My Response to the 2020 Mulan Remake
**** Spoilers for the 2020 Mulan (and also I guess for the 1998 Mulan… which you should have seen by now.)***
Whelp… I watched the remake of Mulan. And… mostly I feel... tired because the movie is best described as utterly lacking in energy. But in addition to the exhaustion that comes from watching a mediocre movie, I also have a bunch of other feelings because I’ve loved Mulan since I saw her movie more than 20 years ago… and I didn’t love anything about the 2020 remake.
Honestly, I haven’t liked any of the Disney remakes.
I love all of the animated movies that are currently being remade, and, across the board, the live action remakes have lacked the originals’ sense of soul and easy confidence. They are all trying SOOOOOOO very hard, and as a viewer that desperation is exhausting.
Also… the changes that Disney has made to these stories feel completely unnecessary (I'm looking at you- time travel book in Beauty and the Beast) and have only made the movies feel heavy and cumbersome.
And… that brings me back to Mulan… because there are a lot of changes in the 2020 version, and those changes (in addition to the lackluster acting) have created a movie that is devoid of the fun, energetic, and inspirational qualities that defined the original version.
The loss of the musical numbers is especially devastating and has profound consequences for both the plot and the emotional power of the movie.
There are several moments in the 1998 Mulan that make me cry EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. In the 2020 version, these story beats fell completely flat. Not a single tear was shed. Here are a couple of examples that in my opinion are emblematic of how the screenwriters’ choices robbed so many moments of their power.
1. I cry every time I watch this scene. In the 1998 version, you can feel Mulan’s devastation at having failed to live up to her family’s expectations. She did everything she could to be what her family hoped she would be, even though her family’s vision came at the expense of her true self. And she still failed.
It is so powerful to watch the hero of the story sing about not feeling as if the face that she presents to the outside world is a true reflection of the person she is on the inside. Mulan is struggling to balance being true to herself with honoring her family and all those who have come before her. It is a moment of anguish, and it is so relatable. It gets me every time.
In the 2020 Mulan, her failure at her meeting with the Matchmaker is given no time to breathe… We are literally on the way home from that disaster when the army official arrives with the conscription notices.
I realize that the live-action Mulan doesn't need an extra evening where she can process her feelings through singing by herself… but even a moment where she could explore how she was feeling (perhaps with her sister… who inexplicably… exists now....) would have been incredibly valuable. As it stands, we have no real knowledge of Mulan’s inner life (except what we imagine based on lots of Mulan looking blankly into the middle distance).
We don’t have anything that tells us that she is feeling trapped, and because of that, we don’t really get the chance to understand why she would embrace the opportunity that comes with taking her father’s place in the army.
And yes, I understand that Mulan decides to go in her father’s place primarily because his injury basically means that if he leaves for the army he will never return… but all of the added nuance that comes when Mulan eventually finds fulfillment outside of the role that society has assigned to her is lost because we never get to see/hear/know what she thinks about the role that she’s leaving behind.
This lack of insight into Mulan’s inner/emotional world continues to plague the movie throughout its runtime. This is made even worse by the decision to cut Mushu from the story.
I realize that a tiny, hilarious, talking dragon doesn't mesh with the whole “realism vibe” that the live action remake seems to be (intermittently) going for... but… even if the new mystical representation of Mulan’s ancestors (hey look... it’s Fawkes!) doesn’t talk… couldn’t Mulan talk to it?
Couldn’t she tell it (and us) a little bit about how she’s feeling? No? Phoenixes don’t like conversations? Fine. What about her horse? You know, the one that is sometimes there and is sometimes… gone? Couldn’t she at least go out and visit her horse and tell him (and us) what she’s thinking about, worried about, enjoying, etc? Horses love conversations… or at least they used to.
2. “I’ll make a man out of you” is one of my all time favorite Disney songs. IT. IS. SO. GOOD.
In the 1998 Mulan, we hear “I’ll make a man out of you” as we watch the new recruits go through their basic training. At various moments almost all of the named characters sing at least a line or two. These moments give us insight into the worries of both the men who are training alongside Mulan and the man who is the captain of their group (more about Shang later). We hear them sing, “I'm never gonna catch my breath/ Say goodbye to those who knew me/ Boy, was I a fool in school for cutting gym..." and on and on.
Through this song, we also learn a lot about what these characters think being a man means. The lyrics tell us that men are “swift as the coursing river,” have both “all the force of a great typhoon” and “all the strength of a raging fire,” and, of course, are as “mysterious as the dark side of the moon.”
