IMAGE: Mulan (2020)

Film reviews

The marketing campaign for a live remake of Disney Mulan was truly unforgettable. With each trailer, this film justifies itself more, as if it can offer something other than the classics of animation. When this movie was announced, I thought it would be a good idea. Mulan is a story that can be approached in many different ways, and the cartoon is not as deeply rooted in popular culture as Beauty and the Beast of The Lion King, which gives more space to the creative team. When Disney released the last trailer, it was by far my most anticipated film of 2020. Unfortunately, Mulan was one of the many victims of the VIDOC, and I was crushed when they announced that he would not go to the theatres. But this movie is now free at Disney+ and I gave him a watch. Let’s dig in.

Mulan follows a story we all know, but with some crucial changes. In this film, Mulan does not have an only child, but a younger sister. As a child, Mulan shows amazing skills and a tendency to possess chi – which, for some reason, gives this film magical powers. Unlike the original film, it is Mulan’s mother, not his father, who really has problems with Mulan’s behaviour. Mulan’s skills would not make her a suitable woman, she says, which would make her life difficult and dishonor her family. When the emperor orders every Chinese family to send a man into the army to fight the northern invaders, Mulan flies at night and takes the place of his eldest father to save his life. Unlike cartoons, being a soldier is a given for Mulan because of his abilities and skills. Again, she presents herself as a woman instead of being found by a doctor who rescues her after her injury. Besides, she never gets hurt. Mulan must finally save the emperor, defeat the foreign threat and consolidate his position as a warrior.

I think it’s good to start with the positive aspects, especially since I don’t have a lot of them here. The sets, landscapes and costumes of this film are breathtaking. Mulan is one of the finest live-action movies made by Disney in a long time, and it’s a pretty exciting experience. It’s also very different from cartoons, and I appreciate that this remake doesn’t hesitate to use other bright colors instead of the vague look they gave to the King Leo and Alice in Wonderland remakes. I also think it is worth mentioning that Zi Ma and Donni Yen stand out as respectively the father and general of Mulan’s army. Mulan’s father is different from Fa Zhou in a cartoon, but I like him very much. He has this aura of honour and respect, but also of vulnerability and care for his family. Between him and Mulan there is a scene at the dinner table after the battle, where they talk about war, bravery and fear. It’s a fun, touching little scene that takes time and lets the characters (and the audience) breathe. In a way, it replaces one of my favorite moments in the cartoon where Fa Zhou encourages Mulan by telling him that the flower that blooms under unfavorable conditions is the rarest and most beautiful of all, compared to the flower that blooms late on his tree. This is the only change made to the film, which is almost, if not as good as the original version. Given the changes in Mulan’s character and history, it would be pointless to describe her as a late bloomer. That little moment of silence when our heroine joins her father gives us an idea of how much I wish the rest of the film would look like her.

This scene was made to replace the scene that wasn’t part of this version, but many other changes in this film don’t make sense. When Mulan meets Swawa (and his mother and sister are from… for some reason…), there is a catastrophe, like in a cartoon. But in this case, Mulan’s not doing anything wrong. She’s got a point. His sister turns the table because she sees an insect, but Swaha keeps sending Mulan away in disgrace and announces to the whole city that the Hua family cannot raise a good daughter. It doesn’t make sense, and Mulan probably saved even the worst by catching the cups in the air (although they always break down in the end). It’s the only thing Sister Mulan has ever done, and it’s useless, so I think she exists to ruin it for Mulan. Somebody has to do it, because this version of Mulan is perfect and stands above deadly concerns, such as the requirement of judgement and character flaws. Her only fault is that she is holding back her strength because society does not accept a woman with a Chi. Besides, this is really stupid, because chi is not a magical power that some people possess; it is just a life force that lives in every human being, regardless of gender or anything else. I also wonder why, if chi is essentially a superpower in this film, Mulan and the witch are the only female characters they possess? If the idea is that women can do anything and be anything they want, why is that only true for two women in the film? It’s weird.

