At long last, after six months of waiting, “Mulan” has finally avalanched her way out of solitary confinement. To be honest, we are one of the lucky nations to be granted a theatrical release for this film.
Considering the fact that in other regions with access to Disney+, the studio decided to premiere “Mulan” exclusively on that platform for an additional fee, indeed, the provision of the theatrical experience in our region is a blessing.
So, was the half-year wait worth it? Let’s get down to business.
The 1998 animated film starring Ming-Na Wen as the voice of the titular character was praised for its lively animation, comedy, and timeless songs. Such is the legacy of the animated film that even after all these years, we can’t resist belting out “Reflection” whilst staring at the bathroom mirror, invoking our warrior from within.
Directed by Niki Caro (“The Zookeeper’s Wife”), this new adaptation of the famous Chinese folk legend starring Liu Yifei (“The Forbidden Kingdom”) aimed to be a marriage between the animated 1998 feature and the original literature from which the character originated: “The Ballad of Hua Mulan”. As such, for fans of the original animated film, this may be a far cry from what you’re generally used to.
For starters, the adorable critters have been given the boot. Crikey. That’s bad news for our four-legged cricket and rapid-fire-breathing lizard Mushu. However, before you go on a rant, pronouncing dishonour on every living creature on earth, you have to understand that the decision was to allow for a more “realistic” portrayal of the historic legend.
The next big change comes in the form of boxy general Li Shang, who is noticeably absent in this version. His spirit, however, has been divided into two distinct characters which take the form of Donnie Yen’s (“Ip Man”; “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”) stern Commander Tung, and the dreamier Chen Honghui, played by Yoson An (“The Meg”; “Mortal Engines”).
In an apparent whole new world, the prologue introduces our young warrior. Mulan, a brash and highly skilled (read high chi level*) young woman is about to be matchmade with a suitor, adhering to the traditional views of gender roles within the community. However, things take a disruptive turn when imperial guards show up at her village, declaring that every family must send a male representative to fight. Mulan’s father, Hua Zhou, is too old and weak to fight. As a result, she takes it upon herself to bear the family name and serve the Emperor as a soldier in the imperial army, carrying with her the family sword and armour.
Can she rise up with courage to be loyal to her country? Can Mulan still be true to herself, pretending to be someone she’s not?
Well, as much as we sorta know how that question will be answered, I too gotta be true to myself and say that this film was a major disappointment.
I have been critical of Disney’s live-action endeavours in the past. Aside from Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book”, most of them have been unspirited, bland remakes which never really brought anything new to the table. Indeed, I was truly appalled by last year’s biggest offender, “The Lion King”, which was a lifeless travesty of a National Geographic documentary, bringing no emotion to the succulent grubs it was meant to feed us with.
But… “Aladdin”, a movie which initially drew ire from fans due to a cheap-looking trailer back two years ago, turned out to be fairly enjoyable due to its fresh interpretation of the characters. It was a glimmer of hope in the dull rays of unoriginality. While I did not think that 2019’s “Aladdin” was by any means a Disney masterpiece, it still managed to stay fresh and entertain audiences.
So, when the producers and filmmakers of this 21st-century adaptation decided to shake things up, I was intrigued. I was rooting for it. This revamping had my eyes and ears on the production as new developments continued to pour in. I didn’t want a shot-for-shot remake of the 1998 film. That would be dull. Bring us something new.
However, all that goodwill got torn apart when I sat in the theatre, wide-eyed, placing my hopes for a good adaptation of a fan favourite. Oh, what a grave miscalculation I had made. What woes were in store for me and the rest of the unfortunate audience.
The problem here is not the lack of a scarlet motormouth reptile or powerful uplifting ballads (although they were key to the animated film’s success). Indeed, it is the lack of grace and depth in which the narrative was written that undermines the film’s capacity to succeed. The plot is an atrocious mash that barely makes the audience care for its characters. Its baffling brand of humour falls straight to the ground consistently.
When the audience is first introduced to Mulan, she is out pursuing a chicken, performing some acrobatic moves as she bounces around the tulou, ascending to the summit of the structure. However, Mulan slips from the roof and with a miraculous cat-like adroitness, manages to land on her feet, topping it off with a spin of her staff in the most cringe-worthy manner possible (I kid you not, this is not as cool as it seems to be). Indeed, it was this very scene at the start that set the tone for the subsequent narrative as the movie attempts to push forward.
Having no songs in it, the filmmakers had to prepare a new take on some of the memorable animated scenes. Some work, such as the matchmaking scene, which I felt utilised its time and props to full effect, created something that was dissimilar to the animation but also possessing its own charm. However, when you come to Mulan’s big decision to leave her family, it’s done in quick cuts, undermining any emotion that could have been conveyed through the scene.
Mulan’s message of empowerment has also been lost in the hollow shell of a narrative so haphazardly constructed that it gives little to no room for any actual growth for the character. We all remember the hair chopping scene during Reflection and how it was a pivotal moment for the character. None of that exists in this version because there apparently was an urgency to get on with the plot despite having no reason to.
