Mulan (2020) Review – What We Really Think

A Mulan (2020) Review from a Chinese // An American Perspective ☢️ Spoilers Ahead ☢️

Mulan (2020) review. Warning: spoilers ahead. The opinions expressed in this article are not representative of LTL Mandarin School.

The thing about Mulan (2020) is that you have to know where to set your expectations.

File:Mulan (2020 film) poster.jpg
Movie poster of Mulan (2020).

The first scene of the trailer already tells you that you’re likely to be disappointed — more on that later.

So my working theory is that if you go in with zero or very little expectations, Mulan (2020) will impress.

My disappointment with this live-action remake toes the line between being overparticular and (hopefully) understandable criticism.

On one hand, while this is still a film at the end of the day based off a legend, a certain amount of creative liberty is required — is it too much to ask for there to be a modicum of historical accuracy?

(That’s a genuine question, by the way. It’s a fine line between making a fun, stunning movie and making a less-fun movie focused on its historicity is a fine line. Cinematography and storytelling is an important thing, after all.)

What is Mulan?

“This film is even exotic to Chinese people”

The Importance of Honor & How They Botched It

A Western Interpretation of a Chinese Legend

The Question of Chi

Mulan (2020) Was Pretty, At Least

Mulan (2020) Was Also Fun After a While

Mulan (2020) Review: FAQs

Want another viewpoint of Mulan (2020) – see what our friend Jen had to say here

What is Mulan?

Mulan (2020) is a live-action remake of the original 1998 Disney cartoon of the same name.

The 2020 remake has a few key differences from the 1998 original, but the main storyline stays the same.

The main character Hua Mulan, a 16 year-old girl living in historical China, takes her father’s place in fighting a war against barbarians.

She becomes a valued warrior but even then, she’s kicked out when they discover she’s a girl. After her expulsion, she still saves the army with her quick thinking that is the climax of the plot.

Seeing this, the emperor offers her a place, but she turns it down to return and apologize to her family.

Mulan: How the New Movie Is Different From the Original
Mulan 1998 vs Mulan 2020. Image courtesy of Popsugar.

“This film is even exotic to Chinese people”

As a Chinese-American person, I have the advantage of knowing some Chinese history and culture — embarrassingly little, if I’m being honest — which seems to be something the production team lacked.

With this, it became very apparent, very quickly, that Mulan (2020) was going to fall short.

Image of Fujian tulou
Tulou. Image courtesy of @k060124.

Here’s the thing: they tried, I guess.

They do a fantastic job of trying to connect the Chinese origins of the story to Chinese visuals, such as this circular building shown in the picture.

These circular buildings are called 土楼 (tǔlóu), rural earthen buildings from the Hakka people in southern China.

It’s the first scene of the trailer. Load up the first two seconds.

These tulous also appear within the first two minutes of the movie.

The first tulous were built around the end of the Song Dynasty during the 12th century.

For reference, the Mulan legend originated 500-700 years before that. The geographic location is also a bit off by a few hundred kilometers.

So, within the first two seconds of the trailer alone, you already know that Mulan (2020) is going to be not the best, to put it lightly.

It was pretty, though!

As a side note, tulous are actually really fascinating. They are a form of rural communal living. The Hakka people built these large, round buildings of multiple floors that could fit numerous families.

Several generations would live in the same tulou. People farmed, cooked, and lived together.

There, of course, are other small details that show there’s room for improvement in Mulan (2020).

That’s a long list, though, and again, this occurred in the first two seconds of the trailer. Not exactly convincing, is it?

A friend sent me this review by a YouTuber called AvenueX. She has a funny quote: “This film is even exotic to Chinese people.” That about sums it up.

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The Importance of Honor & How They Botched It

It’s ironic how the script kept going on and on about honor and how important it is when they completely botched Mulan’s character within the first few minutes of the film.

They portray Mulan to be a girl who wants to get out and achieve her dreams — an understandable want, but also a very Western portrayal — instead of a girl devoted to her family.

It’s obvious that the production team of Mulan (2020) was either entirely foreign from the West, lacking in a basic understanding of traditional Chinese culture, or both.

The western individualism that permeates throughout the 2020 remake uselessly appeals to a western audience, because notions of family aren’t unique to Chinese culture.

The script writers purposefully made Mulan more western, but exactly what for?

In the 2020 remake, Mulan sees her father’s inability to fight as an opportunity to take advantage of. She wants to fight, and by taking her father’s place, she can finally become a warrior. This is her opportunity.

Mulan (2020) promotional photo. Image courtesy of Today.com.

Compare this to the 1998 original, where Mulan fights for her father because that is her only choice.

She understands that her father physically will not survive another war, and she takes his place for her family. It is a choice for her family and father, not for herself.

This, of course, isn’t to say that Mulan (1998) is the perfect representation of Chinese history and culture, because it’s not. But one thing it does get right is understanding Mulan in her original light.

The script writers understand that honor is an integral part of Chinese society, but it’s a very shallow understanding of it.

They interpret it with a wholly western way of thinking, and their western interpretation botches the movie.

A Western Interpretation of a Chinese Legend

I mentioned this earlier: I’m Chinese-American. I see myself very much so as western at the end of the day.

But, on a more personal note, being Chinese-American sometimes means difficulty reconciling a western individualism I’m more comfortable in with more family oriented values in Chinese culture.

Still, there is a middle ground, and one philosophy is not inherently better than the other.