In contrast- in the 2020 remake- the only thing we know about the men in Mulan’s battalion comes from Mulan’s father’s voice-over telling us that, to Mulan, men are “an alien and savage tribe.” Which… to be fair… is entirely true of the other recruits in this movie because the film never does ANYTHING to humanize these guys at all (with the possible exception of Honghui… the cardboard cutout that is half of the Captain Shang replacement).
In the original, the training montage is interrupted when Shang sings to Mulan, “You’re unsuited for the rage of war. So pack up, go home, you’re through. How could I make a man out of you?”
HER RESPONSE IS SUCH A POWERFUL MOMENT. Because, instead of feeling defeated because an authority figure has told her that she… once again.... hasn’t lived up to the expectations of the group, Mulan rejects Shang’s rejection. She digs deep within herself, and through ingenuity, determination, and strength (and not magic), she goes on to show Shang and the rest of the novice soldiers exactly what she’s made of.
It’s the perfect scene, and it reveals to the viewer that the true message of the song is actually that masculinity is entirely a construct. Neither Mulan nor the male-identitfying soldiers start off as any of the things the song tells us that men are… and the first person to make any significant progress towards the song’s goals is the only woman in the group.
Speaking of the other recruits... In the 2020 Mulan, the other soldiers are as much caricatures as they were in the animated version, but in addition to being cartoonishly ridiculous, the new versions of the characters lack the heart and the individualization of their animated counterparts. (Also- some of their characters seem to be entirely based on smirking as often as possible.)
Again, the screenwriters and director don’t do their characters any favors by writing and shooting them in a way that I understood to mean that I was supposed to associate at least half of these fellow recruits with every gross, "locker room humor" kind of guy that I've seen in other movies.
In the 2020 remake, Mulan reaches the top of the mountain in what is obviously supposed to be a parallel to her retrieving the arrow in the 1998 version, and I felt… nothing.
There is even a shot of all the guys looking "impressed" … but honestly that's just my guess at what they're feeling because we don’t know these soldiers at all. (Compare the lack of emotion on the live-action soldiers' faces to the depth of emotion on the faces of their animated counterparts...)
So… when Mulan achieved her milestone in the 2020 movie...I felt… nothing… (except the desire to go watch “I’ll make a man out of you” on youtube).
Ok… moving on.
There are so many other examples of how the lack of music hurts the movie ... but we’re moving on because we also have to address the absolutely unnecessary changes that they made to the plot… and there were a lot of them. But in the interest of keeping your reading time shorter than my writing time, I’m going to focus on the two that I found the most baffling.
1. Dear Screenwriters, Why did you add a magic hawk lady (aka Xianniang) to the story? Love, Rachel
No but seriously… why was it necessary to create a character (one of only two female characters who have more than a few minutes of time on screen BTW) who is called at various times a “dog,” a “witch” and a “slave.” For at least half of the movie, the only things we know about her is that she’s incredibly powerful, has magic abilities that seem to include turning into a hawk, making her sleeves kill people, transforming into/taking over other people’s bodies (honestly it was never clear what that was about), and a hodgepodge of other random one-off powers.
Actually, that's not fair because pretty early on, the bad guy (Böri Khan) explicitly tells us something important about her...right before calling her a dog. He basically turns to the camera and says that he is well aware that her singular goal is to find, “a place where [her] powers will not be vilified. A place where [she is] accepted for who [she is].”
Friends, I almost stopped watching the movie when I heard that line. But alas, I persevered.
The movie eventually explains (again explicitly because we don’t like subtext) that Xianniang and Mulan are “the same” (which I think means that they both have the ability to channel their energy and potentially to do magic [again… that’s unclear because Mulan doesn’t do any magic other than being awesome at balancing and sometimes at fighting]).
The movie makes it obvious (to the point of being painful) that Xianniang’s character is meant to show us what Mulan could become if she doesn’t choose the “noble path.”
Fine. I hate all of this. But fine. So… what does the movie do with this brand new character that they’ve forced into the narrative?
Well … they kill her of course!
Well technically they make her switch sides, help Mulan, confront the bad guy... and then they make her sacrifice herself to save her fellow magic person. What a lovely message to teach the families who are watching this movie. How fantastic to have created this character and then decide to use her life and death to teach everyone that in any given society, there’s only ever enough room for ONE special person at a time.
