Review – Mulan (2020)

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Overview

Synopsis To save her ailing father from serving in the Imperial Army, a fearless young woman disguises herself as a man to battle northern invaders in China.

Length 2 hours

Release Date September 4, 2020

 

Rating PG-13

Distribution Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Directing Niki Caro

Writing Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, Elizabeth Martin

Composition Harry Gregson-Williams

Starring Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Tzi Ma, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Ron Yuan, Gong Li, Jet Li

I’ve been very kind, even to the point of being a bit of an apologist, for the live action Disney remake movement.  I’m all for the idea of filmmakers revisiting the stories that were at the foundations of our formative years with a new reverently deconstructive vision.  Shoot, many of these filmmakers are young enough to have been youngsters themselves during the production of some of the original works upon which these remakes are based, so their relationship to the source material would be even more intimate.  In recent years, though, my enthusiasm for the movement has begun to wane.  Whether that is due to particular demerits and retardations within the form, style, approach, and executions of the films themselves, or the general melancholy miasma of disillusionment that the year 2020 has visited upon the entire civilized world, or some combination of the two, I need to revisit this trend and my stance with regard to it.  Long time coming too.  I mean, look at the last time I wrote something here!

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Several big martial arts battles with close combat, many deaths. Characters are killed, injured in various ways; very little blood shown. Most people are killed with swords. One falls into a fire. Others are dispatched by hand and/or buried by avalanche. Bows/arrows, knives, flaming projectiles. Peril and danger; people are taken captive, threatened. A shape-shifting witch uses her magic to disarm, kill, possess her enemies. A commander declares that the penalty for various offenses (including desertion and stealing) is death, while penalty for dishonesty is expulsion and disgrace. An older conscript with mobility issues falls in a humiliating manner in front of the Imperial guard.

Language/Crude Humor: None

Sexual Content: A few lingering looks. In a nonsexual scene, Mulan (who has been posing as a young man) strips down to take a bath in a river — bare shoulders, part of back visible. A male soldier takes off his shirt; it’s obvious that he’s disrobing to join what he thinks is another man in the water. Funny conversation: Soldiers discuss attributes they find attractive in a woman (mostly physical ones).

Drug/Alcohol Use: None.

Spiritual Content: A central villainous witch.

Other Negative Themes: None.

Positive Content: Messages are about importance of being true to yourself, not hiding your gifts, working hard, helping others, being honest, being loyal and devoted to both your family and your country. Other important themes include humility, perseverance, teamwork, challenging traditional gender roles and stereotypes.

Mulan is brave, compassionate, clever, resourceful. While pretending to be a man, she sometimes tries to fit in, but also stays true to her beliefs about what’s important in a partner, what being a warrior means. She disobeys her father, leaves her family, deceives her friends and fellow soldiers, but it’s to protect her family and help her country. She demonstrates many important character strengths: courage, perseverance, humility, integrity, teamwork. Most men in the movie have traditional ideas about what women should be like or do but discover they’re wrong. Chen Honghui is observant, a good listener who’s quick to defend Mulan; instead of feeling betrayed or threatened, he helps and supports her. Mulan’s father is patient, loving, honorable; her mother is caring and concerned; her sister is accepting, kind. Even villains have understandable motives and humanizing backstories.

Review

I can’t say that I didn’t have fun on the wild ride that is the Disney live action remake movement, even if the term “live action” has been applied rather loosely and irresponsibly to a few noted entries (no, I’m still not over last year’s The Lion King).  The very idea had more than its fair share of naysayers, but I was among those who was genuinely intrigued with how these timeless classics of family entertainment will register under management and to a new audience.  Odd that I would take such a stance since the project hardly started off on the right foot.  Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) still puts a pit in my stomach.  How has the project matured since then?

There were moments of sublimity (Cinderella, 2013), intercepted by mediocre outings best left to the bargain bin (Beauty and the Beast, 2017) and utter disasters that were best left to the cutting room floor (Maleficent, 2014).  On net balance, I can no longer say that the successes outweigh the duds as I did in my review of the execrable The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, but I was still on board for most of the time.  I’ve been laying out pretty clearly what I believe to be the best method(s) of engagement when trying one’s hand at resurrecting these tales.  Firstly, they shouldn’t be simply a one-to-one adaptation.  If we wanted that, the original is already on the same service.  Secondly, they should make an attempt at deepening our understanding of and resonance with the original story in some way.  This largely builds upon the first method in a deeper and hopefully more innovative scope.  Finally, above all else, they should strive to improve upon what came before wherever they can.  There are some exceptions to this rule, but those exceptions are ones largely unsuitable for a live action treatment in the first place (i.e., Fantasia).

