So this was… okay, I guess.
I don’t know what I was expecting. Maybe something epic. It wasn’t that. It was just kinda fine.
It starts well enough, with a young Mulan showing off her chi as she chases a chicken through her village. Here is a girl with the energy, power, and abilities that have been traditionally reserved for boys. For warriors. Her father indulges her in this until he finally is forced to explain that Mulan must hide her chi. Mulan’s duty, he tells her, is to marry well, and she can’t do that if she doesn’t become more girly.
In other words, “Into the closet with you.”
Maybe I’m just primed to read it that way, but the entire movie felt very obvious in its theme of queerness despite never actually touching on it directly. The closest it comes is when Mulan, at the time presenting as male, is invited by her general to meet with his daughter and a matchmaker after the war. The suggestion being that Mulan (again, being mistaken for a man) can marry the general’s daughter. Mulan has no real reaction to this, though, so it’s difficult to take it as a truly queer moment. Instead, from what I can tell, it’s mostly meant to be funny.
Meanwhile, the typical hetero love story is hinted at between Mulan and Honghui. At one point Honghui wonders whether a girl will ever like him, and Mulan whispers, “She will.” This is the one hint Mulan might be into Honghui, or guys in general.
The biggest problem I had with the film is that nothing feels well developed. We never really get to know any of the characters, so we can’t feel connected to them or really care that much about them. I feel like I could have liked Honghui, but I barely got to know the guy. And though there is, in broad strokes, the impression of Mulan having a character arc, she really doesn’t change in any dramatic way.
Gone, too, are the songs, the sidekicks, the humor. Now we are offered a “witch” character that is aiding the enemy army. Like Mulan, she seemingly had an excess of chi. But since she never hid it, this witch was exiled. She fell in with the baddies when they promised her she would never have to hide her true nature again.
Um, what? If the witch had stayed in the closet, she’d have been better off?
I guess, really, the idea is that people like the witch and Mulan need the support of those around them. Mulan’s fellow soldiers stand up for her. Her father accepts her. She is allowed to be her true self, and therefore she never turns evil.
There’s something very Star Wars about the whole thing, too. The way chi was explained and represented made me think of the Force. The witch, then, was someone who had embraced the Dark Side.
Also, there is a phoenix.
Bottom line: there are a lot of themes, and there is a lot of surface-level storytelling, but the whole of this version lacks depth and charm. Nor is it epic enough in scale to excuse that lack. The characters fail to be fully developed, the plot beats are fairly rote, and Jet Li didn’t even get to do very many cool stunts. Overall, this was meh for me. Magnificently shot with fabulous costumes and sets, but it’s like a beautifully decorated—but empty—box.