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‘Mulan’ Is Radical, but Only by Default

Disney’s decision to release its live-action remake on its streaming platform could have paradigm-shifting consequences. It’s a shame, then, that the movie couldn’t be as revolutionary.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

At the beginning of Niki Caro’s remake of Mulan, Mulan’s father Zhou (Tzi Ma) tells her that she must “hide [her] gift away.” He means Mulan’s chi, her life force, which is particularly strong but which, in Chinese society, is only useful to warriors—and thus to men. The message is clear: Stay in the kitchen and get married, supposedly for your own good. As in the 1998 animated Disney film—and before it, the Chinese legend it was based on—Mulan doesn’t follow her father’s advice and proves that girls can fight, too, by dressing up as a boy and joining the army. But that premise and its overthrow could also apply to Disney’s own superpower: The media giant refused to hide its $200 million film from its quarantined audience any longer, and unleashed it on the world in a way that could have a dramatic impact on the entire film industry. But all told, both the film and Disney’s rebellious moves feel disappointing.

Mulan, the most expensive film ever directed by a woman, was first meant to come out in theaters in March 2020, and was expected to mark a new turn for Disney. Unlike its other live-action remakes, Mulan 2.0 was billed as darker and more serious, a movie just as much for the parents as for the kids who’d be watching it. The COVID-19 crisis delayed things considerably, with the release date being pushed back three times until it was finally announced that Mulan would be released both in some theaters in central Europe and Asia, and on the studio’s very own and very successful streaming platform, Disney+.

The decision seems at once ingenious and misguided. To stream Mulan now, viewers must not only subscribe to Disney+, but also pay $29.99 upfront. This steep price remains cheaper than your average family trip to the theater, but an extra charge on top of a subscription fee nevertheless feels painful. (If you have the patience, Mulan will be available to stream for no extra charge in December.) As for Disney, while the company has deployed this strategy only for Mulan, its end goal is to promote Disney+: Mulan viewers will be able to watch the film as many times as they want as long as they keep their subscriptions going. The parents of children who compulsively rewatch their favorite film on a loop for weeks will therefore have to keep paying $6.99 a month, and the whole family will then have more time to scroll through the platform for more cartoons and superhero movies to watch.

But Mulan will also be released in theaters in one of its key target markets, Asia, where theaters have bounced back despite reduced capacity—and Mulan, with its basis in a Chinese legend, is obviously highly anticipated there. The combination of theatrical and streaming release could result in a profitable snowball effect for Disney. Yet this whole saga hasn’t been without complications. From its release model to the film itself, several obstacles have stood in the way of Disney’s progressing world domination.

The most glaring trouble regarding Mulan is its very star: After Liu Yifei expressed support for the Hong Kong police during last year’s protests, people all over the world have called for a boycott of the film. Disney carefully curated this new Mulan for China, the second-largest film market in the world—even before the pandemic, Mulan’s success was dependent on its success in that country. The divisiveness caused by Liu is unwanted, to say the least.

Meanwhile, the entire film industry itself is up in arms over Disney’s actions. The fact that Disney is refusing to run its film in cinemas that have already proved they can attract physical audiences in these trying times, is a sinister sign. In a climate where both streaming and the pandemic were already crushing the cinema-going experience, Disney is kicking theaters when they’re down for profit.

And it’s doing it with a film no one really needed. The original Mulan didn’t reach the heights of an Aladdin or a Lion King, but at least it didn’t try to fit its tale of female empowerment into a political agenda. The new version, on the other hand, desperately seeks to remake Mulan in the image of the post-#MeToo, self-care-obsessed, sisterhood-as-sole-identity-trait trends of today. The original also had a clear idea of who its audience would be, and although that meant a war film without much warring, it also provided a healthy dose of humor that helped its predictable plot move along. The embarrassing orientalism of the first film has been thankfully much attenuated, but so has its genuine fascination with the society it represented. Striving to satisfy both the Western and the Asian markets, Mulan falls somewhere between mystification and realism, replacing the original film’s average musical numbers with more genre-appropriate wuxia action sequences, with characters flying and walking on walls. Yet those are just as unimpressive: The uninspired choreographies don’t have space to breathe thanks to a fast-paced editing style that confuses excitement with agitation. The very wide and colorful cinematography, clearly intended for theaters, also makes little sense on a computer or a television. Aiming at grandiosity, Mulan’s style feels both controlled and insecure.

In 2020, Mulan has changed. She’s lost her innocence and her goofball attitude. Her clumsiness—a quality that suits animation particularly well, as the pencil can bend the rules of gravity at will when a teacup is dropped and caught with one’s foot, for instance—has turned into the modern feminine ideal. These days, girls have to “be empowered,” meaning they must be tough, always right, respectable, gifted with a strong instinct, and still pretty. They must be like James Bond, although less physically imposing (too much muscle wouldn’t be feminine enough). While representing Chinese women in a Hollywood blockbuster is historically significant (albeit clearly profit-driven), turning Mulan into such a dry ideal of powerful femininity takes away her appeal almost entirely. She doesn’t have any weaknesses: The one decision she feels guilty about is stealing her father’s sword to go to war in his place—which she was doing to save his life. Not really a thing to be ashamed of!

Nothing has been done to fill the void that this “upgrading” has left. Instead of a main character with a personality, the film’s four screenwriters have reworked the story to include obvious markers of political correctness—big themes attempting to make up for human beings.

The first of these markers is “women’s strength.” Mulan’s story is, of course, already all about that: She goes to fight a war and almost single-handedly wins it, gaining the respect of the emperor and bringing honor to her family. But in the 1998 version, that story was enough on its own. This time around, Mulan and her exploits are not deemed impressive enough to communicate the “girl power” message that Disney believes half the world population is craving so desperately. Rather than simply demonstrating her capabilities as an individual, showing that women are strong by being strong herself, the new Mulan confronts a new opponent that resembles her, as the film hammers the point that she is not free while any woman is unfree. Xianniang (Gong Li) is a powerful woman that society rejected as a witch when she refused to hide her chi, and her bitterness has turned her into a traditional Disney villain. Their confrontation, with the classic “we’re not so different, you and I” trope, is meant to elevate their shared struggle to a universal level. Yet they can’t represent every woman because they themselves are barely people at all. Like with Mulan, Xianniang isn’t given any character traits besides her strength and anger. Strong women are just that—strong women.

Making matters worse, this proto-feminist impulse is directly countered by the film’s imperialist ideology. As it was in the first film, Mulan’s triumph is her emperor’s triumph, but here it is bizarrely placed in competition with the victory of feminism. When Xianniang understandably yet surprisingly asks Mulan to become her partner in crime to show the world just how powerful women really are, Mulan chooses to “fight for the kingdom” instead. The feminism of Mulan is conditional on her being subservient to her emperor. She almost gets killed by her general when he finds out her secret; he wouldn’t have hesitated if she had been acting only for herself and not for her country.

The most disappointing instances of Mulan are when it falls back on feminist slogans and genuine political issues to do its work. After Mulan has warned the general she had deceived that the Rourans are about to attack the emperor, all her fighting companions scream with exaltation and in a cascading chorus, “I believe Hua Mulan!” as the music swells. The reference to the “Believe women” message that came out of the #MeToo movement, particularly following the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, is too obvious and reductive to bear. Hollywood continues to understand feminism as simply having some women around, instead of as having a genuine curiosity about the experiences of women and letting them speak for themselves. Having characters quote a feminist slogan won’t help women—and releasing a highly anticipated yet mediocre remake digitally won’t save cinemas.

Manuela Lazic is a French writer based in London who primarily covers film.