With Mulan, the 1998 animated Disney feature originally directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook, there was much in the way of that film that lends itself to the legitimacy of this movement in Disney’s history. Based on an early Chinese legend of a young woman who disguised herself as a man to serve in the imperial army in her father’s stead, the 1998 release received some domestic success and is still fondly remembered today as a significant part of the Disney Renaissance.  With that said, there were as many weaknesses as strengths to that release that one could look with genuine hope and excitement at the prospect of a modern revision.

From a marketing standpoint, the biggest shortcoming of the 1998 film was how poorly received it was in the Chinese box office.  The most common criticism from the demographic that one would think would be most receptive to such a take was that the title character was “too Americanized; too individualistic”.  The common cultural values of national and familial piety among the Chinese were marginalized to an uncomfortable degree as far the Chinese audience was concerned.  Whether this is an objective mark against the quality of Mulan as a movie is another subject entirely, but for the sake of the success of the production, this had to be taken into account.

How exactly were the screenwriters for the 2020 adaptation of Mulan (all four of them) going to try to make the film less offensive to the country of the story’s origin?  Honestly, I think they made things even worse as far as that matter is concerned.  The superficial pandering to the Chinese market is shouldered mainly on the casting direction, with major wuxia stars such as Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Gong Li, Tzi Ma, and Cheng Pei-Pei dotting the screen.  Aside from that, this version of the legendary Hua Mulan is just as individualistic and “Americanized” as she was in 1998, if not more so.

The term “Mary Sue” as a criticism of an unbelievably capable and competent female lead has gained some ascendency in the public discourse recently, mainly in response to Disney’s now-concluded Star Wars trilogy and the lead characters therein.  Sadly, some of that criticism is justified in the case of Rey, and is doubly justified in the case of 2020’s Hua Mulan.  From the time when she was a child (Crystal Rao), Mulan showed expert level adeptness with everything physical and martial, performing gravity-defying gymnastics in public squares that would under normal circumstances raise suspicion of supernatural meddling.  In narration provided by her father Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma), we are told that Mulan is naturally gifted with an abnormal amount of “chi”, the life energy that warriors harness to perform great acts and a plot mechanic that has much more than a passing resemblance to the Force of Star Wars fame.

Futhermore, it is stated that Mulan’s fascination with physical activity will most likely upend any chance she has in fulfilling her parents’ wishes of finding a husband.  Whereas the ’98 Mulan was but a humble farmhand with nothing in the way of outstanding talents or strengths, this new Mulan functions as a sanctified “Chosen One” with all the strength, talent, and resolve she’ll ever need given by an accident of birth.

This seems to be taken by many as a tale of “female empowerment” showing how young girls can be just as fearsome and capable in battle as any man.  With all due respect, I must disagree on at least two fronts.  Firstly, no matter what one’s sex, no great skill comes to anyone wholesale by way of serendipity.  Everyone who is born comes into the world poor, ignorant, and unskilled.  Anyone who doesn’t put in the time and effort to develop certain skills will not acquire them, no matter how naturally gifted they are.  More importantly for the drama, having a main protagonist introduced out the box with no need for a development arc in which weaknesses are overcome makes for unengaging fare.

 

The ’98 Mulan took her father’s place as a soldier with no good reason to think herself competent enough to even swing a sword, let alone fight a war.  She was for all intents and purposes a faceless peasant who simply decided to take on a massive responsibility in a fit of resolve.  When she first set foot on the training barracks, she was morbidly incompetent and clumsy at everything that was required of a soldier, having to work extra hard just to keep up with her male counterparts, let alone surpass them.  In spite of all this, she stuck through it, turning her weaknesses into an asset and becoming skilled enough to eventually have a hand in saving the emperor and the entire nation from the Huns.  This earlier Mulan embodied the virtues of resilience, determination, and creative problem-solving, showing how even one as inexperienced and naïve as anyone could expect a random peasant girl to be can still achieve greatness with the right attitude and tenacity.