For those who are wondering what else could have been done to show the audience that Xianniang was in the midst of redeeming herself while still being conflicted or “complicated” (TBH: her character was never complicated… it was just haphazardly conceived)… here are several suggestions:
She still could have still changed sides for literally no reason other than Mulan’s teary eyes and bland requests for her to choose nobleness… but then both women could have taken down the bad guy together. And since Xianniang was the older, more battle-worn character (and because she had been used and belittled by the guy for the entirety of the movie), perhaps she could have been the one to kill Böri Khan while Mulan freed the emperor...
She could have shown Mulan where the emperor was and then flown away… back into the ether where she came from… signalling that she was on the path to redemption but also that her life had been painful enough that her entire character wouldn’t change completely after making a single decision…
She could have started to fight Böri Khan but then stopped after being persuaded by his fear-mongering...
She could have not been in the movie at all… (This one’s my favorite!)
Ps: I know this character isn’t technically new… after all the main villain of the 1998 Mulan did in fact have a hawk… and apparently the screenwriters loved what JK Rowling did with Nagini soooooooooooo much that they cried, “YES! Let’s make all the villains’ sidekicks into women who are OBJECTIVELY INTERESTING ENOUGH TO WARRANT THEIR OWN MOVIES! But … hey! Let’s also refuse to create new content about them and instead rely on the cheap gimmick of revealing that the snake/hawk/sidekick animal of your choosing is actually a person!”
2. Where was Captain Li Shang? (Yes I know he becomes a general… but I still think of him as Captain Shang)
According to Jason Reed, one of the producers of the 2020 Mulan, Captain Shang wasn’t technically removed from the story… he was “split.”
Reed said in an interview, “We split Li Shang into two characters. One became Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) who serves as her surrogate father and mentor in the course of the movie. The other is Honghui (Yoson An) who is [Mulan’s] equal in the squad.”
Fascinatingly, Reed explained Disney’s decision as stemming from the movie makers’ understanding of the #MeToo movement. Here’s Reed’s quote:
“I think particularly in the time of the #MeToo movement, having a commanding officer that is also the sexual love interest was very uncomfortable and we didn’t think it was appropriate.”
Ok. Disney. This doesn’t make any sense.
The producers’ reasoning seems to be based on an extremely surface-level understanding of what the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are actually about. And it’s pretty tragic for their simplistic (and flawed) logic to mean that we are deprived of such a great character who is also such a great Disney love interest.
So many of us love Shang because he makes Mulan (a woman who realizes that her true self Is someone who doesn't fit into society’s portrait of womanhood) feel seen and valued. He, along with the other soldiers, starts the story as men who only think of women as the girls they will protect … and then, over the course of the story, they grow into people who trusts Mulan’s instincts and are honored to fight beside her.
Shang’s story is not at all a story of a man abusing his position of authority in order to pursue a woman over whom he has unhealthy amounts of power (hence my confusion over the idea that this decision was based on the producer’s reaction to the #MeToo movement).
In the 1998 movie, Shang’s character arc consists of him:
-Feeling the pressure to live up to his own family’s expectations (something that eventually helps him understand Mulan’s actions)
-Training a rag tag group of soldiers and showing the audience how stressed he is about whether he'll be able to meet the goals that his father has set for him
-Growing to like, appreciate, and respect Ping (Mulan when she is dressed as a man)
-Fighting alongside Ping
-Confiding in Ping when he learns that his father, the general, has been killed
-Being rescued by Ping
-Learning that Ping is actually Mulan
-Doing the internal work to realize that everything he respected about Ping still applies to Mulan and that his preconceived notions about women shouldn’t hold him back from working with Mulan to save China
-Honoring Mulan as he and a huge number of men of various levels of authority (including the emperor) surround and bow to her as a sign of respect
-Telling Mulan, “You fight good” (ps: She really does)
-Being so unable to even indicate to Mulan that he’s at all interested in her (despite her clear interest) that the EMPEROR OF CHINA feels compelled to tell him, “You don’t find a girl like that every dynasty”
-Using his desire to return a forgotten helmet as a very lame and adorable excuse to travel to Mulan’s home after the war is won and after Mulan is no longer a soldier under his command because he clearly can’t stop thinking about her
-And finally, accepting Mulan’s invitation to stay for dinner with her family
His “relationship” with Mulan is made up of two things:
1: Glances that I would translate as meaning “Huh… that person is interesting and compelling, and I feel drawn to them”
2: Actions that clearly demonstrate the friendship and respect that he feels for Ping/Mulan
So…. yeah… Disney… of all the love interests in your movies.... Shang is BY FAR one of the least problematic.
