So the utterly brilliant Mulan is up for a live-action remake, but this time Disney have decided to actually switch things up. Unlike the Lion King or Beauty & The Beast, the latest iteration of Mulan is actually fairly different to the animated classic. It still hits all the main plot beats: girl from rural China poses as a boy in order to save her father from going to war against northern invaders, proves she is just as capable as the men around her (if not more so), and ultimately saves the Emperor's life, defeats the tyrannical enemy, and shows everyone that sexism is stupid.
Second time out, though, the film feels much more Chinese. There are strong motifs and techniques borrowed from Asian film making throughout, including "floating" fighting scenes (think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), less realistic but more traditionally symbolic CGI, and a greater emphasis on certain story beats than you would typically get in the West. There are also much stronger narrative elements tied to tradition and familial honour, and a clear yin/yang relationship between Mulan and the (reimagined) witch-hawk character. Plus, of course, the film stars actors of (mainly) Chinese descent and is filmed (mainly) in China (apart from where it's clearly filmed in New Zealand, making the mistake of reusing locations from the Lord of the Rings which felt jarring, as well as several places around Omarama which we know well, that was just slightly bizarre 😂).
The result feels slightly more authentic at times, but also very forced. You can't help but think that Disney should have just given the rights to a Chinese film studio and let them make the film directly, rather than trying to create a movie that will appease both Eastern and Western audiences. Or maybe just a more imaginative, less by-the-numbers approach might have worked better, who knows. From a Western perspective, the increased cultural elements are quite fun, but come at the expense of all the little details that made the original so beloved. Non-realistic characters like Mushu and Cricket have been completely rewritten, and whilst I did enjoy the new Cricket as a companion character, if you're going to have guardian phoenixes and magical hawk-women, can we not have an adorable actual cricket?
At the end of the day, the result is a decent enough movie about triumph against oppression. But making Mulan effectively have superpowers whilst really hammering home that what she did was disrespectful and should be shunned/looked down on really dulls the feeling of empowerment that the original conveyed so well. They tried to level that out a bit with the new witch character, but she's never more than two-dimensional, so even her ultimate sacrifice doesn't have much impact. Though the action scenes are great, and some of the reimagining is really fun to watch, (and the core cast all give solid performances, politically problematic elements aside), it feels like the heart of the film has been lost in translation. That the original is such a classic means that even a mediocre remake would still be enjoyable helps a little, but this only just scrapes above that level for me.