For the past several years, I’ve attempted to watch as many Oscar-nominated films as possible, and for the past two years I have written reviews of each film and posted them to this blog. Alas, I always run out of time and cannot see everything. This year’ ceremony has been delayed, and I started reviewing before nominations were announced, giving me a decent chance at wide coverage. Today we cover…
[2 nominations for Best Visual Effects and Best Costume Design]
Mulan is a pretty controversial movie for various reasons. On one end of the spectrum, we have very serious political comments made by the film’s star, Liu Yifei. On the other end of the spectrum we have die-hard fans of the original animated film who hate any and all changes. I should judge the movie on its own merits, and not allow these controversies to cloud my judgement. But that is, of course, easier said than done. For better or for worse (it’s definitely for the worse), my knowledge of geopolitical issues and history is limited, yet my knowledge of an animated Disney movie that came out when I was already a teenager is solid. So as embarrassing as this is to admit, I can set aside the very serious issues regarding Hong Kong protests, but have a harder time setting aside comparisons to a cartoon.
Let’s start with the comparisons. As a HUGE fan of the original, I know it inside out and love virtually everything about it. So I was right there along with everyone else in my disgust when I heard there would be NO music in this musical. Whaaat? But Mulan featured the BEST MUSICAL TRAINING MONTAGE OF ALL TIME!! How can this count as a Mulan remake without a bunch of dudes belting out “BE A MAN!” Outrageous. Well training montages can still be fun even if they’re not musical, so at least it’ll be great watching her improve. Oh, turns out in this version she’s just kinda born with super fight powers that nobody ever bothered having to teach her. Lame.They also got rid of our comic relief talking animal (Mushu the dragon, voiced by Eddie Murphy), a staple in any Disney flick. Hmm… That one might be okay. I mean, as long as we have a super dreamy Captain Li Shang to swoon over things might still be ok. Wait, what’s that? THEY GOT RID OF LI SHANG?! Whaaat? And hold up- that added a random witch?! No no no no no. What the heck is the point of a remake if you suck out everything that makes it great?!
But then I watched the movie. And I’ve gotta say… I’m not mad. The changes make complete sense to me. Mulan isn’t head and shoulders above most Disney flicks because it had the better music or talking animals; it’s one of the best because of the solid story and main character. Mulan KICKS ASS. She is a certified badass who fights the invaders AND the patriarchy. In the live action version, I think the filmmakers had to make a choice; we can keep to hijinx,music, and animals and try to keep things kinda light, adding no value beyond a basic moneygrab for Disney. Or we can make this action movie a legitimate action movie. We can’t do both. I’ve only watched a couple live actions remakes so far, but I coincidentally just watched back to back animated-vs-live-action Aladdins yesterday since we temporarily got Disney+ for this Oscar binge. Aladdin stuck pretty close to the original, but beyond correcting some outdated racism and sexism along the way, it didn’t really capture the vibe of the original. Our live-action animals just weren’t as expressive and funny as their animated originals (hence Mushu the talking dragon likely would have also fizzled). Our action scenes felt flat (they missed an opportunity for a super cool parkour homage during Aladdin’s introductory chase through the market). The genie’s larger-than-life physical comedy just couldn’t keep up with the humor of Robin Williams and his shroom-addled animators. I think Mulan would have fallen into these same traps, cheapening the story’s value.
Here’s a bit of a tangent: I wrote a novel called Hope the Little Fox (you should buy it and read it) about a girl who wants to learn how to fight, but isn’t allowed because girls can’t fight. Looking back, it’s obvious to me that Mulan was something of an influence on my tale. I was surprised when I realized that most people thought my book was a kids’ book. I’m still baffled. Why do we equate violence with children’s entertainment? Hope the Little Fox ends up STABBING AND KILLING A DUDE in the very beginning, and LIGHTS ANOTHER DUDE ON FIRE. Oh, what a lighthearted romp! Animated Mulan was about a girl joining the military to fight IN WAR. That is heavy heavy stuff. It’s not supposed to be fun. People come back from war with PTSD and tales of depravity. Live action Mulan isn’t here to play. In live action Mulan, we watch a ton of people die. In one legitimately scary disturbing scene, we watch the invaders BLOW UP dozens of Mulan’s friends. It’s super crazy. And I’m totally here for it.
Instead of fun songs and animals, we went ALL OUT with our violent action scenes. And they were legit incredible action scenes. People were running up walls. Archers were doing pummel horse tricks on their real horses. Mulan was drop-kicking arrows out of the sky. I mean… it was AWESOME. Mulan is a martial artist, so let’s see some martial arts! And have these martial arts on jaw-dropping landscapes, or in the midst of damn impressive avalanche just to really add some gravitas. The sweeping visuals are what earned Mulan both of it’s Oscar nominations. Combine some top notch costumes with some top notch visual effects, and you wind up with a truly stunning and engaging flick. Throwing a song into the middle of it would just knock everything else off balance. The rest of the changes are forgivable. We can’t have a talking dragon, but we do have an absolutely beautiful mystical phoenix that helps Mulan find her way. We can’t have Mulan fall for her commander, cuz looking back, that was totally inappropriate (like if he’s the drill sergeant and she’s still a kid living at home, is he an adult grooming a teenager? Eww.) Much safer to have her fall for her equal, a fellow soldier, than wade into that mess. I thought I would hate the addition of the witch, but I surprisingly didn’t. She adds a great foil for Mulan; another powerful woman scorned by society who finds her outlet and acceptance in the only place she can. What a great cautionary tale to not antagonize or repress those you fear. And with her in the mix, the film easily passes the Bechtel test! Huzzah for strong women! Especially when those strong women both provide us with some of the best fight sequences in the whole movie.
The films is, of course, not perfect. It’s nominated for costumes and effects, not screenplay or best picture. Some of the dialogue was kinda forced. I didn’t feel any chemistry between Mulan and whoever the hell her love interest was. The final action scene was, I thought, far too long. And despite everything I just wrote, I still think we could have had a little more fun with some earlier scenes. (the training montage was very good, but could have been even better. Everyone knows training montages are the BEST part of any film with a training montage). But for an action movie, it was solid. Great fights. Great female characters. Great landscapes. Great lessons. Etc.
PS: Here’s that training montage from the original. God it’s so good. (No clue why this clip adds in footage from a later scene at the end.)