As a pre-teen, I loved Shang and Mulan’s relationship because it grew out of the respect that they felt toward one another. Shang saw who Mulan really was. He knew that Mulan’s true self wasn’t what society told her to be, and he liked her anyway.
This dynamic was the stuff of dreams for twelve year old, heterosexual feminists who were being bombarded by social messaging in magazines and tv shows ... all of which seemed to be shouting that boys would like us if we would simply wear the right kind of dresses, learn to walk and dance in heals, and perfect our application of creme eyeshadow. Shang was the antidote to that messaging.
Before Mulan, the biggest concession that a Disney love interest had made to the idea that his gal might not fit society’s ideal of womanhood was his celebrating her desire to read a lot of books. That’s it. He was excited about her literacy.
Compare that to Shang who seeks out Mulan after he knows that she is his equal in many ways and his superior in the eyes of the Emperor of China.
(Ps: Please don’t send me hate for this comparison... I love the animated Beauty and the Beast as much as any other bookish brunette… but we should be honest about the fact the movie says that Belle is “different” because she likes to read and is intellectually curious.)
So, if we take the producers of the 2020 Mulan at their word, then they deprived us of a nuanced character with a powerful story of his own because of a simplistic attempt at “responding” to a contemporary movement that seeks to rid the workplace of dangerous predators. If this actually is why Shang was replaced… then I am truly, truly confused because to my mind, it isI just impossible to equate Shang’s actions with those of the men whose bad acts are being revealed by the #MeToo movement.
I also have to say that the cynical part of my brain thinks that Disney is just using the #MeToo movement as a smokescreen for the real reason that they removed Shang’s character. The cynical part of my brain wonders whether the Disney Corporation erased him from the movie because of the popularity of the idea that Shang is a bisexual character (a true rarity in the Disney canon). Those who subscribe to this theory of Shang's sexual orientation argue that in the 1998 Mulan, Shang has romantic feelings for Ping/Mulan even before he knows that she’s a woman. (Important note! Even in this version of the story- Shang doesn't make a move or even make Ping/Mulan aware of how he feels until after Ping/Mulan is no longer in the army.)
I am clearly not the first person to suggest that Disney has a LGBTQ+ representation problem. People within the LGBTQ+ community have been pointing this out for years.
LGBTQ+ people have routinely and reasonably asked to see themselves on screen, but in their big, tentpole films, Disney has responded to their demands by…. actively erasing even the possibility that characters could be canonically queer. (When looking for examples of this phenomena… it’s important to remember that Disney also owns the Star Wars and Marvel Cinematic Universes.)
For those of us who love what Shang represents (whatever that means to each of us individually), the very, very bland stand-ins who “replaced” Shang were completely unsatisfactory because they did absolutely nothing to lift up the lessons that Shang’s original character arc taught us.
Really there are no good options here.
We either accept the producers’ explanation about why Shang was removed… and feel deeply disappointed about their seeming misunderstanding of both Shang and the #MeToo movement… or we listen to the cynical parts of our brains that arguing pretty persuasively that this decision is another example of Disney actively erasing even the possibility for a marginalized group of people to see themselves reflected in the heroes of a beloved story.
Either way... we miss you, Shang.
And now… because this is already FAR TOO LONG… I present a rapid-fire list of some of the other things that also drove me crazy about the 2020 Mulan:
The decision to swap Mulan’s amazing, hilarious, and caring grandmother with a younger sister... and the subsequent decision to give this new sister absolutely nothing to do until she somehow manages to make Mulan’s homecoming (you know… the first time she sees her family AFTER SAVING THE EMPIRE) about her new boyfriend (Screenwriters- what are we doing here??)
The choice to have the soldiers repeatedly talk about “showering” as if the military camp has 1) indoor plumbing or 2) enough water in movie-magic showers that battalions of soldiers could bathe on a daily or even semi-regular basis
Mulan’s decision to reveal her true self coming out of nowhere. She wakes up after being knocked out in a fight and decides… now’s the time. I’m going to be true to myself… I don’t care that I am in the middle of a battle… it’s now or never!
