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Mulan (2020)

Yes, gentle readers, I know I’m behind the curve on this. I deliberately waited until the movie was free to watch on Disney+, for a multitude of reasons I already covered in a previous blog post. Which is rather strange, as I can remember a time when I was chomping at the bit to see Mulan (2020). Of all the live-action Disney remakes, it was this one — THIS one — that had the most potential by a landslide.

Unlike the vast majority of Disney’s back catalogue, Mulan (1998) is a film that’s beloved enough to hit the nostalgia mark, yet also dated enough to leave room for a new and improved take — exactly the kind of film that deserves to be remade. Plus, without the animal sidekicks or the songs (aside from a few callbacks in the dialogue and the score), this one would have the room to be its own creation and not simply a creatively bankrupt cash grab. Even better, it’s a female-driven story directed by Niki Caro, late of the woefully underrated McFarland, USA.

Then again, Caro is still a white woman. In fact, the screenwriters and most of the producers are white (or at least “not Asian”) as well. Yes, the cast is entirely Asian, but when the storytellers and filmmakers are telling a story of a culture that isn’t their own, that’s kind of a big problem.

Even worse, it doesn’t help that Liu Yifei and Disney itself have both tied this movie directly to human rights abuses by the Chinese government. And of course that’s not even getting started on the ongoing COVID-19 plague, dropping box office grosses and foot traffic to historic lows. Thus Disney panicked and made the controversial (read: aggressively stupid) choice to charge goddamn $30 — in addition to the monthly Disney+ subscription fee! — to see this movie on its rescheduled opening day.

So, yeah, I was absolutely going to let this one settle. I had to wait three months to get a more informed perspective on all this, and Disney can take their $30 upcharge straight to hell.

Anyway, the film opens with a prologue in which a young Mulan (played as a young girl by Crystal Rao, and later as an adult by Liu Yifei) gets herself into all sorts of hijinks around the local village, and it ends with a preternatural show of martial arts skill that scares the other villagers away.

See, we’re told that Mulan is gifted with magically powerful chi, which is something that only men are allowed to use. Women obtain honor for their families by marrying and raising kids, and doing apparently anything else (such as “witchcraft”, in this particular instance) brings dishonor to the family.

Not even five minutes in, and there’s so much wrong here that I don’t know where to begin.

First of all, I won’t go into detail about all the cultural and historical inaccuracies of the film — more qualified critics than I have already done that legwork. For my part, I’m just a white guy with fond childhood memories of the original Disney animated film; and also with fond childhood memories of Dragon Ball, Yu Yu Hakusho, Naruto, the Toonami block, etc. I expect there are a lot more ’90s kids in that overlap than Disney thought to account for, and every single one of them knows damn well that’s not how chi works!

Of course, that might be forgiven if this was treated as a work of fantasy. If it’s a fictional universe, the filmmakers are perfectly free to make up whatever rules they want regarding chi and superpowers. The problem is that the film was supposedly made and marketed as a more grounded and realistic take on the source material. Which means that once again — as we keep seeing time and time again with these goddamn Disney live-action fucking remakes — the filmmakers tried to have it both ways and succeeded at neither.

Though to be entirely fair, telling a fantastical legend in the “gritty” and “realistic” trappings of its historical place and time is a good way to get a flop like King Arthur (2004). Instead, we’ve got a flop like King Arthur: Legend of the Sword — a film that commits to neither historical authenticity nor sweeping fantasy, and indeed commits to nothing but a desperate plea for box office dollars. But I digress.

Let’s move on to the movie’s trite, ham-fisted, po-faced, pathetically brain-dead attempts at feminism. It’s bad enough that the filmmakers beat us over the head with archaic misogynist cliches, without anything new or intelligent or even particularly sincere to add to the conversation. When the actors deliver this blunt and wretched dialogue like its a middle school production of Shakespeare, the film’s discussions about gender roles and sexual equality are more cartoonish than the animated movie. How in the nine blue blazing hells is that even possible?!

Getting back to the point of trying to have it both ways and failing miserably, Mulan herself is emblematic of this. A fine case in point is her fiasco with the matchmaker (here played by Cheng Pei-Pei) — too heightened to be plausibly real, yet not heightened enough to be any fun. It’s just pathetic to watch.

