Is This Swamp Water or Cherry Coke?
Caught in the strange post-theatre quarantine world, mega-blockbusters like Mulan have massive budgets to recoup and no clear financial models to rely on.
Instead, Disney delayed, waiting to see if theaters would reopen in crucial worldwide markets. Eventually, Disney released Mulan at a premium price on their popular streaming service before the film became free to stream for all subscribers.
Mired In Controversy
Throughout, Mulan has been mired by delays, questionable pricing models, and controversy regarding China’s treatment of the Uighur people, regions where parts of the movies were filmed. It’s believed the Chinese government has detained at least one million ethnic Uighur Muslims in internment camps.
According to the Los Angeles Times, these camps are considered “reeducation” and “vocational training” centers, though survivors describe them as prisons where they are subject to “coercive ideological training.”
It’s hard to take in a movie that speaks of honor and protecting one’s country against “evil” invaders when the real-world headlines speak of atrocities the established order is committing.
What’s to Love
As a film, there are some things to love here. There are beauty and artistry in the cinematography and landscape. The attention to costumes and design is indelible.
And thankfully, there has been no whitewashing of the casting, even if the principal actors are very familiar to American audiences – maybe a little too familiar. Seeing Jet Li as the emperor especially seemed excessive. Certainly, some Asian actors and actresses could have delivered powerful performances even if they haven’t worked in Hollywood for decades. What might have been a launching pad for many deserving Asian artists to be introduced to North American audiences is simply another project for well-established, bankable Asian stars that have been working in America for a long time.
While the story remains mostly loyal to the original Disney animated classic, it isn’t afraid to go its own way while still making subtle references to some of the whimsical cut elements – like the recruit named after the anthropomorphized “Cricket” or lyrics from the missing musical numbers. While the 1998 animated film definitely leaned into the goofiness factor, it’s hard not to secretly hope to hear a rendition of “I’ll Make a Man Out Of You” or “A Girl Worth Fighting For.”
While the story remains mostly loyal to the original Disney animated classic, it isn’t afraid to go its own way
Going Full Marvel With Mulan
However, one major change is more lamentable than the loss of some catchy singalongs.
While the original movie relied on Mulan’s willingness to buck tradition and rely on her wits, courage, and loyalty to her friends, the remake has gone full Marvel and turned ancient China into a mutant/magic battleground where certain people are capable of harnessing their Chi to gain superhuman abilities and strength.
While Chi works well in explaining why sword masters can dance through the air in beautiful, ballet-like fights in the treetops of wuxia movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero, in Mulan, Chi is more akin to accessing the Force in Star Wars or a conveniently cool genetic mutation in the X-Men universe.
However, while the other fictional universes have logical rules in place that dictate how the powers work and serve the story, Mulan’s world seems to shoehorn in Chi as a reason to have Mulan keep up with her powerful sorcerer foes. Chi allows Mulan superhuman reflexes, for the sorceress Chi gives her a variety of powers that range from taking over a person’s body, turning into a bird, and the ability to throw knives at terrifying speed and accuracy.
There doesn’t seem to be much of an internal logic when it comes to how Chi works and what it allows the user to do with it. Nor does there seem to be any formal training to master it, like say a universe like Avatar: The Last Airbender which borrows heavily upon martial arts for its magic ability mechanics in which rigorous and specific training is needed before becoming effective in supernatural combat. Here you are simply born with it, and it manifests in unique ways. But from a young age, Mulan is quickly a master.
Regular people immediately look down on people with Chi abilities, a common trope when it comes to the X-Men universe, but there seems to be a vague understanding that using your Chi for good is acceptable, but using it for selfish reasons is outlawed; again, a strange nod to the Light and Dark uses of the Force in the Star Wars universe.
However, in Mulan, it seems as though Disney has opted to haphazardly inject superpowers and notions of the Light/Dark aspects of the Force with no clear internal logic. It would be easy to ignore, but it muddies the story. And worse, it weakens what makes Mulan truly special. In the original, Mulan’s determination and sheer audacity brought about her success and earned her the respect of her peers.
Unfortunately, here she is undermined by the story’s insistence that she is a superhero. While superheroes are very much in vogue right now, especially under the Disney banner, it misses what gave Mulan’s character her spark.
While superheroes are very much in vogue right now, especially under the Disney banner, it misses what gave Mulan’s character her spark.
Swamp Water Or Cherry Coke?
In the end, there seems to be a general confusion of what lies at the heart of Mulan: is it a superhero story, is it a tale about gender equality, or courage in the face of adversity? Is it a family-friendly story or serious swords and sandals epic? Kinda both?
A great story can be about all these things, but Mulan struggles to remain one cohesive story and not a disjointed one. It’s too bad someone at Disney realized how much money The Avengers made and decided every movie needs to be injected with the same flavors.
Are the bloodless action scenes entertaining? Yes. But when the violence is glossed over and enemies are “bonked” on the head or fall unconscious from a kick to the stomach, the stakes and weight of combat at the fear the soldier feel before battle is all just a facade.
Are the gorgeous, colorful costumes and sweeping landscapes mesmerizing? Yes. Will you be entertained? Probably!
But what you’re left with as the credits roll is a swamp water of a drink that tried to mix in too many flavors and ideas instead of the tasteful mix of a cherry coke. Rather than a movie that is servant to a good story, we received a movie that is slave to a contrived blockbuster formula.