Mulan of 2020, however, has no need for such a development arc.  She’s got no time for any of that “overcome my own ignorance about a whole wide world of conflict and hardship that I never knew until now and better myself and that world as a result” nonsense.  A far as this plot is concerned, Mulan is already perfect just the way she is.  It’s the rest of the world that is awry and in need of change, not her.  It is usually a common criticism against those of a self-centered sort to say “they think the world revolves around them”.  In the Mulan of 2020, the world really does revolve around her.  Everything is in place just to prove to the ignorant masses just how awesome she naturally is.

I fail to see how this treatment is remedial of the common Chinese criticism leveled against the 1998 movie, namely that Hua Mulan herself is “too individualistic”.  The ’98 Mulan at least did what she could to be a functional member of her regiment and operate as a team player wherever possible.  This new Mulan realizes far too soon that she’s not only different but better than her comrades in just about every important way, and unleashes that as soon she’s just plain tired of playing by the rules. Her family’s and community’s admonitions say that Mulan’s inherent awesomeness must be hidden.  Her father, supportive as he is, told her that in order for her to best serve her people, her powers are to be considered more a curse than a blessing.  She must conceal it, not feel it, and not let it show.

Wait, what was I talking about?

Anyway, aside from the misguided attempt at modernizing a classic cultural folktale, there are other halfhearted strokes at making this release more distinct from what came before.  Mulan has a younger sister this time around, to no point or avail.  Captain Li Shang of the ’98 film is nowhere to be found here.  Instead, the object of Mulan’s affections is found in a soldier of the same rank named Chen Honghui (Yoson An). Their romance really doesn’t go anywhere, peaking with a mere handshake after all is said and done (one of many cultural mishaps to be found here.  Even I know that handshakes are a serious faux pas in that part of the world, with or without COVID). 

More significantly, a new villainess is introduced in the form of Gong Li’s Xianniang, a shapeshifting witch who, we are told, ultimately wishes to be more socially accepted despite being so abnormally strong and gifted.  The screenplay clearly wants Xianniang to be read as a dark reflection of Hua Mulan, but once the screenplay decides to make her into an incompetently tragic martyr and antiheroine, the parallel falls flat.

Most of the earliest complaints that I heard and read had more to do with the characters who are missing from this production rather than the ones who are present.  Much consternation was given over the absence of Eddie Murphy’s wisecracking dragon character Mushu, who has been substituted for a flying phoenix operating as the guardian spirit over Mulan and her family.  Sadly, this one tells no jokes.  Personally, I was most upset by the fact that Mulan’s razor-tongued progressive-minded grandma was gone from the set.  She would have provided great levity and subversive insight where the movie needed it most.  Further proof that the year of 2020 just doesn’t want us to be happy.

Disney, for the longest time, knew exactly how to leave even their most unimpressive animated outings with some grand stroke of profundity that made the film unforgettable or a significant mark on the history of animation.  Ariel’s belting out on a rock to her unrequited love, Cinderella’s dress transformation (which Uncle Walt himself said was his personal favorite bit of animation he ever oversaw), Simba’s being raised aloft on Pride Rock to the cheers of the Kingdom.  Even in that respect, the 2020 release of Mulan can’t get its act together and deliver where it counts.  Remember how well-executed, intense, and viscerally satisfying the iconic avalanche scene in ‘98’s Mulan was; a perfect culmination of Mulan’s resolve and creative problem-solving prowess?  Remember how contrived, inconsequential, and topographically unsound it is now?  Yeah, that hurt to watch.

With all the droning exposition, hackneyed tonal shifts, and total lack of any sophistication, one would at least hope that whatever sour note the ’98 film struck at the Chinese box office would be tidied over this time around.  No such luck.  From what I’ve read thus far, Chinese audiences had the same grievances for this live action remake as they had 22 years, primarily with regard to how the cultural elements were handled. 

This movie was systematically engineered to please.  The choice of first rank Chinese actors was smart.  The scenery and cinematography clearly take inspiration from the very best of Zhang Yimou’s oeuvre and wuxia history in general.  It tries desperately to appeal both to Western ideals of individual ambition as well as Eastern ideals of communal loyalty.  Everything was in place to give everyone what they want.  By now, we should have learned what happens when you try to please everyone.

Positives

+ Solid production values, especially in the first act.
+ “Interesting” additions to the cast.

Negatives

- Brain-dead “empowerment” fantasy.
- Pointless characters.
- Contrived action sequences.
- Many will be disappointed with the lack of Mushu here.
- Still panned by China.

The Bottom Line

Disney+ is expensive enough and you already have the original animated film with it. No need to pay extra, my friend.

 

5.8

Tyrone Barnes

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