But, of course, this completely misses the point. The original Mulan was neither a superhero nor a god; at the beginning of the film she couldn’t even hold a sword or defend herself in battle. Animated Mulan had to cultivate these skills to overcome the difficulties she encountered as a woman in the army. While the training scenes in the cartoon have been used to show that Mulan is becoming stronger, more disciplined and self-confident, in this film the only obstacle she has to overcome is restraint. This training montage is not meant for a memorable song, but especially not for the enormous growth of the characters as in the original. Mulan’s always right and she’s always strong enough, she just has to show it. I don’t find it very inspiring or empowering, because the girls and women who should be inspired by it can’t be superheroes. You can’t fly and walk through walls. Real life is not like the crouching tiger, the hidden dragon. The cartoon was actually more realistic (if you want to go there), because although it had a talking dragon and the intervention of Mulan’s ancestors, long dead, she had to work hard to achieve her goals. She studied constantly and grew, and when the emperor finally honored her, you wanted to cheer her up. When Father Mulan took her in his arms and told her that she was his greatest pride and honor, it was beautiful because you knew what it meant to her. That Mulan risked his life to save his father. That Mulan was in danger of being kicked out of the army.

As a result, Mulan’s characters are affectionate and their relationships are for the most part superficial and unformed. Liu Yifei considers this part (except when she reveals herself as a woman at the climax; that’s stupid). But she has no charisma, and since she is both a superhero and a ninja, we have nothing to do with her. She’s never really in danger. Like her father, Zi Ma is the only character she has a certain chemistry with. The relationship with her mother (who in this version is the real character, let me tell you), her sister, the witch Gong Li Xiannian, and even her love interest (?) is pointless and difficult to invest in her. I found his relationship with one of the soldiers confusing because he was attracted to her, and at the end there is an indication that he might be interested in meeting her. The problem is that she comes out of nowhere and treats them with contempt until it’s too late. Is the film trying to make a couple? Because with him she has as much romantic chemistry as with Xiangyang. Your conflict with the soldier has been resolved too quickly and is not really a problem. For what it’s worth, Xiangyang needed more demonstrations, less verbal exposure, and more time with Mulan to make this shit fair, you and I worked. He is both forced and persecuted, so he doesn’t feel justified when Xiangyang makes his final choice. Gong Li is really good at this role (as always), so it’s very embarrassing. I also find their abilities confusing. Does it take the bodies of the people it represents, or does it just change shape? It’s not that important to the whole story, but it’s one of the characters I really wanted to know. It was great when she spread coloured sand everywhere to hide her transformation, if only from the public, not from the townspeople. Too much insightful dialogue between her and her main opponent Jason Scott Lee, who is certainly not Shan-Yu. They try to give it a motivation that goes beyond the pursuit of power, and that might be effective, but they only mention it briefly. He never seems to suffer, and he’s not really looking for justice. Another element wasted.

Mulan’s treatment ranged from competent to downright confusing. The sound of dialogue is often mixed with the sound of intense action. I’ve seen the film twice, and there are still parts that seem unstable and others that I don’t recognize at all. The script itself also contains a few fragile lines, some of which are taken directly from the cartoon songs. For a film advertised as something else, I would like to have less direct references to the film I prefer to watch. They also constantly refer to sons and daughters. For example, chi is for sons, not daughters, etc. This seems very clumsy, because instead of writing flowing dialogues that seem natural in the context, they should contain as many references as possible to music tracks. I found it more appropriate and effective that the music for this film uses rhythms from the original Jerry Goldsmith. This score was written by Harry Gregson Williams, and it’s actually pretty good. Editing also leaves a visual impression; some actions are just chaos and you can’t see what’s going on and who’s involved. At the beginning of the film there’s a scene that goes back and forth between three different scenes, and I needed a second look to understand what’s going on.

Mulan’s a mess. It’s not terrible, and certainly not boring, but just as useless. He’s visually brave, but too scared to let go of his animated counterpart. He films most of the charm of the film, and what happens in it is usually mysterious. There are a number of differences that are smart or at least work well enough not to be disturbing. But in general, I think this movie was not sure whether it wanted to be a remake or a completely new version of a timeless story. If good visual effects and Hong Kong action (assuming it’s badly done and badly filmed) are enough for you, I’d tell you to keep going. Because if you have Disney+, the movie is now free. But if, like me, you’re looking for interesting characters and relationships, maybe the film isn’t for you.

Plot – 7

Action – 3

Direction/processing – 2

Music/sound – 5

Themes and character development – 1

3.6

3.6

If there are enough Hong Kong visual effects and action (assuming they’re badly played and filmed) for you, I’d say you agree. Because if you have Disney+, the movie is now free. But if, like me, you’re looking for interesting characters and relationships, then maybe the film isn’t for you.

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