There’s a sense of apprehensiveness I feel when it comes to judging the recent influx of Disney live-actions — so many questions are raised in how these films should be handled by their creators – whether they should stay true to their original counterparts or try something a little different, whether they should include the classic songs, or remove them entirely. When it comes down to it, there is seemingly no correct approach that will satisfy the entire audience; if the film tries something different then it’s shunned for “not capturing the magic of the original” yet if it stays faithful then its “unimaginative and more of the same”. Disney can’t win and this is the cost of creating a remake or re-adapting what has been; it will always be compared to the original source and that’s just the reality of it.
“it’s material they’ve loved since childhood, there’s a sense of ownership over the characters and story” -Scarlet Johannson on comic book fans
Mulan is no different, when an ingredient is missing, fans notice. As much as I hate to say it, it does all come back to what this version of Mulan is doing differently from its animated counterpart. So, what is it doing? well, a lot less; but doing less in not necessarily a bad thing. Mulan intentionally takes a more cold and barren approach to its storytelling; the result is a more heart-racing and mature film experience. The world built here feels as though it could’ve been real and that feeling doesn’t come about for obvious reasons like “being live-action”, but rather because this film takes a more “low-fantasy” approach over its animated counterpart; this film intentionally dials down its magic so it can feel more real. This decision however, was not without cost. It’s this very same cold and serious tone that is as much a benefit to the film as it is a drawback.
The missing presence of comedic relief characters like Mushu can be felt, his lightheartedness could’ve paced out the heavy tone and even the absence of the friendly Cricket called Cri-Kee was felt. Any of these character’s could’ve added an element of cheeriness to the colder moments. With everything said and done, it’s clear that either Director Niki Caro or Disney were committed to a more serious tone and didn’t want to tamper with that approach.
Mandy Walker’s cinematography is a visual treat in this film – standing as one of the highlighting aspects of the film. Strong composition in shots and excellent use of lighting can be found often in the film but I would’ve appreciated some more consistency throughout the duration of the film. Mulan fails to invigorate itself due to a lack of colour in the film with tones of grey throughout and soft red hues. The visual effects of this film is convincing enough, showing strengths in the stunt work with a few moments where the CGI is quite glaring. Ultimately, the visual aesthetic of the film fits appropriately with the tone but comes across uninspired as it doesn’t breathe life or energy into it. It feels like a set.
Mulan features some incredible art direction from its rich traditional, ethnically-influenced architecture to its incredible location scouting in our home country, New Zealand and mainland China. Costuming is incredibly done, further defining the film’s tone of being a period war film. While the decision not to include any of the original songs might be controversial, it is completely justified as the lack of songs fits the tone of the film and would just seem out of place if the songs were included. Composer Harry Gregson-Williams utilises the main theme of the original Mulan in his culturally inspired score.
Mulan took the approach of getting more by doing less; less music, less characters, and less magic – in a way, it works, the grounded tone this film has compared to previous Disney live-action remakes – but the concept of “magic” and Disney have a long and strong history, a Disney film with muted magic is like a Star Wars film without its worn and torn aesthetic – it doesn’t taste quite as flavorful, but it can be consumed and even enjoyed to some degree nonetheless; this is what Mulan is, a muted but relatively entertaining Disney remake, all things considered.