Live-action Mulan

Live-action Mulan: The 5 screenwriting problems that make it different


So… the new Live-action Mulan came out. It’s pretty much impossible to watch this movie and not compare it to its animated counterpart that came out in 1998. First, because this movie may not be good as an adaptation, but it’s definitely worse as a stand-alone. And second, because it’s supposed to be an adaptation.

However, while the 1998 version was praised by audiences and critics and considered one of the best Disney movies, the new Mulan has been bombarded with criticism.

Here are the 5 problems that make the new Disney Live-action Mulan so different from the original movie:

Is Mulan a Mary sue?

As much as I hate to use the term Mary Sue, yes… she is. A Mary Sue is a fictional character that seems to be too skilled, too good, too brave, and in general too virtuous for the story.

Most protagonists are virtuous in their own way, as they should be. But they also have flaws, as they should have. A Mary Sue character however has all the good qualities but none of the flaws.

I really hate to use this term because, more often than not, people call “Mary Sue” a female character for being too independent or too skilled, even if she does have flaws that make her a well-written character.

Live-action Mulan, however, fits into this category perfectly.

Her animated counterpart was a regular girl who made the brave decision to join the army in her father’s place to protect her family and to prove her worth. She was not a skilled fighter when she was given the title of soldier, but she worked hard alongside her peers to get better and become stronger.

I repeat: BECOME stronger.

Live-action Mulan is different, she does the training but doesn’t really need it because she has the For- I mean Chi, she has Chi.

Chi is (in this movie at least) a powerful force that allows the people who are able to use it to… do… stuff. It’s not explained very well.

In real life, Chi is the name given to a type of energy that is believed to be present in all things. Someone who manages to master Chi can use it to perform martial arts and Chinese traditional medicine.

In this movie, Chi is basically a knockoff of the force. Some mysterious power that only a selected few can detect and use that allows those few lucky people to do things that would ordinarily be impossible. Like turn into a bird or kick a spear really hard or do a lot of flips in the air while your hair flow majestically.

And this is the biggest difference between animated Mulan and Live-action Mulan: one has this crazy cool superpower, the other has not.

Whenever animated Mulan was in trouble, she had to use her brain and her training to gain the upper hand. But when Live-action Mulan is in trouble, Chi is magically activated and suddenly she’s a superhero.

The reason why this is a problem has to do with the relatability of the character. A hero with no weaknesses is not a hero you want to root for. You just can’t look at someone who’s perfect and doesn’t make mistakes and think: “Oh yeah, that’s just like me!”.

Obviously you can give a character a lot of power and admirable qualities, but those things must be balanced with some flaws. Even a character like Wonder Woman (a literal goddess with literal superpowers) makes mistakes and pays the price for them.

However, in this movie, Chi is used as a tool that can solve all the problems Mulan comes across.

An enemy shoots an arrow at her = Chi makes her bend backward like Neo in the Matrix and avoid being hit.

The Emperor doesn’t want women in his army = Chi allows her to show him some sick moves that will make him change his mind and offer her a job.

With Chi it’s impossible for Mulan to fail, to show weakness, to be relatable for the audience.

Mulan is Not like other girls

There’s something that I’ve noticed towards the end of the movie, and it’s one of the things that bothers me the most.

During the scene where the Emperor offers Mulan a place in his army, she is the only woman in the room who’s not wearing makeup, and the only soldier who’s not wearing armor.

Animated Mulan was a little annoyed and confused by the makeover she got before going to the matchmaker, but she was sympathetic towards a little girl who got her doll stolen. When she was in the training camp she was initially intimidated by her fellow soldiers, but learned with time to understand them.

This is the writers’ way of saying: “Mulan doesn’t like to be put in a box and forced to obey outdated gender roles. But she isn’t judgmental or mean towards the people who feel comfortable in those roles”.

It’s amazing because, through the script, those writers managed to send such a powerful message by using only a few minutes of screentime.

