Mulan is already one of the most controversial films of 2020. Its controversy started well before the film got delayed because of the COVID pandemic, back when the lead actress of the film tweeted in support for the Hong Kong police at the height of their brutality towards protestors, leading to a Twitter hashtag of #boycottMulan. This was something that the Disney incorporation was probably quietly not too worried about, mainly because most evidence shows that people tend to not boycott a company or a product for too long. In fact, it’s actually estimated that large portions of people will reuse a company they previously boycotted within three months of initially taking part in the boycott.
So I don’t think Disney was too worried but they must have had a bit of a worry about ticket sales, but of course the other reason Disney weren’t too worried was because the film is clearly aimed a Chinese cinema-going market. This seems to be the big market for cinema producers now, which, if you want to make a lot of money with your film, you need to appeal to the second biggest film-going audience in the world. And Disney kind of needs a hit considering that they haven’t had success with the Star Wars films in China.
Mulan makes total sense to be a remake in that sense. It’s clear that the controversy came from after its delay. It got delayed past its March planned cinema release, and it then, however, has an even bigger problem now that its planned September comeback—which would have really boosted cinemas—was ditched entirely to go straight to Disney+, something that desperately hurt cinemas at a time that they really couldn’t afford it. This was later followed up by the knowledge that not only was this going straight to Disney+, it required an extra £20 on top of your subscription to view it, something that will be in effect until December. And just as this review was getting written it came out that the filming had taken place near where there had been human rights abuses towards the Uighur population.
Needless to say, this film is a massive cluster of controversy, bad timings and price-gouging. Though, however, I will not take these into account in my judgement of the film as a film; I just felt mentioning it was a factor because I didn’t want to get any backlash for not mentioning it. However, I will take into account the fact that for a single person this cost the price of two cinema tickets on top of a Premium subscription. Now I’m not saying Disney+ isn’t worth it – it’s actually got an amazing selection when you really think about it, and Disney hasn’t pushed the side too much of their legacy content. And to be fair it’s probably going to save you a lot on DVD sales by having it. But that is a massive way to gouge their audience to make up for the fact that they weren’t going to make a big cinema debut, something I’m worried about with the upcoming Black Widow movie.
Now I was incredibly cynical about Mulan, especially considering that the news was coming out that Mushu wasn’t going to be a character in this version and many more things were changed. It’s surprising however that once again this film got a bit of a backlash for that reason. I’m personally not a fan of the Disney one-for-one remakes like Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, as anyone who has read my reviews of those films will point out. Though my cynical side was definitely pointing out, yeah, the decision to cut the music was basically made to appeal to China, something which again was done because this film was created mainly for that market.
Now, the Mulan 2020 version in terms of its plot is not much different from its source material. It’s the same basic story: Mulan, played by Yifei Liu, takes her father’s armour to defend China after an invasion from the Rouran invaders, led by Böri Khan (played by Jason Scott Lee) with backup from the witch Li (played by Rosalind Chao). Mulan enlists in the army, disguising herself as a man in order to prove herself on the battlefield and bring her family honour. It’s mostly similar however it’s very much predicated on the fact that you’ve seen the original movie – this film does not introduce much of anything in the same way. The biggest example of this is the famous scene of Mulan stealing the armour and disguising herself is entirely removed from this movie, which is a baffling change for me. If there was one scene I really wanted them to do almost one-for-one it was that scene – it’s one of the best scenes in the entire original movie. The fact the songs are removed is not the worst thing ever. I might be in a bit of a weird minority for this one but I’ve never been a huge fan of most of the songs in Mulan. The only one I think actually works is ‘Make A Man Out of You’, and again, you wouldn’t be able to get that song in considering that the Hun are not the villains this time. Again, I don’t get it; what was with this change? You even gave the villain the surname of Khan which implies Mongolian origin, and it would be more historically accurate. Other changes have included the fact that Shang’s character has been pretty much entirely removed from this one. The commander this time is Tung who’s played by Donnie Yen and he’s a decent performer in this film but again suffers the same problem that a lot of this film has.
The big issue right now is of course the fact that the changes don’t really add to this movie; they just feel like they take away more, and there’s a bunch of examples I can give. The biggest problem I have with the film is that Mulan is not written to be an interesting character. I don’t know whether this is down to the direction Yifei Liu was given but she is so bland in this movie. And that’s a problem with a lot of the performers in this one, everyone’s kind of just bland. But the weird thing is also the use of supernatural elements as well. We’ve now introduced a new villain, Li, who can transform himself into eagles and is generally magic. Here’s the thing though: we spent half of this film removing most of the supernatural elements that were in the original movie – Mushu’s not here, we don’t have the spirits of the ancestors, so putting this in now feels like it’s out of place. It’s weird considering most of this film has been a historical epic up to that point. Now, introducing a female villain might have been genuinely interesting because it would have been a nice contrast from the original, however the choices they make with this character are bafflingly misguided, and as a result she’s kind of a non-entity by the end of the film. They try to give her some very interesting motivations, but it ends up undoing the character.
This film also clearly wants to be Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; it has so much of the action that that film was famous for, but the thing is the way they’ve shot it means that the action scenes most of the time look awful – the frame rates are all over the place. The frames have been clearly shot to be as quick as possible, but they haven’t been able to edit them properly and as a result it all kind of looks a bit out of place. Plus, for the all the director Niki Caro has talked about in terms of this not being a superhero movie, they certainly tried to make this look like and feel like a superhero movie! Mulan is said at the beginning of the film to have amazing levels of chi and this is supposedly what makes her a great fighter, which undercuts the original message massively – this isn’t someone working against exceptional circumstances; this is the Chosen One suppressing their powers until the right moment. And this whole thing screams of Chosen One narrative, something I really would like writers to start getting away from. As a result, there’s no progression for Mulan’s character, something that was really great about the first movie. Mulan also doesn’t really have as much of a rapport with much of her fellow recruits, and I hate saying that considering that they’re all talented actors, and I really hate it considering that one of them is played by one of my favourite Magic The Gathering Youtubers, Jimmy Wong. But I can’t ignore the fact that the writing is not there to give them enough personality to make me really care about this entire cast, because again the focus is entirely on Mulan and she’s not that interesting this time around.
Now believe me, I could go into a massive spoiler discussion about that’s wrong with this film, including some of the weird choices that have been made, the most baffling for me being the fact that Shang has been removed in a bid to not imply any sort of LGBT themes within the movie, because again, not exactly easy to sell that to China. I appreciate the fact that Mulan 2020 is not a complete copy and paste remake of the original 90s film, but man is it baffling in how off-key it is in so many regards. It neuters the message by adding a Chosen One narrative, it has rather boring and badly fleshed-out villains (something that was really wrong with the original film and wasn’t fixed), and it feels like a film that was crying out for slightly better direction. And because of the nature of this film, its production and its eventual release, this feels like one of the most cynical of the Disney remakes. Mulan is a bafflingly weird choice of a film, but I understand why it exists, and at least we’ve gotten this out of the way which means it should be uphill for the Disney remakes from here since none of them will be as cynical in how much of a cash-grab they are. The actors are trying their best and it’s a decent cast list. I’d even mention the fact that it was a smart decision to hire Jet Li to play The Emperor, and I think this cast actually could have been part of a genuinely good Mulan film. I get a sense though that the writing and direction has not helped them.
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