Christina Aguilera sings “Reflection” over the end credits of both Disney’s Mulan films, but the reason I bring this up is not the one you might think.
Even in 1998, Aguilera’s voice had a quality that felt like she needed some more time to grow into it. Her vocal chops were so powerful that it was mind-boggling that that voice was coming out of a 17-year-old. Now in 2020, she’s definitely grown into it, yet the newly recorded version of “Reflection” that plays over 2020’s Mulan feels … wrong, somehow. Like Judy Garland is trying to out-sing Liza Minnelli except Aguilera is trying to out-sing herself, and we in the audience are left to ask ourselves: Why?
There’s really no better metaphor for Disney’s live-action remakes as a never-ending phenomenon. Disney’s been trying to out-sing itself with these movies since Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland paved the way for the rest of them in 2010. Those early remakes — Wonderland, Maleficent, Pete’s Dragon — were weird and wonderful, fresh and imaginative takes on Disney’s old stories. Then the middle ones started to shift, from Cinderella’s more straightforward but still charming adaptation to Beauty and the Beast’s disappointingly literal one. The later ones — Dumbo, Aladdin, The Lion King (each one a 2019 release!) — are slavish chores to watch, all attempts to outdo their predecessors with no regard for what made them special in the first place.
2020’s Mulan blessedly breaks the mold and does not suffer from this Aguilera problem (though, ironically, it inspires the metaphor to begin with). Directed by Niki Caro, Mulan transcends its tacky predecessors by actually looking fantastic. More than that, it’s the first Disney live-action remake that finds a successful balance between comfortingly familiar and refreshingly new.
The reason for this is deceptively simple: Mulan dumps its Disney roots in favor of its cultural ones. We can give Caro (who is white) and her team of writers (Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek, also all white) the benefit of the doubt, attributing a mixture of cultural respect and creativity to their decision. But the truth is right there for anyone to see: Due to whitewashed animation and anglicized storytelling, 1998’s Mulan bombed in China. That was a real financial blow for Disney. You can bet they weren’t about to make the same mistake twice.
Whatever the real reason, it’s a good thing that Mulan is not what people who grew up with the 1998 version and have since suffered through Disney’s unnecessary remakes would immediately expect. From an American standpoint, the shift in vocabulary from animated musical to wuxia fairy tale is not easily swallowed, but it’s clear early on that it better suits the source material on almost every level.
The biggest and probably most contentious change from the original film is giving Mulan (Liu Yifei) a strong chi, or warrior’s spirit. Traditionally a male ability, Mulan’s chi is what prevents her from fitting in with the rest of her village (and, on a larger scale, China), and her father (Tzi Ma) urges her to hide her gift to protect herself while she’s young — but not young enough. Mulan grows up feeling like a misfit who will bring dishonor to her family should she ever reveal her true self.
Though slightly less relatable than the 1998 movie’s more simplistic “late blossom” allegory, the choice to give Mulan a secret warrior’s ability makes perfect sense in the context of the 2020 film’s wuxia trappings. Although it superficially seems to rob her of some of her selfless bravery in choosing to take her father’s place in the Imperial Army, it also makes her choice far less foolish and borderline suicidal. To stay home and let her father die would be more shameful than risking the exposure of her true self amid an army full of men who would punish her for the simple crime of presuming she could be one of them. What other choice does she have but to use her gift — first to save her father, then to save all of China?
So, Mulan has a superpower in this version of the story. Of course she does. In fairy tales, women have to eclipse their restrictive gender norms and epitomize something masculine to become exceptional; beauty and lineage, while helpful, are not enough. That’s the case in real life, too. Almost like a dark-mirror Mulan, Catalina de Erauso fled a convent in Spain and became a soldier in South America in the 1600s. When she was found out almost 25 years later, she was allowed to continue living as a man because she acted like a man. Throughout her entire military career, she held up the ideals of Spanish manhood, from the rampant destruction of colonialism to the hotheaded machismo that led her to kill her own brother in a duel. Erauso was not a good person, but she was exceptional, and that’s why history remembers her.
The question of whether Hua Mulan was a real person is lost to history now. But in the end, it doesn’t matter. She is a legend, and over time legends become idealized — the greatest of heroes, the truest of spirits, the best of women. Say what you will about Disney, but Caro’s Mulan understands this idea about the legend of Mulan, and Liu reflects it in her performance. Very few actors have the ability to emote through restraint and still give an emotional performance without simply looking blank; what this Mulan lacks in a charmingly goofy personality, Liu makes up for with a soulfulness that goes beyond all the things Mulan can never say until she fully becomes herself.
There is so much in Mulan I haven’t touched on, from the meaningful reworking of its villains (Gong Li and Jason Scott Lee) to its incredible production design, costume design and cast. Considering this review is dangerously close to becoming a follow-up dissertation to my graduate-school digital history project on Erauso and masculine performance, I’ll leave it at this.
I don’t have much to offer in a review of Mulan as a just-white woman who loves storytelling across all cultures but still has pretty huge blind spots, particularly regarding Asian countries. For Asian and Asian-American impressions of Mulan, I suggest checking out some of the reviews in this Twitter thread, which provide a good deal of perspective that I lack.
With that in mind, I enjoyed Mulan because it succeeds where so many of the live-action remakes have failed. Disney would do well to let the upcoming remakes follow in its footsteps.
Mulan is available via PVOD for $29.99 on Disney+.