Live-action Mulan does the same thing but accidentally ends up sending the opposite message.

Whenever a Hollywood blockbuster with a “strong female character ™” comes out, there’s a 50/50 chance that she will be either a well written multi-dimensional character, or a block of ice with boobs.

Writers and directors often seem to think that strong = physically strong and emotionally stunted. So we end up with a lot of leading ladies who kick ass and show no feelings doing it.

This happens because (unfortunately) many people think that empathy, vulnerability, and consideration are inherently feminine qualities. They also think that femininity and strength are two different things that contradict each other.

So female characters can’t cry, be emotional, be dramatic, be nurturing because if they do they’re not “strong” anymore.

Live-action Mulan is not the same friendly underdog of the original movie, she is detached from the rest of the world. No sympathy for little girls who get picked on, no friendship with crude but lovable soldiers. She’s not part of a squad made of men in drag who watch out for her.

In the original animated movie Mulan earned the respect of her fellow soldiers but also learned to rely on them when she needed help. She recognised her own limitation.

Live-action Mulan is a lone wolf who doesn’t need to ASK her friends to help her defeat the villain, she is appointed as the leader of the team. So she’s the one giving ORDERS.

And it’s sad, honestly. In 1998, her friends try to defend her when they think that the emperor is about to punish her.

In 2020, she stands alone in the center of a huge room, her friends in a corner, silently observing.

I’m probably just overanalyzing a detail, but I don’t know. I just think it’s sad.

The witch was wasted

Let’s address the elephant in the room: the witch. This character wasn’t in the original animated movie and has nothing to do with the ballad of Mulan, it’s a completely new character created specifically for this version of the story.

So the question is: why is she here?

You’d think that if the creators made the bold decision to create a whole new character, and give her such a big role in the story, she would be… I don’t know… relevant.

I have to say that I was actually intrigued by her at first. She was forbidden from using Chi (just like Mulan) but she decided to disobey (just like Mulan) and ended up becoming an outcast (which is what Mulan fears for herself).

From the get-go, she is a dark reflection of the protagonist. What happened to her is the “worst-case scenario” for Mulan: being forced to stay away from everyone she loves and to wander around without a place to call home.

However, her character in this movie is wasted.

She has incredible (albeit confusing) mystical powers that allow her to possess people, turn into birds, fight, and fly; but she is still relegated to the role of “minion of the villain”. All she does is fight a handful of guards and provide intel.

And she gets killed by an arrow. AN ARROW! The lady can fly and shapeshift but she’s completely helpless against ONE SINGLE ARROW.

Not to mention that she sacrificed herself to save Mulan. BUT WHY? Mulan has been dodging arrows left and right for half of the movie by using Chi. Even her sacrifice was completely useless.

Her relationship with the villain is also puzzling. If she was scorned and ostracized by misogynist people, why is she helping out another misogynist? This leads us to yet another problem with the Live-action Mulan…

What’s up with this villain?

Image from the movies Mulan (2020) and Mulan (1998)

Before talking about the Live-action Mulan, we have to acknowledge that the 1998 animated movie wasn’t perfect either.

The villains there were the Huns. They were painted as barbaric and cruel foreign invaders that killed and destroyed to quench their thirst for power.

Even the way they were drawn was a little problematic: while the Chinese characters were traditionally “good looking” the Huns had exaggerated features, grey skin, and pitch-black eyes. They were terrifying but at the cost of portraying Mongolian people in a negative light.

This is a problem that the Live-action Mulan could have easily corrected, and they did it… in a way.

Here the new villains are the Rourans, who are also the villains in one of the versions of the original story. However, the problem of misrepresentation is still there.

The Rourans aren’t any more nuanced than the Huns. They can still be described as “Dudes that ride horses and invade cities”. Their leader, Bori Khan, is not all that different from the Huns’ leader Shan Yu. To be honest, the only change seems to be that these new villains are dumber.

Sure, the Huns weren’t a great case for representation, but they were at least menacing and competent.