As for the faces of villainy, we have Jason Scott Lee (“Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story”) as Bori Khan and Gong Li (“Memoirs of A Geisha”) as the shapeshifting witch, Xian Lang, to provide the falcon-tyrant dynamic that was also present in the animated feature. Nevertheless, the motivations behind the characters are as weak as a lone feather. In all honesty, this could have been rectified if they had made Li’s character the main antagonist with Khan as a seemingly powerful tyrant who no one messes with as well. Her character had a whole lot of potential to be developed. She seemed as if she was brought on to be a polar opposite to our heroine, and could have made the movie a tad bit smarter but ultimately falls short due to iffy writing.
And oh, don’t get me started on Little Cricket, my god. They massacred our boy. Thinking about how an innocent little fantastical creature that was meant to be a good luck charm made it into the movie albeit in a different form makes my body quiver in wild frustration. The character’s entrance is so out-of-place and probably makes for one of the most laughable scenes I have watched in recent memory. There’s no precedent, no explanatory context, just a frightful introductory scene that had me gritting my teeth in disbelief.
Another aspect that was absent in the film was with regards to the martial arts talents. They had brought in Jet Li, Gong Li, the friggin’ Wing Chun maestro himself, Donnie Yen. And what do these remarkable performers do in the film?! Almost next to nothing. There is one scene in which Donnie Yen showcases his splendid expertise with the sword, handling it in a showcase of speed and dexterity. But no matter folks because said glittery ability is only utilised in the battlefield for a few seconds. We don’t actually see him in action that much. For a movie that had no songs, and could have lent some focus on the action and war itself, there is no urgency, no desolate circumstance that truly reminds the viewer that this was certainly, a war.
When things actually do happen, it’s edited in a choppy manner, giving rise to the notion that the production had no idea how to craft the martial arts scenes. Seeing that there is significant use of wirework, I can’t help but wonder if they were actually emulating wuxia epics, because if it was such, Disney really did not know how to shoot much less choreograph them. Take a look at films such as “Crouching Tiger, The House of Flying Daggers” or even milder films such as the Liu Yifei/Jet Li collaboration, “The Forbidden Kingdom”. When the knights are in action, gliding across the screen, we get to see them do it with a fair amount of grace. But NO. Over here, it’s a quick alternation of cuts and slow motion, which absolutely did not work well for the film.
Of the dumpster fire that this movie essentially was, one of the very few aspects I actually dug was Harry Gregson Williams’ upbeat score. Intertwining the powerful new Christina Aguilera ballad “Loyal, Brave & True” with the narrative. This is especially heightened when familiar musical cues from the 98′ movie are utilised such as “Reflection” and “Honour To Us All”, making hairs stand on end when they came on.
Furthermore, as much as I would criticise the filmmaking technique, some of the shots were actually pretty well-defined. Such a case would be the matchmaking sequence which was well-paced and shot, along with the aftermath of the avalanche, silhouetting figures in the white of snow.
Legendary actor, Tzi Ma, also did a fine job at playing Mulan’s stoic paternal figure. Continuing his brilliant streak from “The Farewell”, his performance is most likely the only bright spot in an otherwise dreary film. It is one that is done with a good amount of gravitas, bringing a certain heft to his pained role.
In the end, the film was a frustrating affair that becomes worse the more I ponder upon it. As much as I relish the fact that I got to experience the film on a big screen, the faltering events that unfolded were of dour contortions, making for an uneven narrative that did not bring honour to the character’s legacy.
I was prepared to fall in love with it. I really wanted this movie to succeed. I mean, it had the ingredients, a formula, and almost everything else it had to make an epic tale to be enjoyed by all. Mysterious as the dark side of the moon, Disney somehow found a way to mess it all up with a cringe-fest of splotchy writing and baffling action sequences.
Loyal? Brave? True? These may have been significant to this adaptation’s overall message. However, the craft itself is an antithesis to these elements. While I would have applauded the changes, giving the studio any benefit of the doubt seemed to have been futile as the end-product is unspirited, bland and lacking much-needed nuggets of emotion.
My message to the studio that made this?! Understand first how to handle the property with grace, honour, and dignity. This was a foul misaligned attempt at making Mulan relevant in the 21st century. To exile, it should be sentenced to. Folks, if you want a good “Mulan” movie, look no further than back to twenty years ago. At least THAT film was true to its heart.
Look at this. It will never pass for a decent piece;
Or a splendid remake;
Can it be, this was not meant to play this part?
Now I see;
That if modern-day Disney was to truly be itself, it would bring dishonour to us all.
As Mushu would say:
While we do not recommend watching the remake of “Mulan”, there is an array of other worthy movies that you can now conveniently watch by booking tickets through Klook. Klook is a leading travel-activities and services booking platform that easily allows you to find more local things to do with a simple click of a button. Accordingly, to offer locals even more things to enjoy in Malaysia, Klook has recently released a brand new category: movies!
This recent launch allows you to discover and book tickets for any movie showing at the GSC and TVG cinemas nationwide. Additionally, movie buffs in Malaysia can also enjoy benefits and savings when they book movie vouchers from Klook.
And that’s not all, in celebration of Klook’s Movies in Malaysia, Klook’s Facebook page will run a contest from 4th September to 20th September 2020, where five lucky winners will have the chance to win Disney’s “Mulan” official merchandise. The public can also discover which Mulan character they are by participating in Klook’s “Discover Your Inner Warrior” quiz.
So, next time you plan on heading out for a movie, you know what to do and where to look! Simply log on to klook.com and choose which movie you’d like to watch, along with a cheaper and more convenient experience. Enjoy!