The animated Mulan film is one of my favorite Disney and normal films of all time. It’s got amazing art, characters, the best Disney song until Moana released, and a strong message for not just woman, but people of all types who are held back for one reason or another. That made the announcement and production of a live action version both suspect and intriguing to me. Now, after copious COViD related delays it’s released on Disney+
The plot of the film remains close to that of the animated counterpart. China is invaded by northerners and the emperor conscripts an army in order to fight back. When it comes time for Mulan’s family to send it’s soldier all who is available is her ailing father, so Mulan takes up his sword and armor in his stead. From there it is up to Mulan to keep her true nature secret while training to face the invading army. In the process her secret is exposed but so it’s the Khan armies plan to assassinate the emperor. Mulan must work with her former allies and show she is just as capable as any soldier.
The changes the film tries to make in broadening the story makes sense, and with its similar structure it is able to build what should be a fine enough story. Unfortunately the film fails in every way it was trying to succeed and misses the point in the process.
It is hard to deny the films beauty. Every frame is gorgeous, every shot unique and expressive, and clearly has a form of passion brought into it. That makes it all the more sad that it wastes every gorgeous set, costume, angle, and frame. Part of this is the film’s frinetic pacing. In an attempt to be impactful but fails so many shots are made to be quick and hit hard. The best example would be Aquaman. That too could be called frinetic, but that same energy is used to make sure the picture is clean, readable, and given time to process. This is most noticeable in the action scenes. In a film that looks like an epic and should want to show off incredible fight choreography to match other martial arts and kung-fu films it instead is often too close or too cut up to give the action full, fluid movement. It is not the same as a jump cut or shaky cam. Instead it is closer to losing frames between shots.
This editing style hinders the broad, mostly slapstick comedy, making it near unintelligible. So many quick cuts to pan to a large gag feel off. The comedy outside of that is all stale, bargain basement war buddy shtick with no flare. It is all the worse that the film has very little comic relief in it. There has been much made before the films release at the lack of Mushu, but now that the film is out his absence is the symptom of a larger problem.
Most of the characters in the film are dull. An argument could be made about many in the original, but the animated feel and exaggerated voice acting allows for some personality to filter through. This movie seeks to fix that by giving everyone no personality. Instead most characters are wrapped in talking about virtues, honor, and truth over any substance. This leads to what little chemistry and romance that exists to be so far in the background it could have been cut out all together.
Those problems make a bad, inconsistent movie. Unfortunately it gets worse because it didn’t seem to get the point of the story it’s a remake of. Mulan is about honor, but it’s more about how anyone of any gender can bring honor by following their path. This film thinks it’s about that. The problem is that it overcomplicates everything making Mulan special.
The only thing that set Mulan apart in the original was her sex, and a not all that helpful ancestral dragon. She could do everything a man could do, proved her worth and then put a twist on it with the climax where they had to do something only women could do in order to save the emperor. That’s now changed to Mulan having magical chi that is good for men but bad for women to have. So, now Mulan doesn’t do everything a man can, but can use magic to help. This is tried to play in contrast to the witch the invaders use. She too is a woman of high chi that was exiled for it and decided to turn against China. Only it fails.
The reason the compare and contrast between Mulan and the witch fails is what feels like missing scenes or unclear filmmaking. The big push that sets Mulan apart, supposedly, is her bond with the army and how she is such a great and brave soldier. The problem is that there are no scenes of that, that the rest of the garrison saw. There is one fight where she uses chi and it impresses the soldiers but that is it. Outside of one scene it’s played like she is a tight part of the army despite hardly being with them. This all makes the redemption arc for the witch character make no sense because she was clearly not accepted and it is unclear what the difference is other than the side they chose to fight on. It would have made more sense if it was against oppressive people, but that’s not discussed. It’s just that Mulan is working for the emperor and people like her. In fact, she was expelled from the army because she lied, not because she was a woman. That makes it feel all the dumber she had to cross-dress since once the final battle comes not even the emperor seems to mind.
The focus on her lying over her gender could be interesting if it was drilled into the viewers heads that women shouldn’t be soldiers. Though, in retrospect that seems more like a garrison rule to not fraternize with women and her father’s restrictive world view. It would help if the society was explained more and given a context and not just told. Because, as the movie is now, the bigger lesson is that it’s bad to lie to your family and it’s more important to be devoted to them even if they hold you back until you do something big to prove them wrong… which you shouldn’t have needed to do.
This must be how people who cares about Lion King or Beauty and the Beast, or Dumbo (haha I kid, no one cares about Dumbo) felt. I had no drive to see those films because I didn’t care about the originals. I saw the originals but they aren’t important to me. Mulan is important to me, and making it a war epic is such a strong idea that is totally squandered by the lack of characters, societal world building, hacked up editing, and no coherent thematic through line. A
lso it’s about protecting China and clearly hyper-made to appeal to their market. (Mandatory thing about how Chinese people are not bad, but they are under a repressive regime that uses communism in the wrong ways) A push to make movies marketable in China makes sense as it is a growing industry and world market, but forcing changes to fit with what they (by they I mean both audiences and the content review board that makes sure the government likes the film) like removes any authorial creativity and keeps companies subservient to a country that regularly abuses human rights.
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