Which Mulan is Best?
Mulan (1998) vs Mulan: Rise of a Warrior (2009) vs Mulan (2020) 3-in-1 review
Mulan is a Chinese legend originally recorded in a story called “The Ballad of Mulan.” The story follows a girl, Hua Mulan, who disguises herself as a man and joins the army to fight for China in place of her father, who is not well enough to do so himself. The story has has numerous film adaptations, most notably the 1998 animated Disney musical. The story also received a notable adaptation from China in 2009, which aims to follow the story more accurately than the 1998 version. Finally, Disney released their obligatory live-action remake of the 90s Mulan just this year. So while there are other adaptations, including older films and sequels to the first two of these, I’m sticking to the three best known versions here. So Let’s Get Down to Business!
I’m going to do things a little differently today. I feel like I need to give a quick summary with my thoughts on the film before I deep-dive into why two of these movies are really good. But really to justify my utter hatred of Disney’s latest remake. Seriously, I watched the new Mulan on Tuesday. I also decided to rewatch Sandler’s latest film Hubie Halloween (2020) on Tuesday. I never finished it, so I felt bad rating it unfairly. And you know what, I think I liked it more than Mulan.
I feel like the Disney adaptation of Mulan will always be considered a middle-movie. It’s definitely not one of Disney’s best 90s movies, but it’s a heck of alot better than a few others! Overall I like Mulan. I think the story setup is strong, and the control over tone is absolutely fantastic! It’s fun, exciting, funny, dramatic- I mean it also features the single best training montage since Rocky (1976), so that’s something. Now I was going to leave this film with a 7/10, since that’s about how much I enjoy the film. But honestly, after seeing two inferior adaptations, one being unbelievable worse by the sake freaking studio- well I have even more respect for what Mulan manages to fit in under 90 minutes. 8/10.
Hua Mulan, also known as Mulan: Rise of a Warrior, wended up being a straight-to-DVD release after its festival run. This is a shame, because it’s a very good movie! The budget was only $12 million dollars, which results for everything I think understandable doesn’t work here. The music is sometimes a little cheap, the editing is kinda messy, and some of the camera work feels like it’s made for TV. Now if you set that aside, this is a killer film! It transforms the smaller story of Mulan into an all-out war film, focusing on heavy themes of killing, honor, service to your country, and more. Plus it is the ONLY film of these three with a good villain! Heck it’s also got the best performances. I recommend checking it out, and I’m sure it’s not hard to find. 7/10.
The recent remake of Mulan is a colorful and wonderfully shot version of the film. But you can watch the awesome costume design and set-pieces along with the look of the film in most martial arts films. Cause once you cut the cake, you quickly find out that the center is a hollow mess full of horrible story and tonal choices, poor pacing, confusing characters, bland action, and even a lazy score. Seriously, how often do you hear me rip on a score? It’s Harry Freaking Gregson-Williams! Anyway I laughed alot. Way too much actually. Only thing it, I don’t think I was supposed to… I’m tempted to say that Mulan is actually so bad… it’s good. 3/10.
Okay now I just want to hit on a few things these films have in common, and why sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t!
The original Mulan features the fictional Hun Shan-Yo as the threat to China. And aside from fitting the word ‘Hun’ into the best song in the film, I don’t know why. Not only do I think Shan-Yo is a really weak villain with pretty offensive features and no depth, but the Huns never really made sense to me. Fast forward to 2009 and we get the Rouran Khaganate as an updated antagonist, led by Modu, a Prince in the Rouran tribe. This not only establishes a bit more accuracy, but features a truly fantastic villain! First off, the performance from Jun Hu really drives this one home. He’s menacing, but somehow never ingenuine. Anyway the character also has some really interesting motivations based on land, which might be the most accurate reason for nomads from the Mongolian regions to attack China at the time. Look I’m no history buff, but I know its better than the pouty Böri Khan from the 2020 film. Simply put, his motivations were hilariously weak, I never took him seriously as a character, and Jason Scott Lee’s overacting didn’t help. But hey at least there’s a confusing bird lady person- look I hate this movie.
I’m getting to the point where, well, where you also get the point. I’m going to be quick. All three films try to establish Mulan’s relationship with her father, and I think all three do a fine job. Only the original animated film knocks it out of the park. Her relationship with her friends? Same. The 2009 does something different with her relationship with her friends, and I applaud it for this chance since the film takes on the tone of a war film. It does mean they aren’t as impactful by the end. And the 2020 movie tosses them in, forces them to say lines of dialogue from a song, and hopes you just know who they all are by the end. They even have a guy nicknames Cricket because he’s lucky. He’s on screen for maybe two minutes but- Oh no did Cricket die? Oh no it’s okay! He made it! WHO CARES?!?
So all three films have something different when it comes to quality. (I know that’s broad, but I’m trying to wrap up here.) The action in the original is somehow the best, but the 2009’s attempt to be a gritty focus on war over martial arts puts is miles ahead of the 2020 film. Which is, as expected, cut to pieces. You know maybe I’d care more about the action in the new film if it weren’t constantly surrounded by silly things, but slow motion undoing of the hair for dramatic but confusing and impractical woman reveal was- just so necessary it seems. The 2009 film certainly doesn’t look as good as the Disney ones thanks to the small budget, but it manages its own thanks to some sharp cinematography. And then there is editing, where the animated film once again takes first prize. The 2009 film is not very well edited, but it’s probably the best they could do. The 2020 film is really confusing! Honestly, hilarious editing all-around. The original Mulan? Brisk when it needs to be, slow at other times. Hilariously discrete, but the epic wides and tight close ups are dramatic when the film calls for it. And boy does it, because Mulan has probably one of the best cuts for tonal shifts in cinematic history. Woah that’s a large paragraph.
Last one I promise! So the original Mulan expands the original legend to include Disney things, like animal sidekicks and music. And you know what, it’s for kids. It works. Eddie Murphy is hilarious, and I legitimately like the inclusion of mythology. The 2009 Mulan definitely feels more authentic historically speaking. The film uses the extra thirty-minutes well, tossing in some history, a bit more context, and a focus on honor in war. So while it’s not as fun, I think it is probably more true to the story. Plus the finale to the film feels fittingly brief, whereas the new film is all kinds of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). But, without apes. Now they do wrap out the Huns, and that’s good. Except that they just steal the design from the Hassansin from the Prince of Persia games. Or movie, I don’t know the games well enough to say. My point is, there isn’t an original bone in this film’s body. Plus it makes only the worst chances from the 1998 version AND the 2009 version. That’s right! They definitely borrowed from that one too.
Okay you know what, I think I’m good. This is alot. Mulan is very good. I don’t give 7.5s, so I have the original at an 8/10. If you don’t think it’s that good, let me know below and we’ll discuss. Mulan: Rise of a Warrior is also very good. I don’t give 6.5s, so I have it at a 7. I don’t know many who have seen it, but it’s on Netflix and it’s really interesting! Go check it out. The remake of Mulan- I thought it was really terrible. The themes are confusing, the action is bland, the performances- Ugh why is Jet Li so bad! Look they gave Donnie Yen like one brief fight. That’s a sin. I don’t give 3.5s, so this one gets a 3. That’s right, I rounded down. But hey, if you liked this lifeless remake more than I did, let me know below and we’ll discuss!
-review by Ryan Prince