In an amusing way, I feel “compelled” to review the new live-action Mulan, if only because my review of the original animated version has been archived for decades at IMDB for the whole world to see.* But this was also one of the only Disney remakes I was actually keen on seeing. When they announced that they would not be doing a near shot-for-shot remake and would instead be shaking things up (not making it a musical, the removal of Mushu, etc) my interest was piqued. As long as they had good writing, I figured, this could be a good thing: a chance to tell the story in a new way, opening up new avenues to explore and to play in. And even though I have very much disliked most of the remakes thus far, as long as they nailed that one, crucial, thing of good writing, it could turn out well!
As you can probably guess by now, this key condition… did not come to pass. The writing and overall execution of the movie is, unfortunately, not well done. In the least. And while perhaps it the most proper thing to do would be to let this movie stand on its own and not compare or view it in relation to its 1998 originator, the movie itself takes pains to link itself back to the original through several cues, be it musical motifs, lyrics turned into dialogue, or entire set pieces (such as the avalanche). And so, in the end, comparisons will be inevitable (where the movie will take an even further drubbing). However, I do want to try as best I can to begin looking at the movie on its own terms, for even without comparing it to the past it does not stand up well in terms of story, in terms of narrative, and in terms of storytelling quality. Nor does it even seem to understand the ballad from which both originated.
For starters, if you keep needing to have your characters, on screen, speak aloud what is either a) directly going on or b) what you the audience members should feel in that moment, then your narrative and cinematography has failed.
For two, if your plot and narrative consistently relies on contrivances, or on segments that work on their own but make less sense when viewed in context of the movie as a whole, then your story and storytelling has failed.
But the crux of this movie’s issues comes from making the story’s main hook revolve around their peculiar vision of Qi: 1) That Qi isn’t necessarily something everyone can cultivate and that you are born with certain amounts or capacity for it, 2) That women aren’t allowed to show or develop use of their Qi without being shunned or vilified, and 3) That Mulan is born with midichlorian, sorry, Qi counts that are off the charts. In short, they essentially turned Mulan into a superhero, with powers she’s had from birth that other people don’t and can’t hope to have. And the big unfortunate thing is, that’s it. That’s pretty much all there is to Mulan. In this movie, she is not a complex character. She does not seem to have much to learn or develop or grow. She is, in the narrative, reduced to being a superweapon. Even her ‘moral compass’ is external, literally written on a sword as a military and authoritarian organization and view of life.
This hook absolutely obliterates most of Mulan’s agency. And removes most her character, as well, for the main tension of the movie is reduced to whether for her to let it be known she is a superweapon, or not. She is not searching for who she is, or who she is inside, or who she wants to be. She is not even all that interested in being accepted for who and what she is. It is only about the fact she is a weapon. That is all anyone sees her for (weapon/warrior), and that is all the space she is given to be in the movie. Even that choice of whether or not to unleash her superpowers and damn the consequences becomes more about those immediate and external consequences (Killed? Shunned? Bring dishonour to and disappoint her family? Be an affront to the natural order?) than it is about what it will mean for her as a character and person.
Even in the latter half of the movie, when people ‘accept’ her, they’re not really accepting Mulan, the person. They’re accepting a useful tool. Further, when she’s found out, she doesn’t defend herself (stripping agency again) and instead this version has her teammates who do it. (Teammates who, by the way, we care little about. See below in the bulleted section). And, again, to me when they defend her it’s not her per se they are truly defending; they are instead making the case that she is super useful. Powerful. A fighting tool. Once again, that is what she is reduced to.
Worse, though, is a fighting tool for what? In this movie, it is explicitly to defend the emperor and keep the patriarchy in place. Complete with an awkward scene where she proclaiming such things. You can almost feel the flag waving in the background, to which, if this feels a bit like Chinese party propaganda, well, it may well be so. To ensure this movie was permitted to be shown in China, it was filmed with help from the government. (One of the main controversies surrounding this movie was that it was filmed with the aid of the Xinjiang province of China, where right now the government has forced over a million people of an ethnic minority into concentration/re-education camps. Plus, the lead actress praised the anti-democratic crackdown in Hong Kong.)
And with that it is hard for me not to read the scene where Mulan and her squadmates recreate the “Girl Worth Fighting For” song (complete with lyrics from the song turned into lines of dialogue) as further evidence of this. When Mulan is asked what kind of girl she would like, particularly absent is the line/lyric “a girl who speaks her mind.” Because freely speaking of one’s mind (regardless of gender) is not exactly a thing desired or even allowed within the PRC.
Plus, when she returns home, and her sister is so happy to see her, the first thing her sister says is “I’ve been matched!” Yes, girls! If you’re not born with superpowers, then your place really is within the patriarchy and the best thing that can happen to you is to be married.
Put bluntly, this movie’s done Mulan dirty. In this movie, Mulan is rewarded for knowing her place and for her devotion to the dominant patriarchal system. She is ‘accepted’ only because she can be a man/soldier, while also knowing the proper place for a woman. She’s not allowed to be a full character, or to grow into her own – heck, it’s not even her own story! It’s her father recounting the story.
