Film Review – Mulan (2020)
The Disney money train rolls on.
After numerous delays due to the Covid pandemic, Disney’s live action Mulan (2020) has finally rolled out through their streaming platform, Disney+. The troubled release schedule along with the company’s pricing decision (currently, you can only watch it by dropping $30 on top of a monthly subscription rate) created a significant buzz. Now that it is out, we come to realize that all the talk was for naught. This is a bland retelling of the Chinese folktale, wavering between wanting to set its own identity and capturing the nostalgia for the 1998 animated version.
Say what you will about Disney animated features – the watering down of real-world problems, the emphasis on idealized fantasy, etc. – what they do so well is take straight forward concepts and present them so that it adheres to both young and adult sentimentalities. This is especially true for the “Disney Renaissance” period of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, where they basically perfected the formula. The music, colorful characters, and high-end animation made the stories easy to digest and themes simple to understand. There was a lot of charm that went into them, and that includes the 1998 Mulan.
That is not the case with this latest iteration. The romance, music, and charm has been stripped away, leaving us with a dull action adventure where no one seems to be having that much fun. It’s a lifeless, by-the-numbers product attempting to appeal to both domestic and foreign markets. Some credit should be given in how it tries not to be a carbon copy of its predecessor (I’m looking at you, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King) but that’s little consolation for how forgettable this is.
The story: Hua Mulan (Yifei Lui) is a precocious young woman living in ancient China. Her free spirit puts her in conflict with the strictly held traditions of her society, especially when it comes to gender roles. An early scene with the Matchmaker (Pei-Pei Cheng) is meant to assign Mulan with a prosperous husband, but that interaction goes sour immediately. Mulan’s independent persona calls her to act when the invading Rourans – led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) – attack the country determined to overthrow the Emperor (Jet Li). One man from every family is ordered to fight for the army. The only man in Mulan’s family is her father Zhou (Tzi Ma), an aging warrior who can barely manage to hold his sword upright. To save her father, Mulan steals his sword and armor and takes his place, impersonating a man under the name Hua Jun.
The setup has a problem that was barely covered in the animated version but is amplified here. Both emphasize a progressive, feminist view of the central character. However, where the animated version focused on a female choosing her own path despite the rules of law, the live action version jumbles that theme by juxtaposing it with ideas of honor and loyalty. This Mulan is meant to push against conventional traditions, but she fights for an Emperor and for a country that maintain those rules. She breaks the law by being a woman and enlisting in the army, and yet she sides with the very establishment that oppresses her for being a woman. Sure, her being there likely saves her father’s life, but not once does she question the edict that prevents her from being her true self.
Seen in a different light, the clunkiness of the writing (Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin, Lauren Hynek) and direction (Niki Caro) make it so that the villain has more of a sympathetic journey than anyone else. Bori Khan is supposed to be the evildoer, but we learn that his mission is based out of revenge. The Emperor stole his people’s land and killed his loved ones. Bori Khan turns to a powerful, shapeshifting witch (a shamefully underused Li Gong) to help clear his path to the Imperial City. There is enough backstory to Bori Khan for us to at least understand his perspective. We learn nothing of the Emperor other than he lives in a lavish palace and wears decorative clothes made of gold. Jet Li’s performance is directed to be stoic, almost passive – there is no personality to the Emperor that allow us to connect with him.
In terms of action, the choreography and special effects heavily borrow from Chinese martial arts/Wuxia films. But the cinematography and editing construct the action scenes like a modern American blockbuster, needlessly shooting people from waist up from multiple different angles and cutting between every punch and kick. The action is indecipherable, it has energy but lacks visual coherency. Action and fight scenes are often handled in the same way as a dance number, so why on Earth is it only partially shown? One of the most impressive things to watch is people performing difficult feats and making it look effortless. When the filmmaking gets in the way, it pulls the rug out of all the hard work that goes into the set pieces.
As an action/martial arts film with a female protagonist, Mulan pales in comparison to the hundreds (maybe even thousands) of Chinese produced counterparts. As a Disney movie, it severely lacks the charisma and magic associated with the company. It is pretty to look at, but that’s all it has to offer. Once we dig beneath the façade do we realize how shallow it actually is.