some remarks considered to be suspicious, none of the soldiers suspect she isn’t truly Hua Jun.

She grows close with Chen Honghui [played by Yoson An], despite their drawing her sword on him upon arriving at camp. They are partnered up for training and engage in a heated practice duel. Every day during training, Mulan improves and eventually surpasses her fellow soldiers. This catches the attention of Commander Tung [played by Donnie Yen]. Later, following a long day of practice, Hongui tells Mulan that she smells and needs to take a bath. She heads to the lake to do so. Not aware of Mulan’s secret, Hongui arrives at the lake to talk with her, only to be given a cold shoulder.

As Mulan begins to head home, Xianniang flies to Mulan and tells her that Bori Khan and the Rourans plan to capture the Emperor and the palace. Mulan races off to save the others, despite being told she would be killed if she returned. Initially, Commander Tung does not trust Mulan’s warning of the attack, however many of the troops speak up saying “I Believe Hua Mulan”. With this, they head off to the capital.

When they arrive, the city is already deserted, so they search for the emperor. They find an area in which they believe the emperor to be, however, they are trapped by enemy forces and must fight to escape. Xianniang tells Mulan that the Emperor is held captive by Bori Khan. She heads off alone, leaving the others to defend themselves. She follows Xianniang’s flight path as the witch leads her to a building under construction. As she runs towards the building, Bori Khan fires an arrow directly towards Mulan. Xianniang swiftly flies directly into the line of fire, taking the arrow and saving Mulan’s life. Bori and Mulan engage in front of the Emperor. Bori Khan insults Mulan, however, the Emperor commends her. In the conflict, Mulan knocks Khan down the unfinished center of the building. Still living, he fires an arrow at Mulan who redirects it back at him, killing him instantly. After the Emperor returns to the palace, he holds a ceremony honoring Mulan and those who fought alongside her. He offers to make her an officer in the Chinese army, but she refuses, citing her duty to her family.

Mulan returns to her village and is greeted by her family and neighbors with open arms, despite the Matchmaker’s disapproval. Shortly after her arrival, Commander Tung arrives on horseback and reiterates the Emperor’s offer to appoint her an officer in the army. Additionally, he presents her a gift from the Emperor: a new sword that reads “Loyal”, “Brave”, “True”, and a fourth virtue, “Family”.

New Names, New Faces

In the new live-action adaptation, there are subtle but notable differences from the original 1998 animation. The first thing is Mulan’s name that has changed- originally Fa Mulan to now Hua Mulan, similar to her parents Hua Zhou and Hua Li. In the new film, we see Mulan now has a younger sister, Hua Xiu, who fits into the mold of what her parents want from Mulan.

The most notable difference is the absence of the great dragon companion, Mushu, who provided the comic relief in the 1998 film. While we do not see a talking anthropomorphic dragon walking on screen, we do see a phoenix who is more of a spiritual/symbolic guide. As we see in the Emperor’s throne room, a statue of the phoenix is seen on the right and a dragon on the left. In China, the phoenix has often been viewed as a symbol of the empress or a female member of the royal family, while the dragon represented the emperor- and with Mulan and the Emperor representing a harmonious and balanced relationship, near the end of the film. In addition to that, in Chinese Mythology the phoenix was originally two separate birds- one male and one female- who later came as one. The duality, or versatility, of the phoenix, makes it a perfect guardian and symbol for Mulan, who as a woman takes on what is perceived to be a “traditionally” male role in the story.

An intriguing new addition is a shapeshifting sorceress, Xianniang. In her first scene, we get a bit of foreshadowing of how her story arc will parallel Mulan’s, as she disguises herself by merging with the body of a man on the Silk Road- similar to Mulan later pretending to be a man to join the Imperial Army.

Nods to the 1998 Original Film

Disney could not have made a readaptation of the original film, without acknowledging and leaving little hints within the live-action film. The opening Disney logo has been transformed [similar to Beauty and the Beast] with new details appropriate to Mulan. The iconic fairy-tale castle has been given some Chinese-style architectural additions, and just behind that is a long wall- a reference to the opening scene of the animated movie [when the Huns began their invasion by scaling the Great Wall of China]. A shining phoenix also replaces the fairy that normally arcs over the castle, an interesting touch given the connection Mulan has with the mythological beast.

Ming-Na Wen, the original voice of the animated Mulan, makes a surprising cameo to the tune of Reflection, as she presents her live-action counterpart to the Emperor. Her official credit in the movie is “Esteemed Guest” which is a lovely way to acknowledge the legacy of the original Disney film the new movie builds upon. If you notice, at the end of her dress there is an embroidered phoenix, a nice touch connecting both Mulan’s. The green and red colors to Ming-Na Wen’s ceremonial dress appears to be a nod to the colors of the outfit the animated Mulan wore throughout the film.

Everyone’s favorite talking dragon, Mushu, may not have made it to the live-action, but the filmmakers still wanted to honor him by including ancestral dragons, which can be found on various fabrics and weapons. During Mulan’s confrontation with the sorceress, you can spot a dragon on the guard on Mulan’s ancestral sword. There is even a dragon on the hilt of the sword that is gifted to Mulan by the Emperor. 

The Worst of the Film

Anger is brewing over ‘Mulan’s new release strategy, coming from both theater executives and consumers. Disney’s live-action ‘Mulan’ was supposed to make its debut for a theatrical release on March 27th, 2020, but due to the growing concerns over the safety of movie theaters during the coronavirus pandemic, it was delayed for July 24th- then to August 21st. Then it was removed from the release schedule altogether. On August 4th, Disney made a final and bold decision, announcing that ‘Mulan’ would be released straight to streaming on Disney+ on September 4th, instead of in theaters. Many are now wondering what this could mean for the future of movies as a whole. Unfortunately, Disney didn’t just tick off cinema owners- the Mouse Empire also irritated audiences. 

However, audiences are not irritated because they are unable to see the film in theaters and have to resort to watching it in the comfort of their homes. Audiences are upset at the price of entry. When news broke that ‘Mulan’ was heading to Disney+, it came with a catch: viewers would have to pay $29.99 to watch the movie- in addition to their usual subscription costs. Although once purchased, subscribers can watch ‘Mulan’ as many times as they like, contrasting to theaters which would require a fee for every show. 

Adding salt to the injury is the fact that the live-action ‘Mulan’ is just too different from the 1998 animation, with a Twitter user writing:

“So they’re making us pay for it while paying for the subscription? For a movie that has no music and no Mushu? Nah fam, I’m good.”

On the other hand, others have noted that $29.99 is a small price to pay to watch a film like ‘Mulan’ with your entire family and that it is important to support a movie led by an all-Asian cast.

Overall Thoughts

I have truly enjoyed this movie, and love the execution and direction that Niki Caro has taken. From the amazing cast to the symbolic and subtle gestures to the original 1998 animation, it truly is a marvel. This is the kind of movie I would watch anytime, especially with family or friends. 

OVERALL: 3.5/5