- And let’s quickly talk about her father: he is a complete jerk in this movie. He never tries to meet her halfway, never guides her, never seems to even know who she really is. Which makes his “I don’t care about my sword, I’m only glad you’re back” at the end feel very hollow. Does he really care about her? Or is more about rote love for the pure daughter who you can properly marry to bring honour to the family?
- PLUS, 12 seconds later, they’re given a new sword! They’ve taken the supposed significance of the scene (it is never, BTW, really established that losing a family sword would be somehow really bad) and rendered it immediately null by making it a non-item.
- To pick up the earlier point about her teammates, The “Let’s Get Down to Business” montage of the original may have been short, but it showed much greater camaraderie and esprit de corps building than this movie does. Here, all we get are a bunch of “you smell” humour and her being bruske and rude. Other than expecting it or being told it we never see the development of her camaraderie, of the team through all of their hard work, bonding in a fashion. Of her learning how to be with guys. What works here? When she shows she can kick ass. Yeah. They don’t really accept her, they just stop choosing to pick on her. So any empathy scenes we get later feel hollow.
- One thing that really hurt was the first time the musical cues from the song “Reflection” make its way into this movie’s score is when she is carrying her pails of water to the top of the mountain, which is this movie’s version of the pole with the arrow sticking out of it. Because here it is, once again, nothing about what Mulan is as a character or person, it is 100% about her being super strong. There’s no cleverness, there’s no personality, it’s just about her becoming that weapon.
- The avalanche setpiece makes no sense. For one, we just saw Mulan kick the living crud out of dozens of warriors; why does she need to do something clever now? For two, clever hasn’t been her thing in this movie. For three, why are all the soldiers standing still? Whey can’t the move in unison still shielded up? For four, this thing is taking place in a remote mountain pass, how in the hell did you get a trebuchet/catapult up there? For five, that is the most accurate (and explosive!) trebuchet I have ever seen. For six, and this is a biggie, the hill with the snow for the avalanche is behind the bad guys and their trebuchet. Mulan apparently rides towards them, grabbing helmets along the way, then gets behind them to some rocks, and not a single one of them see her? Wonder what she’s up to? And then somehow fooled by the helmets on rocks as though those were soldiers? To which, for seven, even if they were, why would they turn the trebuchet around? And for eight, even if they did, why is this one shot not accurate, missing the rocks and hitting the base of the snow? Which, for nine, I don’t think would’ve started an avalanche? It’s contrived bullshit all around.
- The scene where Mulan makes her ‘choice’ is ineffectual and weird. Why is it taking place in this polychromatic sulfuric wonderland? Is there supposed to be symbolism of her losing her sword and going across the thin ‘ice’? Of her chest bindings being what saves her? For some reason she chooses in that moment, but it takes a voice over from her father to tell us that. No reason why is seen, shown, understood, we are simply told. Again, your cinematography and storytelling has failed if you have to tell us.
- BTW, the fighting sequences are all pretty bad, and they’re coupled with occasional weird camera movements, tilts, depth of field effects, and more. (As odd as they are on their own, it’s really their infrequency that kills them, for they call attention to themselves in all the wrong ways.)
- Yes, I understand that this isn’t a movie that’s about fighting, but they’ve chosen to include some large-ish fighting set pieces. If they’re going to include them, and present them like major fighting set pieces, then competence would be nice!
- What’s up with Mulan kicking spears and arrows into people all the time? She does it 3 times in the movie. Did someone liked slow motion spins and so they went with it all the time? That was the only effect they knew how to do? It’s a strange homage to the end of Shaolin Soccer?
- The Emperor in this movie was made a bad ass military man. Victor of past battles, ready to ride to meet the big bad, and he even catches an arrow out of the air that was coming for him. Because, of course, can’t have the emperor, ie the state, seem weak… no siree, you have to have the state be mighty and powerful and therefore right to rule over you.
- And the ultimate headshake is that the baddies, in a fight with her teammates that we absolutely don’t care about because we don’t really care about them, use a spiked ball on the end of a long chain as their weapon. That would be fine, except they’re using these long, flexible, weapons in the narrow confines of an alleyway in the imperial city. WRONG WEAPON CHOICE.
- Also also… they have a group of the baddies peel off while charging in what is the most obvious feint in the world and the imperial army falls for it hook line and sinker. And send a lance to chase after them. Right past the other baddies who are still charging. Who completely ignore them for some reason. But that’s OK, because the breakaway baddies immediately murderize the pursuing lance, as you expect them too. This movie is just full of people acting conveniently dumb to allow the plot to move forward.
- There are plenty of bits that foundationally don’t seem to fit or make sense in the greater world. Like the matchmaker herself. Mulan seems to live in this village that consists of these two round buildings that contains – maybe? – 24 families, max. Do you need a matchmaker for that small? Why? Everyone would know everyone! Maybe she’s being matched with other places? Perhaps… but this looks so insular we have to guess that. (In the original she goes into the village which implies many more people, and a crossroads of sorts.)
