Let’s talk about Mulan.
It’s time for another experiment! Mulan was meant to be Disney’s big release in March and… well you can guess the story. While there appears to be some life in the cinema after a fairly successful showing for Tenet, Disney decided they didn’t want to take the risk with one of their big 2020 tentpoles. Instead, they decided to release it onto Disney+ with a premium fee. So unlike Trolls: World Tour where all you had to do was pay on a normal VOD basis, you had to be subscribed to Disney+ and then pay that fee on top. That’s a lot of money to pay for a film! The question for Disney is if they will be able to make money using this method. The question for is if Mulan is any good.
Before I get on with things, it’s time to discuss the elephant in the room regarding Mulan. Well, elephants. First, the initial controversy which appeared to derail the PR for this film until Covid-19 distracted us all. It all centres around lead actress Yifeu Liu. For those unaware, the people of Hong Kong have been protesting against the fact China is extending its reach into the region, notably with its extradition rules. China have been reacting to this in their typical way of letting their police beat everyone up. You can read about it here. Liu on social media expressed her support for the Hong Kong police’s brutality and well supporting a dictatorship doing dictatorship things isn’t going to give you good press no matter what. But that’s one idiot having bad opinions, there are probably loads of them on every film. The big controversy was only revealed recently.
Some of Mulan was filmed in the region of Xinjiang. This is a fairly unknown region to those of us but it has been the centre of a lot of news recently because it is where the Uighur Muslim internment camps are. Again you can read about this here. Not only that but in the credits, Disney thanks the security service that operates the internment camps. While I don’t want to go into much detail as I couldn’t give justice to it as a mere film critic but this is one of the biggest human rights travesties since the 40s. Disney filming here would be like Charlie Chaplin filming in Krakow during World War 2 and thanking the Nazis for being so accomodating. It’s insulting and casts a very dark light over the entire production.
But we must review the film as a film rather than controversies so let’s get on with that. Mulan brings dishonour to her family by not being a typical woman doing all she can to get a good husband. But when the Emperor demands that every family sends a man to fight a war against the Northern invaders and she sees her father can barely stand, she pretends to be a man and joins the Chinese army instead.
This is based on the original Disney cartoon, yes all of it comes from Chinese folklore but the Disney Mulan is best known so we’re going with that, so let’s talk about the changes. Yes, they actually tried to change it and thank god! I am sick to the back teeth of the bulk of Disney remakes which are basically a shot to shot remake. They are cash grabs and the fact we reward them for doing the smallest amount of work has irritated me to no end. So yes, that means fan favourite things are gone such as Mushu and the songs. Well, the songs are still somewhat alive as many of the musical cues are used in the soundtrack which is a nice tough but there’s no live-action version of I’ll Make a Man Out of You which will disappoint many. But thank god someone has decided to use some imagination and do a different take!
But then again, the changes are rubbish. In the original Disney Mulan, she was a fairly normal woman. Yes she didn’t fit in with her village and wasn’t predisposed to being feminine, but she had no unique abilities. In order to be a great warrior, she has to work damn hard for it. That made the film more special and a better message to children in my opinion. Yes girls can be warriors if they work hard at it. Here, Mulan has Chi which appears to be a vague magical thing which makes her an amazing warrior without really trying. This absolutely sucks for the story. Instead of the growth of the character where she really has prove she can be a warrior in training sequences, and a badass song, she’s just good. Woop. Because that’s more interesting.
With this and the addition of a new villain, another woman who is able to use her chi to be very powerful, it sort of dilutes that original message. Now the message is ‘Yes you can be a powerful warrior accepted and even worshipped by men, but you best have some natural talent just waiting to come out. Oh, you don’t? Well, I suppose arranged marriage is good enough for you’. The attempt is to create a new message which is ‘Men don’t trust strong women and will cast them out’ which in fairness, is a good theme if executed right. The problem is that the film barely wants to go through with it. Much like the cartoon, Mulan is cast out of the Chinese Army not because she is a woman but because she is a witch. She then has a showdown talk with the villain where she tries to lure her to the dark side, she goes back to the army and have a brief debate, she’s back on their good side again and the witch stuff is forgiven. You can’t really make this a major theme without doing the work to actually emphasise it.
And there’s no character at all in the film. I have spent two hours with Mulan in this film and the only things I can tell you about her is that she likes her family, is not really a proper lady and has this chi thing going for her. I don’t know anything else. She is a small list of personality traits that help push the story forward rather than a real person I can get to know and like throughout the film. While I think going for the big epic feel in this remake was the right thing, you can do that without losing the big characters and personalities that made up the original film. We had a great supporting cast in the original film which started off as quasi-villains because of their antagonism towards Mulan before becoming good friends and funny guys to be around. Instead, here we get some people who get a few lines to try and push Mulan’s buttons with some classic sexism lines right out of a 1970s PTA. The whole thing lacks any personality.
And then there is the action. This is the true disappointment because it is complete rubbish. At best, it is passable. At worst, it’s a mess. The film looks good and is shot well in any other scene but when things get heated and swords start slashing, the camera goes haywire and decides you don’t need to see what’s going on. Then when the camera is giving you a good look at the action and the seemingly quite well-done choreography, the camera decides it’s going to spin for god knows what reason. Look, it’s great you can pull off a unique trick with the camera that on paper would be cool. But if it is not in service of the action on screen, don’t do it.
I’m glad they tried to do something with this Mulan remake. Unlike most of the Disney reboots we’ve seen, it isn’t a shot for shot remake completely lacking imagination. But when you do change things you risk getting rid what made the original good and replacing it with crap. That is what has happened here. All the character and positive, strong messages from the original is gone. It has been replaced by a weak message, a complete lack of personality and also headache-inducing action. It does have some pretty vistas but the recent news makes you wonder if this was Xinjiang where the horrible human rights atrocities are happening and that just makes you miserable again. A complete flop and I’m glad it won’t touch a UK cinema.