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Will the Live-Action ‘Mulan’ Be Worth the Money?

On the one hand, the battles look incredible. On the other hand, WHERE IS LI SHANG?!

Disney/Ringer illustration

Two months after Disney+ brought a very specific kind of people together to stream (and scream about) Hamilton, the company is attempting to do it again on September 4 with the video-on-demand release of the 2020 live-action Mulan. The remake of the beloved 1998 classic may have wider audience appeal than Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop history, but in an effort to make up for Mulan’s lost theater release, it also has a significant price point ($30), in addition to Disney+’s subscription fee. And here’s another thing: I don’t know whether you caught it a second ago, but this is a live-action remake—changes will have been made, perhaps not for the better. (Especially if you’re someone born in the ’90s who has an emotional attachment to the first Mulan.)

Will the new Mulan be worth the money? Can it possibly live up to the thrills of the original? I’ve assembled a handy pros and cons list in order to help us decide how to spend our Friday evening. (Yes, we’ll probably all be at home with nothing better to do either way. Humor me.)

Pro: Watching From Your Couch

I initially wavered back and forth on the merits of paying the steep price for Mulan, but in my experience, few people have a solo Disney+ account, so if you break up the price by family or friend group, it’s much more manageable. New entertainment? In this economy? Sign me up. And while I’d love to see Mulan on a big screen, the prospect of curling up on my couch with a blanket and some takeout sounds absolutely ideal. The Tenet crowd can keep their germy theaters and confusing story lines.

Con: No Singing

However … the biggest benefit of watching Mulan at home is the ability to SING ALONG. To get down to business. To fall short of those “Reflection” high notes and not care who hears you. But in a crushing blow, the live-action Mulan has no singing. I get it—Emma Watson did not win any prizes for her vocals in Beauty and the Beast, and the songs from 2019’s Aladdin mostly just left people yearning for the originals. Remaking a beloved Disney classic is hard enough without the added challenge of creating a full-fledged movie musical. But that doesn’t mean I can’t still mourn the loss of an updated, live-action “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.” Think of the fight choreography we could have had!

Pro: The Stakes

There’s something about the new Mulan that feels more like a true war movie than the animated version. I suppose it’s just the difference between thousands of cartoon men surfing along a fake avalanche versus watching real humans actively trying to butcher each other in a field. This isn’t to say that the original doesn’t have its emotionally poignant moments—Shang coming across the battlefield where his father died is devastating, as is everything surrounding Mulan’s father at the beginning of the film. Then again, Mulan’s father is played in the new movie by iconic film dad Tzi Ma (Rush Hour, The Farewell, Tigertail), who I want to watch fight in a war even less than the cartoon version. Go to war, Mulan! Save Tzi Ma! China needs you!

Con: No Mushu

Dramatic stakes aside, I feel like some people forget: The original Mulan is hilarious. From Mulan’s inability to execute basic social interactions to her wise-cracking grandma and chaotic ancestors, the movie is more comedy than not. And at the heart of that comedy is Eddie Murphy’s irreplaceable Mushu, who has more one-liners per scene than perhaps any other Disney character in history. He’s also Mulan’s biggest cheerleader, and besides her horse, he’s her only friend for much of the movie. (Mulan: the original horse girl.) “Let’s kick some Hun-ny buns!” he shouts before Mulan spurs her steed to battle. Who will get our girl through basic training, if not her little lizard friend? And who will provide the laughs? Unless … will there even be laughs?

Pro: The Witch

No, we don’t get Mushu in the 2020 film, but we get another mystical character instead: the mysterious shape-shifting witch Xian Lang, played by Gong Li. She may not have jokes, but she’s got looks. Xian Lang is apparently a major antagonist in the movie, but if you think I’m going to be rooting against this deeply badass lady, you’ve got another thing coming. I assume at the end she and Mulan team up against the unwashed masses. It’s the only outcome that makes sense.

Con: No Li Shang

Say what you will about wanting an updated 2020 heroine who doesn’t come with a love interest in tow—I will still never forgive Disney for erasing Li Shang from the live-action remake. Shang is unimpeachably Disney’s hottest heartthrob, and also a bisexual icon. I understand the impossible task Disney had in finding an actual human to play Shang. After all, he’s borderline verbally abusive and shirtless for about half the movie, which also might not come off nearly as family friendly in real life as in the cartoon version. But he’s also, like Mushu, an integral part of what people love about the original movie—his arc of growing to lead his men, mourning his father’s death, and ultimately overcoming his own prejudices while falling in love with Ping/Mulan are all vital to Mulan’s overall dramatic impact.

Reportedly, Shang was removed from the new Mulan due to concerns about depicting a relationship between a commanding officer and a soldier in his squadron—and it’s true, the power imbalance there isn’t great. But I have a feeling that in a movie that was meant to make a heap of money at the Chinese box office, Disney was more concerned with depicting the (canonical!) romance between a male officer and a male-presenting soldier. (That’s not to say American audiences are that much more tolerant—never forget the LeFou “controversy.”) Shang was apparently split up into two characters—Commander Tung, played by Donnie Yen, and Honghui, her “friend” in the squadron. We’ll see just how close that friendship gets, but I’m not optimistic. Honghui, do you even lift, bro?

Pro: The Clothes

It’s month seven of quarantine. I haven’t looked at a piece of clothing that doesn’t include the word “sweat” or “pajama” since March. If I checked my makeup right now, I imagine the mascara tubes and eyeliner pens would be fully mummified. And therefore, I cannot tell you how thrilled I will be to watch Mulan get gussied up to meet the matchmaker. A whole montage dedicated to dressin’? Inject it into my eyeballs. And the rest of the film looks just as stunning, featuring elaborate armor and traditional Tang dynasty costumes. Live-action movies fall short of computer animation in many ways, but wardrobe design is rarely one of them.

Con: The Original Mulan Is Already Perfect

Listen, I’m extremely biased. Mulan was the first movie I ever saw in theaters. I was 4, and my dad took my siblings and me to see it with a family friend of ours, who was in high school at the time. The older girl fell asleep, and I remember that even at 4, I didn’t understand how that was humanly possible. Mulan is the best Disney movie. It’s got action, romance, drama, and comedy. It has sad songs, funny songs, and hype-as-hell songs. You laugh, you cry, you develop a crush on Shang (and Mulan, if we’re being real) that will last for the next two decades. Just me?

Ultimately, I’m glad Hollywood remade it—they had to try. And despite missing elements of the original, I’m glad they pulled from a more traditional story and did away with the kind of shot-for-shot remake style we saw with Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. I’ll watch the new movie, and I’ll enjoy it. But nothing can replace the original version in my heart, and I’m sure there’s a whole generation that feels the same way.