Mulan’s screenwriters seem to bypass this.

The script writers of the 2020 live-action remake interpret Mulan as a western character, and that’s the fundamental flaw in this movie.

There’s a reason this remake is almost universally disliked, and not only is it because people compare it to the better 1998 original, it’s also because there’s a historical and cultural value to the story everyone understands.

I don’t want to say the script is bad per se, but it’s not exactly glorious when you view it in context of Chinese culture.

I was going to say something about how I appreciated they cast Chinese actors for the Chinese roles, but that’s honestly the bare minimum. It feels a bit sad to congratulate them on that.

Here’s another minute detail of Mulan (2020) that may not affect the plot much but is still annoying: young Mulan has a perfect American accent. Then she grows up and somehow adopts a Chinese accent.

It’s a nitpick-y detail that doesn’t matter much, but it’s a detail that pretty much stays with you for the entire movie once you notice it.

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The Question of Chi

Chi in Chinese is 气 (qì).

Mulan (2020) westernizes many Chinese concepts so much that it becomes foreign.

Take chi, for example. The screenwriters revamped chi into something people are born with, a quality that Mulan happened to possess.

She no longer has to nurture her chi, turning everything that made Mulan extraordinary — perseverance, nonconformity, honor, and so forth — into something innate.

Mulan no longer goes the extra mile to nurture her chi and fighting skills because she doesn’t have to.

Mulan (2020) is supposedly empowering, but Mulan’s intelligence and technical ability that empower her are credited to her chi, something most other women (and men, for that matter) do not possess.

The reason she “serves” her father, the main source of her honor, is made possible through her chi. Everything that makes Mulan special in the 2020 remake is due to her chi, something few people can have.

The concept of chi in Mulan (2020) is a very odd concept, by the way.

Originally in Chinese philosophy, chi something everyone is born with. Even in Kung Fu Panda they understood that chi is something to be nurtured.

Mulan (2020) Was Pretty, At Least

As much as the little (and big) things of Mulan (2020) annoyed me to no end, it was easier to watch when it objectively is a beautiful movie.

In true Disney fashion, the cinematography was fantastic.

The nature scenes are undoubtedly beautiful, and you can tell the paid careful attention to how fight scenes were choreographed and executed.

Scenes may have been written or designed from a very foreign perspective, but they were shot with care. This, too, is evident through the trailer alone.

The inaccurate depictions of tulou still annoy me endlessly (is it really that hard?), but I have to admit it was wrongly depicted beautifully.

The colors are obviously exaggerated, but who wants to see a blandly colored Disney movie?

I thought the colors were beautiful, and combined with the cinematography, it made the whole movie a lot more bearable.

(Not everyone would agree with this sentiment — many found the movie’s depiction of Chinese makeup to be almost insulting. Personally, I didn’t mind it that much. I thought it was pretty. I’m also pretty uncultured.)

And also in true Disney fashion, the visuals and performances of Mulan (2020) are wonderful. They evidently put effort into that, it shows. You wouldn’t expect anything less.

Mulan (2020) Was Also Fun After a While

At some point in the movie, you begin to realize you were dumb for expecting too much out of the movie (especially with that pretty but exasperating trailer), so you begin to enjoy the movie because of how bad it is.

So, here’s a list of things I found entertaining about Mulan (2020):

  • Mulan (2020) had a budget of $200 million dollars. Surely this could’ve been spent wiser?
  • There’s a scene where Mulan reads three Chinese characters out loud in English. Completely understandable as it’s an English-speaking movie after all. Still very funny.
  • One of my friends pointed out that they should’ve used “We’ll Make A Man Out of You” song during the training scenes. Imagine that. That would’ve been so cool. Too bad they didn’t, but imagine.
  • It’s funny! There’s a number of jokes in here that actually hit. Thanks, Disney. I’m a bit puzzled on Cricket becoming human in this movie, but at least he was good comedic relief.
  • I get that the lake scene was very stressful for Mulan, but I thought it was hilarious. And incredibly awkward, but in a funny way.
  • The barbarians reminded me of knockoff Game of Thrones characters. I also thought that was funny. I’ve never watched Game of Thrones.
  • There’s a scene where Mulan looks like she has the wings of a phoenix. By that point, you just kind of laugh at how ridiculous it is.
  • Frankly, I didn’t really see the point of the character of the witch, but I did enjoy her character. Her character was fun, though, and in the end, I was rooting for Mulan and the witch to work together Not that that would’ve ever happened, but it would’ve been fun to see. It was fun seeing her evil! And her talons were cool.

So, was Mulan (2020) a good movie?

Depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for a movie comparable to the 1998 original, no. Mulan (2020) is not a good movie.

If you walk in with no background and expectations, Mulan (2020) is decent. I think.

What did you think about Mulan (2020). We’d love to know in the comments below.

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Mulan (2020) Review: FAQs

Where can you watch Mulan (2020)?

Mulan (2020) is on Disney Plus. Unfortunately, Disney Plus no longer offers free trials.

Is Mulan (2020) out yet?

Yes! Mulan (2020) was released on September 4, 2020.

How old is Mulan in Mulan?

Mulan is 16 in the movie.

Is Mulan Chinese?

Hua Mulan is Chinese. Mulan (2020) is based off the Chinese Ballad of Mulan.

Is Mulan real or a legend?

Good question! We don’t know. Her character is based off of a legend, and while it’s generally believed to be fictional, there’s no way to prove either option.

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