Mulan’s decision to be true to herself is immediately followed by her REMOVING most of her armor. I’m not a soldier, but I think that even soldiers who identify as women benefit from wearing armor that protects the top half of their bodies.
The fact that after what seems like 10 seconds of conflict, the entire battalion (including the general who is not Shang and who has recently threatened to execute Mulan) decides that they are entirely ok with not only fighting with a woman but also being led by a woman. And then, to make matters worse, the military leaders announce that everyone is going to follow Mulan to the Imperial City. Friends... Mulan does not know the way to Imperial City. She got lost on the way to the training camp and has clearly never been outside of her village. And yet… she was the one to lead the group to save the emperor…
I’m not a blacksmith… but I don’t think that metal works like this.
I laughed out loud when Mulan’s phoenix wings showed up. It made me imagine the screenwriters sitting in a room, brainstorming until suddenly, someone said- you know what, I love what they did with Daenerys Targarean in the last season of Game of Thrones… let’s do that but make it even less subtle.
I didn’t at all like the fact that Mulan and her dad’s reunion takes place in the middle of the public square instead of in private. The moment in the 1998 movie when Mulan’s dad says, “The greatest gift and honor is having you for a daughter,” makes me cry every time I watch it. I didn’t feel anything when I watched their reunion in the 2020 Mulan (although that might be because I was still sitting in shocked dismay, thinking about the screenwriters’ decision to have Mulan’s reunion with her beloved sister focus entirely on her sister’s news about finding a man).
AND FINALLY… More than almost anything else, the #1 thing that drove me crazy and showed me that the screenwriters/ movie makers truly don’t understand why many of us love the 1998 Mulan was… MULAN’S HAIR.
The moment in the 1998 film when Mulan cuts her hair off with her father’s sword is powerful. This action is part of her preparation for leaving her home and is a physical way to show the audience exactly how willing Mulan is to transform into something new.
In the 2020 movie, Mulan doesn’t cut her hair. It’s not the choice I would have made… but it’s fine. While she’s with the army and pretending to be a man, her hair is always up in a top knot and is sometimes wrapped in fabric.
That’s also fine. The soldiers around her are all wearing variations of that same style.
But… after Mulan wakes up from her witch-induced nap and decides that the middle of a devastating battle is the perfect moment for her to reveal that she’s a woman, she not only takes off most of her armor (see above) but also lets down her hair.
So, I obviously disagree with how the screenwriters get us to this story point, but I can accept that this is clearly meant to be the “hero” moment… the moment when all of us are supposed to cheer and say, “Yay! Mulan is a hero and is being true to herself.” But honestly, this is the moment that I decided that I actively disliked this movie.
Because when Mulan lets her hair down…
It doesn’t look the way her hair looked at the beginning of the movie when she had been out riding her horse through the fields.
It doesn’t look like long hair that hasn’t been washed in God knows how long.
It doesn’t look like hair that’s been in a bun under a helmet for DAYS.
It doesn’t even look like the wet and sweaty hair that we had just seen in the previous movie moment!
Oh no. Instead, she reaches up, releases her bun… and immediately has a head full of bouncy, voluminous curls.
I could work on my hair for hours and not achieve this level of coiffed-ness, and yet… there it is springing from her practical soldier’s bun… as magical as any phoenix could ever be.
Dear Disney, linking Mulan’s hero moment with her transformation into an old fashioned definition of femininity shows your audience that you don’t know Mulan at all. The fact that you allow her to save the day but only after she has a salon-style blowout tells all of us that you were worried that we wouldn’t be able to recognize “the girl” in the shot unless her hair curled and bounced… and that’s… so disappointing.
You made a phoenix fly but you couldn’t figure out how to celebrate Mulan’s embracing her true self without using the most superficial and regressive of gender clues.
Mulan and your audience deserve better.
In conclusion, my friends, I can’t honestly believe that I wrote this much about this movie because it truly wasn’t anything special.
I think most of my feelings come from the fact that I love the 1998 movie so much, and the 2020 remake seems to go out of its way to undo a lot of what made the original wonderful.
And listen, if you enjoy the 2020 Mulan, I say more power to you. The world is so crazy right now, and I’m honestly glad for every bit of entertainment that is able to distract us from the burdens that we're carrying.
But, if you, like me, were disappointed in the movie, I hope that my ramblings make you feel seen.
Anyway- that’s it for now. I’m off to work on being as swift as the coursing river and as mysterious as the dark side of the moon. Wish me luck!