An even more unfortunate casualty is the training montage. In the animated film, this is where Mulan learns to prove herself, discovering her own strength as she earns the trust and respect of her comrades. Compare that to the remake, in which every single character is written and performed with all the distinctive personality of paper dolls. Although the filmmakers did include a soldier who gets kicked out of the army for dishonesty — that was a neat way of making the stakes for Mulan more concrete.

Moreover, it’s been firmly established that Mulan herself was a perfectly capable fighter even before she arrived at camp, which robs her training of any and all value. Hence the filmmakers gave Mulan the imperative to hide her powers and her full potential, thus serving as replacement dramatic tension. Trouble is, Mulan has already been tasked with hiding her true sex — something the filmmakers put significantly greater emphasis on — so a second thing to hide is superfluous.

Then again, Mulan’s superpowers were clearly intended as a metaphor for the special talents and strengths that this young woman has to conceal to survive in a misogynistic and patriarchal world. Though I get the intention, it’s still too vague, shallow, and frankly condescending to work as an effective allegory, especially since there’s no good established reason for why women aren’t allowed to use magic. It also deals irreparable damage to any illusion this film might have had as a grounded work of historical fiction, and tying these superpowers to chi will immediately drive away the very Chinese audience that this film was built to court.

What’s worse, men are free to use whatever chi they have access to (even though, with one minor exception late in the climax, the male Chinese characters never do), which means that Mulan is perfectly free to tap into her full potential while she’s in her masculine disguise. Thus Mulan is free to be her truest self when she’s disguised as a man, and that epiphany does make for a sweet little moment (plus a legitimately awesome spear-fighting scene) when it happens. However, thinking this through to its logical conclusion, this might make a neat allegory for trans-sexuality, transgenderism, transvestitism, etc., and of course the filmmakers are neither willing nor able to go there. So this wrinkle only serves to nullify one of Mulan’s most crucial stated reasons for keeping her cover.

In summary, Mulan’s training in the remake takes away everything that made its analogue in the animated film significant, dramatic, and iconic (including, yes, that song) without offering anything of value to fill the void. Pathetic.

With all of that said, I will give the film this much: In the animated film, Mulan’s cover is blown through an accident. In the remake, it’s her own conscious and deliberate choice to cast off the disguise and be her true self. That’s a worthy improvement, and the big reveal is appropriately moving.

But any points I give for that, I have to take right back a hundred times for the remake’s use of Mulan’s new chi powers.

Remember when the animated Mulan figured out how to use the climbing aids, proving her worth and earning the respect of her peers through tenacity and ingenuity? Here, she carries a couple of buckets up a mountain of stairs with her chi powers. Remember when the animated Mulan took out a whole army of Huns with a single cannon (thereby racking up the single highest body count of any Disney Princess by a wide margin) through her own valor and resourcefulness? Here, she fights her way through an army with her chi powers before tricking the Rourans (we’ll get back to them in a second) into killing themselves through their own stupidity.

The Mulan of the animated film was a hero because she was insightful and creative as well as brave. Mulan of the live-action remake accomplishes everything through powers she was innately born with, mastered without effort or sacrifice on her part, so ill-defined that they do whatever the filmmakers need her to accomplish in the moment. What a massively epic failure.

Let’s move on to our antagonists. The good news is, the grey-skinned Huns with their yellow slanted eyes are out of the picture. The bad news is, we’ve got the black-clad Rourans and their scarred-up leader (Bori Khan, played by Jason Scott Lee). There’s a bit of lip service about how Bori Khan and his Rouran hordes want revenge because the Emperor has conquered their lands and slain their fathers, but of course the film doesn’t go too deeply into anything that might make the Emperor look like a villain. So — like the Huns — the Rourans pretty much want to kill the Emperor and conquer China just to be evil. Bottom line: It’s a lateral trade.

With one exception.

Gong Li is on hand to play Xianniang, a shape-shifting warrior witch working with the Rourans. She’s the Black Queen of the chess board, the most powerful living weapon in the Rouran arsenal, yet Bori Khan and his generals insist on treating her as less than a guard dog. She’s greater than all of them, yet she’ll never be accepted among them. Yet she continues to serve them because she’d never be accepted anywhere else.

