Disney’s Mulan – Film Review – 23 September 2020 – a highly anticipated film that isn’t what you would expect it to be

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Disney’s Mulan title on a black background

In Australia, Mulan is only accessible via a subscription to Disney Plus, which is AUD$8.99 a month, and further payment of AUD$34.99 (which is for a long term purchase and allows you to keep watching the film if you have an active Disney Plus subscription). It is a steep cost to watch a film, but it may be better than paying for a whole family to watch the film at the theatres. It will be interesting to see how this model works during the pandemic.

The film stars Yifei Liu as the titular Mulan and along with her are some of the most famous Asian actors including Donnie Yen, Jet Li and Ron Yuan. It is directed by New Zealand director Niki Caro. The characters and the film itself pays lip service to its original 1998 animated counterpart, not the Asian film incarnations. Much of the characters and story depart quite substantially from its original film. The obvious departure is that General Li Shang in the original film is replaced by Donnie Yen’s character Commander Tung. Unlike Li Shang, Donnie Yen doesn’t fall develop a crush on Mulan/Ping, walk around shirtless, and isn’t as endearing or personable. (By the way, I really like Donnie Yen, thanks to his various roles in films like the Ip Man franchise, Star Wars and long ago in SPL. But I felt his script was not good in this film.) The other missing character is Mushu, the lovable dragon and guardian to Mulan, who was voice by Eddie Murphy in the animated film and added so much humor and entertainment.

I think the 1998 animated film is still better in so many ways.

This 2020 film goes for a more serious note and doesn’t quite hit its mark. Spoilers ahead.

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In the film, Mulan has powers that she has to hide, because she is told that it is undesirable for a woman to have these ‘magical’ powers, i.e. a strong chi (inner energy or life force). She grows up being taught that her chi must be hidden and suppressed, otherwise she will never become a perfect bride. Unfortunately, the story and its pacing don’t help establish nor endear the audience to understand why her chi is undesirable. I think the story would have been better served if Mulan was just a normal person who proves that as a woman, you can better than any man. This change would have solved many of the issues I felt by the end of the film. The connection and the journey for Mulan from A to B was dismal and unrelatable. Yes, she ends up pleasing her parents and showing her powers, but nothing made me feel like it was worth watching that journey. So too, her identity revelation before Commander Tung and her peers is underwhelming and disappointing.

There was a lot to want to like about the film. After all, it followed a great animated 1998 film with had heaps of comedic moments and songs. The 2020 film does have some moments where it tries hard to be comedic, but those moments seem far too sanitized. For instance, the spider and the cup at the matchmaker’s house was more cringeworthy than humorous. Also, Mulan being shocked to see men naked when she first enters her tent could have been another chance to induce some humor, but that moment again fell flat. Throughout the film, I was hoping for some of the famous songs like Reflection and I’ll Make A Man Out of You to make an appearance. Thankfully Reflection is in the film, but only as an instrumental in various parts of the film. There is no moment where song and dance break out in true Disney fashion.

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The villains had potential, but they are not memorable at all. There were several attempts to give one of the villains, Xianniang, more gravity and weight. I felt her back story and overall story was so-so in its delivery. Unfortunately, neither villain are as memorable and will ever be in the same league as Darth Vader, Scar or Jafar.

I thought a lot of the famous cast were underutilized. Donnie Yen and Jet Li are both amazing martial arts fighters. Yet, the amount of cuts/takes between action set pieces was disappointing. Each fighter can easily handle more than 10 seconds of action without having to cut from shot to shot. Long cuts/takes were needed and were in short supply. The fight scenes were better than the animated film, but fail hugely when compared to many film’s in the West when he comes to fight scenes, e.g. the Matrix, Kill Bill, etc.

The film feels rushed and moments in the film feel unearned. The build up and the foreshadowing can be described as clumsy. Many of the moments and story jumps are baffling. To give one example, there was one moment when Donnie’s Yen character wants to remove Mulan’s head for being dishonest and then 30 seconds later and without much convincing and dialogue, decides to follow and listen to Mulan without objection. (What!?) This scene illustrates the issue and is by no means the only moment. The quick shifts for some characters are beyond my comprehension, even if this is just a film and things need to get resolved.

By the end of the film, I sat there thinking I am not sure who the target audience of this film was. If the film was targeted towards Asian audiences, I think it missed that target by a country mile. Asian culture was not handled well in the film. Chi is not some ‘magical’ super power as the film alludes and Asian parents do not say they love their children, they show. If it was targeted to children, they needed to add more humor and entertainment. The funny index and entertainment factor was running low throughout the film. If it was targeted towards people who like action film, well let’s just stop there… I think the film tried too many things, and wasn’t quite good at anything other than visuals (mostly the stills in the film. I don’t mean the fight scenes – they were horrific).

I really wanted to like the film, but it just turned out to be something I didn’t expect nor like. However, I must commend the effort and attempt that went into the film. I think it is hard to get these films right and the nuances, that needed to be done almost perfectly, can be hard to get right. If they removed the magical elements and Mulan having super powers, it may have made for a great story, The Mulan story is a great story and it’s worth telling. Hopefully, we may see a better sequel (as one has been announced) or a future remake that targets its intended audience.

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