The following contains SPOILERS for Disney's live-action remake of Mulan.
I had some really high hopes for Mulan. It's been clear for a long time that the "Disney live-action remake" has become a franchise. It's a brand alongside Marvel and Star Wars that we know Disney is going to continue to create new installments for until the company actually runs out of properties to adapt, or they begin to bomb so hard that it's clear that people just don't care anymore. To be honest, I'm mostly fine with that. I've enjoyed the series of films more often than not, and I don't have an issue with Disney continuing to make movies I'll probably continue to enjoy. Still, I was hoping for something a bit more for Mulan; something truly great.
Mulan felt like it was the right movie and coming out at the right time to be something special. It was clear from the outset that Mulan wasn't going to be quite as faithful a remake as some of Disney's previous endeavors, which felt like a significant risk, but with risk can come rewards. This Mulan could have been something that stood alone in comparison to its animated predecessor; a movie that remembered where it came from, but told its own story. A lot of Mulan feels like it tried to be that, but in the end, the story became something of a muddled mess and it likely means that we'll never get a Disney live-action remake that is truly great.
Making a great movie that is also a remake is already a difficult undertaking, especially if you're trying to remake a movie that was good the first time around. So many of Disney's animated films are given the word "classic" that it's almost an automatic thing, and while Mulan may not be the greatest film of the Disney animation renaissance, it's a movie a lot of people remember well. It has fans, but people may not be quite as invested in it as other Disney films from the same era. In short, this was Disney's best chance to take a chance, and the studio just couldn't pull the trigger.
Mulan Looked Like It Might Take Chances
People love the animated Disney movies so much that the remakes that have been the most successful are the ones that stayed the closest to the original. The Lion King, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast all grossed over $1 billion at the global box office and are largely indistinguishable from their animated counterparts. The movies are all musicals, with all the same songs we know and love, and all performed as close to the original as possible, even when that's unnecessary. Any changes that have been made are minor. Nothing changed is significant enough to impact a major plot point.
Mulan, however, was looking to be something else. It was fairly clear early on that the remake would not be a musical, and major characters from the original film, like Mushu the dragon, would be missing entirely. Mulan commander and love interest, Li Shang, became two separate characters. Entirely new characters were added. There was a clear desire to improve Mulan from a cultural standpoint. Yes, the reason for the changes was the Chinese box office more than anything, but regardless of the reason, it opened the door to new possibilities for the characters which went almost entirely unexplored, though not all the way.
Some new themes were suggested through the addition of Gong Li's Xian Lang, a witch who, as a woman with strong qi, is similar to Mulan, and thus understands her more than others. However, character arcs for both characters feel incredibly truncated. Xian Lang suggests to Mulan that the only way to fully embrace her power is to reveal her true self, and in the next scene, that's what happens. Mulan suggests that Xian Lang is not inherently evil, and in practically the next moment, the witch finds some measure of redemption. These moments aren't allowed to build into anything truly satisfying, in large part because of everything else the movie needed to fit in.
Balancing the Old and the New
Part of the reason the new material is not given room to breathe is that even with all the changes, there seems to be a feeling that the new Mulan needs to make all the necessary references that fans are expected to expect from the remake. The movie doesn't contain songs, but the dialogue is there to reference the songs we would be expecting to hear. Mulan gets a fight scene in the new film that is far too short because it has to end with the same avalanche that ended the battle in first movie.
And the decision to keep the avalanche is itself an odd decision that is symbolic of the larger issue. In the animated original, Mulan's realization that she can use the snow to stop the attacking army is in part set up by Mulan's retrieval of the arrow earlier in the film. We see then that Mulan is capable of, for lack of a better phrase "outside the box thinking." In the new film, the arrow scene has been removed and we're given moments showing Mulan's skill, but not her intellect. The avalanche moment feels hollow in the remake because it's not set up properly. The remake expects you to remember the original for the scene to work at all.
If Mulan had gone the route that previous Disney live-action remakes had gone and done a faithful recreation, we wouldn't have been blown away by it, but it almost certainly would have worked. It would have hit that nostalgia button and we would have enjoyed it. If it had gone for something a bit more new, it might not have worked, but at the very least it would have given us something we weren't expecting; something that made the story feel fresh.
Instead, we got something in the middle and it ends up failing on both counts. New additions to the story feel wasted because not enough is done with them, but having those new additions at all has required the timing of the familiar moments many fans were probably looking for.
A Great Movie Takes Chances
You simply can't make a great movie by remaking a great movie. The Lion King remake had everything in it that the first movie had, and the first movie was a masterpiece, but simply doing that again makes the story less special. Only by trying something new can something truly great be created, and it simply seems Disney is unwilling to let things go that far.
If Disney is going to hold on so tight to the animated original that it simply can't let the live-action version be its own thing, then we're either going to get too-faithful remakes like Beauty and the Beast or this strange combination of new and old like Mulan that tries to be all things to all people and ultimately fails to be anything special.