Xianniang presents herself as a kind of cautionary tale to Mulan. This is who Mulan is, this is what she can do, and it’s where she’s going to end up. Though of course Mulan herself denies this.

This shape-shifting witch is the single most interesting character in the film, and she’s perfectly demonstrative of everything this film gets fundamentally wrong. In this character, we see all the ways that the filmmakers’ concept of chi is so ill-defined that it breaks the plot completely.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s left an open question as to why the Chinese and the Rourans — two openly militaristic cultures — would scorn women of such tremendous tactical value as a woman who could use magic. The obvious answer is that powerful men are afraid of women who could surpass them. The answer’s right there, and Xianniang was ideally placed to voice that notion, but the film never goes there.

Additionally, Xianniang asks why Mulan remains loyal to the emperor, and Mulan never comes up with a decent answer. Mulan has reasons to be loyal to her military comrades, sure, but what the hell does she owe the monarch of a culture that’s done nothing but keep her down? In the animated film, Mulan herself says she acted to prove that she could “do something right.” That doesn’t work nearly as well in the remake, because live-action Mulan wasn’t established as an impulsive, clumsy, chronically late fuckup like her animated counterpart.

The bottom line is, the filmmakers use Xianniang to raise all sorts of questions and none of them get answers because nobody knew what to do with the character. So she gets to show off a few VFX shots before getting thrown away. Such a waste.

The performances are awful across the board. I hate to say it, but I have to wonder if the all-Asian cast might have been a hindrance, with actors delivering lines in a language that isn’t their first. Seriously, if Disney had the guts to simply let the actors speak their native tongue and release a big-budget tentpole flick with subtitles, we might have gotten a far superior product. And if they had given the actors a Chinese director or even a bilingual director — instead of one from freaking New Zealand! — that might’ve helped matters as well.

The action isn’t all that great either. The filmmakers are pretty good with one-on-one fights (like the aforementioned spear fight halfway through), but woefully inept at massive group battles. Thus the filmmakers do everything they possibly can to reduce huge set pieces into series of one-on-one melees. That greatly reduces the scope of the action sequences, and greatly diminishes the film’s standing as an ostensible war movie.

Oh, and the camera rotates a lot on its axis. That is seriously Niki Caro’s solution to making fight scenes look more badass, just rotate the camera really quick. Say what you will about Zack Snyder and his speed-ramping, that was nowhere near as nauseating, amateurish, lazy, laughable, or outright pathetic as this.

(Side note: For comparison, Leigh Whannell demonstrated with Upgrade and The Invisible Man (2020) that rotating the camera strategically can help make a great fight sequence into something stellar. It should be used a spice, not as a goddamn entree.)

On a parting note, I suppose I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the phoenix that shows up throughout the picture. It’s some kind of spirit guide or embodiment of Mulan’s ancestors and it guides Mulan to where she needs to be and nobody else can see it or some shit like that, I don’t know, I stopped giving a fuck a long time ago.

Mulan (2020) is a vastly inferior remake. Say what you will about the animated film and its many, MANY flaws, but at least it’s fun to sit through. And — I cannot possibly stress this enough — this movie is NOT FUN. Seriously, Eddie Murphy had no business ever being in any film about Mulan, but I’d happily welcome him to this movie if it meant bringing any shred of legitimate comic relief — that’s how tedious this movie is.

The movie is not fun or enjoyable or uplifting or enlightening in any way, shape, or form. The characters (with one or two wasted exceptions) are bland, every word of dialogue falls flat on the floor, the action scenes (by and large) are a joke, and the filmmakers had no idea what balance of fantasy and realism they wanted to go for.

This was a golden opportunity for the filmmakers to adapt a classic story and a beloved animated film to comment on and reflect modern ideals of feminism. Instead, it’s a condescending misfire that wastes a reported $200 million budget on a hollow shell of a film. Even seeing this movie for free (not counting the Disney+ subscription), the painfully slow two hours were too steep a price to pay for this one. Avoid at all costs.

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