- And the scene with the Matchmaker is bunk and leaden with contrived storytelling. Her sister’s fear of spiders is planted so that 5 minutes later we can see Mulan throw tea because she’s trying to hide a spider from her sister and… wait, why is her sister even there with her?
- Seriously though, her sister is such a weird add to this movie. Her only purpose seems to be a) to be afraid of spiders, b) which will make Mulan screw up the matchmaker (seriously, that’s WEIRD! Like, given how vacuous a character Mulan is in this version we don’t know if she would have been fine if not for her sister had been there) and c) to get matched at the end and be so excited about it.
- Her father’s sword falling into a pool of molten metal is weird not only for the fact there’s a forge there in a construction site (where there’s no reason for one to be there) but it also looked incredibly fake.
- The whole thing about her not showering and her smelling bad is not only not that funny but the scene where she goes to the lake plays out without much tension or fulfilment. Like, what was the point of all that?
- The fact they talk about the phoenix as a bird that is reborn in fire really is frustrating, because that is 100% not what the phoenix is in Chinese mythology (and really only WE call it the phoenix, because we took their mythological bird and gave it a name of a mythological bird we are familiar with). Sure, her dad kinda couches it by noting “Some say the phoenix emerges from fire…” but that’s weaksauce. It does not belong in a Chinese movie.
- And then… they use it in the most boring and literal manner possible. It shows your path… but not metaphorically, it, like a series of glowing arrows, guides Mulan to the next plot point. Sometimes for no reason… like she has to state out loud “Am I lost? How do we get there?” and then the bird shows up and she makes it to camp.
- The one, ONE, thing I found nifty is they mention the core Tai Chi concept of “Four Ounces to Move a Thousand Pounds.” Yay! Of course, they don’t apply it very much, or very well, in the movie… boo.
- Lemme take a brief aside from everything else to denote: This is NOT what is meant by the term a strong female character. A strong character isn’t one who can punch all the people in all the faces; a strong character is a character that is full and developed and well rounded and intricate and well portrayed and deep and allowed to be, within a story, a full human being, with all the flaws and foibles and quirks and interests and growths and skills and potentials and abilities and desires and etc, etc, etc. By stripping Mulan of her agency and her depth, this movie weakens Mulan, even if she can kick spears out of the sky.
Where all this really, really hurts is how, by removing Mulan’s agency and forcing everything into this Qi/power dominated framework, it completely it undoes much of what rendered the original animated film good, poignant, and moving. The clever Mulan, the Mulan who blends male and female (as do her squadmates!), the Mulan who creates herself, the Mulan who wins because she works for it, the Mulan who truly blossoms, all of that is gone. We’re only left with a hollow tool.
There’s a lot I could say about these many things, but to save this post from becoming a book, here are two great videos that do a mighty fine job of breaking down all we’ve lost in this version of Mulan, and I highly recommend watching them both: this one by Accented Cinema, and this one by Just Write.
And while the original may have had its anachronistic parts, and while this new version was ostensibly made with greater Chinese involvement, it is, in many ways, worse in that regard. To quote an article, speaking about the all-white/western team of writers, producers, and directors: “In sum, it is as if a group of white first-year Asian Studies majors got a US$200 million budget to produce a film on Mulan for their semester final project — knowing just enough to get themselves in trouble, but not enough to realize the gravity of their errors.” (Source here, it’s a good article, I recommend reading it all.)
In the end, I rate Mulan a poor minus. There’s nothing in here that’s really worth a watch, even for curiosity’s sake. Especially since the animated version is still available to us all. Watch it again instead.
PS – I think it is very important here to remind ourselves here of the distinction between Walt Disney Pictures and Walt Disney Animation. Because while it’s easy to fixate on the live-action crap of Walt Disney Pictures, Walt Disney Animation is still making original (Wreck It Ralph, Moana, Zootopia) and originalish (Big Hero 6, Frozen, WiR 2, Frozen 2) content that at least borders on the competent and even can be amazing (see Zootipia).
And no mistake, Walt Disney Pictures is completely bankrupt, making schlock movies that are nothing but remakes of old Disney Animation movies, or other adaptations like Artemis Fowl, Wrinkle In Time, and etc. Fortunately, many of which have done poorly (at least critically), and some have been box office bombs as well. Unfortunately, some have done very well indeed, which keeps them making this crud.
However, I say all this as I think it’s important to not condemn the Disney creators as a whole, for those who are working in the Animation division (and those at Pixar as well) still hold storytelling and creativity in their hearts, and we should honour that.
PPS – I will note too that I’m supremely pleased that this new Mulan is completely bombing at the Chinese box office.
* Note, this is nothing special per se; IMDB archived all the reviews from the old rec.arts.movies.reviews newsgroup, and since I posted my Mulan review there it was duly added to the archive. So it doesn’t mean my original review was amazing or excellently written, it was just there.