Shan Yu was a skilled fighter and a smart strategist. Even when his whole army was killed and he was left stranded on a mountain with a handful of his men, he managed to find a way to sneak on the enemy and almost succeeded in defeating them.

His men were trained to track down enemy soldiers by using only their senses, and they were actually winning the war before Mulan came along. By all means, they were designed to be a REAL threat, a force that could go toe to toe against one of the greatest armies in the world.

But Bori Khan and his guys? I’m surprised that they managed to survive that long.

First of all, thy all seem to be dumb as rocks. In this one scene, they’re winning a battle by using catapults on Chinese soldiers (which also begs the question: can’t they just move out of the way and avoid being crushed by flaming rocks?).

Suddenly an arrow from behind kills one of them. They turn to see a few “soldiers” shooting arrows at them, and their BRILLIANT IDEA is to turn their backs to the enemy and throw fireballs at the 5 people behind them.

Guys, there’s like 20 of you standing around, and the ones attacking are just a handful of soldiers. You can send some men to take care of them while the rest keep operating the catapult. You don’t need to turn the giant machine around and start shooting.

Even Bori Khan, who managed to make the Emperor fall for his trap (btw the Emperor is dumb too apparently) tries to kill him in the most overly complicated way possible while reciting his whole “evil speech” like a James Bond villain.

And now we get to the wasted potential of his relationship with the witch. Why does he treat her like that?

I get that he is the bad guy (the scars, the evil laugh, the all-black clothing, and literally everything else about him gave that away), but what if he WASN’T a misogynist?

The witch is the dark mirror of Mulan, what if he was the dark mirror of the Emperor? If that were the case then the witch’s offer to Mulan would actually create some dramatic tension.

The Emperor is a just ruler that is beloved by his people, but he doesn’t allow Mulan to be herself in society. Bori Khan is a killer but he values strength and doesn’t care where it comes from.

If Bori Kahn was the one offering Mulan a “new home” where she can be whoever she wants to be, the story would have been much more interesting. She would be forced to choose between betraying her country and fulfilling her dream.

But nope. Bori Khan is a one-note villain who isn’t allowed to be anything but an a-hole. The Rourans are portrayed as dumbasses, and the witch went from serving one misogynist ruler to another.

Supporting characters

Image from the movies Mulan (2020) and Mulan (1998)

The movie seems to have a mean spirited attitude towards the supporting characters. They seem to be there solely for the purpose of showing how inferior they are in comparison to the protagonist.

In the matchmaker’s scene, her sister freaks out when she sees a spider. I’m a fellow arachnophobic (also it was already established that she’s afraid of spiders) so that’s understandable.

But then chaos takes over the room and everyone starts screeching and screaming, Mulan, the only one who’s still calm and collected, salvages the teapot before tumbling down as well.

Oh brother, aren’t those poised and uptight ladies the worst? Did you see how the matchmaker fainted at the end of the movie?

Another part that stood out to me was the training montage. Everyone is struggling, everyone is failing, and then the montage stops to show us a soldier who’s crying.

Later, when Mulan learns to unlock her Chi (or whatever the f- she does), we see the other soldiers giving up on climbing the mountain with the buckets in hand. Chen (the love interest) drops down exhausted, Mulan sees him, passes by, moves on without a second glance. We’re left there to admire her being awesome at the top of the mountain while the others look sweaty and tired at the bottom.

Isn’t it hilarious? A man CRYING! Isn’t it amazing? The dude gave up but Mulan didn’t!

Almost none of them has an arc and the few that do (basically just Mulan’s father and the witch) have a really short one that doesn’t give an adequate emotional payoff.

In conclusion

Live-action Mulan was trying really hard to “enpower women” (or at least that’s what the creators said during interviews) but it didn’t work out very well for me. The first movie told my 8 years old self that if I worked hard and treated people with compassion I could become a better person. This movie told me that some people have Chi and that means that they can kick spears.