Director: Niki Caro
Stars: Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Gong Li, Jet Li, Tzi Ma and Ron Yuan.
Review by Damocles.
It’s confused. Very confused.
Perhaps one of the biggest issues Disney seems to face when creating their live-action adaptations of beloved classic animated films, is their poor director choices.
Niki Caro, touted as a “progressive” move, due to being the 2nd female director hired by Disney to helm a 100 million dollar film, is truly out of her depth directing Mulan, a story that is inherently based around action film, due to its war-torn Chinese setting.
A prominent drama director, whose film Whale Rider was actually studied by yours truly in high school, (even then I didn’t think much of it, beyond wishing I had a Kiwi accent), Caro seems to struggle both dramatically and action wise in a film that is best described as mediocre.
This poor choice in directors, is echoed recently with Aladdin. I remember being noticeably confused when I heard, Guy Ritchie, of iconic British gangster film fame, was being helmed to direct that particular adaptation. His natural ability and directing style, seemed to lack panache under the supervision of the Mouse, with a lot of his iconic fast-paced dialogue, clever cutting and ingenious editing skills that were so wonderfully put to use in 2019’s The Gentlemen, put aside for more basic directorship.
Which begs the question, of why would you hire Guy Ritchie to direct your film if you tie his arms creatively?
Or, more aptly, in Mulan’s case, why didn’t you hire Guy Ritchie to direct or industry famous Kathryn Bigelow, whose body of work is indisputably based around realistic action cinema, the very narrative that Disney has backed to justify the removal of big musical numbers and Mushu.
(Or just straight up hire Stephen Chow, whose unnatural ability to balance fantastical, action, comedy and the drama would be perfect for an adaptation of the animated Mulan.)
Caro’s directing ability struggles to properly balance the inherent darkness of warfare, Mulan’s internal struggles and the strange injections of fantastical elements like the Witch, Chi or Phoenix, all of them being needless additions to the story, and are actually detrimental to the overall tone.
The story itself is poorly paced and constructed, lacking a strong emotional core to properly generate investment in the characters on screen. Many characters, from Donnie Yen’s Commander Tung, to Tzi Ma’s Hua Zhou, lack proper introduction on-screen, and personal motivation that would generate conflict or motivation to the protagonist.
Mulan herself, is another casualty in the “Disney-nification” of female heroines, with her stoic, emotionless portrayal, and inherent ability to master “chi” in the same vein as Captain Marvel of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Rey from the Star Wars universe.
The overpowered nature of these characters, with an emphasis on suppressing prodigy level of talent and skill, is the opposite of empowerment. It underwhelms the idea of struggle, and growth, perseverance in the face of adversity, arguably the most important aspect to portray on screen to generate relatability and connection between character and audience.
Mulan’s natural gift of “chi” (a poor substitute for the Force or superpowers), that is showcased in the first 5 minutes of her introduction, immediately sets a poor precedent, as it is tonally deaf to the realistic tone the film is striving to project, and distances audience relatability to her.
All of this is difficult to stomach, as the cast for the film, is the creme de la creme of Chinese acting talent, forced to perform their best, whilst being squandered and wasted at the same time.
The term “glorified extras”, seems harsh when talking about known leading men like Jet Li or Donnie Yen, but it is unquestionably true. Dialogue is stilted, repetitive to the point of hammering you over the head with the virtues, with delivery no-doubt suffering due to a decision to film in English, something that is more detrimental than immersive to the experience.
Of particular disappointment is the villain, Bori Khan, who doesn’t chew up scenery enough nor have any relationship with Mulan, leaving the final climax difficult to enjoy. The animated film suffered from something similar, but Shan Yu’s portrayal was far more charismatic and menacing, his overall design and demeanour on the right side of dramatic. Bori Khan’s on the other-hand suffers from the opposite, with bland design and personal motivation. On an directing level, Khan is played too straight and seriously, when in reality Jason Scott Lee should be more over-the-top and cartoonish to add more menace to the character’s aura and screen presence.
From a technical standpoint, Mulan has attractive use of colours, with costumes being largely fun, vibrant and attractive, a definite attempt to add depth to the landscape, which occasionally shines, only to be replaced by poor CG backdrops.
I largely found the action sequences to be thoroughly underwhelming, with too many strange camera moves, desperately trying to amp up the intensity of the fights, which lack proper choreography, depth, motivation and duration. For a war-film, there are a surprising lack “epic” shots, that are typical of “medieval” style armies and admittedly a couple of glaring unbelievable moments from a tactical standpoint (trebuchets deployed against infantry, Mulan’s cavalry charge, Khan’s strange introduction, Mulan’s ability to teleport from A to B and the Witch’s abilities far too powerful).
On the actual score itself, this is sadly one of Harry Gregson-Williams less inspired work, with a lot of the score being rehashes of the animated film, with a rather bizarre Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (2010) twist added here and there, that upon listening to the score, I was thoroughly bewildered by, until I realised that he seemingly took a lot of his Prince of Persia music and applied it to the Rourans, due to their desert tribe nature.
Which is oddly discriminatory, as Middle Eastern higher pitches and shriller noises don’t quite apply to Mongolian steppes’ sounds, which are typically deeper and “throatier” (look it up).
The score was arguably my biggest disappointment, as I am usually enthralled by Gregson-Williams’ work, and I did wish there was an Asian composer who could provide a bit more bombast to the score, similar in the vein to the songs heard in the film Kung Fu Hustle (2004).
Overall, Mulan (2020) is a disappointing adaptation of the animated film, that fails to bring anything new to the table, nor add anything of substance to the lore. Many missed opportunities could have been fixed with a more rounded and inventive director, especially in regard to the score, action sequences, character development and overall tone.
Disney needs to take more risks with their approach to their Renaissance classics, and to actually choose and employ people who have the right skills, not because they fulfil an agenda.
To sum up, Mulan (2020) is not worth the $30.00 price point. In all honesty, that 30 dollars should be spent on getting a VPN, accessing a torrent site and finding a good copy there.
A scene to recall: When Ming Na-Wen (the original Mulan voice actor from the animated film) turned up briefly.
SPOILERS SECTION (FOR FUN):
I’ve created a small list below, to just quickly run through a lot of the plot inconsistencies and mistakes I noted throughout the film, and detrimental they are to the overall story. Please do not read further if spoilers annoy you.
- Mulan’s father’s injury would have already sent him home, the moment he arrived on camp, due to the military’s strict training regime, thus nullifying the need for Mulan’s sacrifice.
- Mulan’s iconic bathing sequence is odd simply because water is … transparent. Honghui would have noted her feminine figure.
- There is a lack of characterisation with Mulan’s comrades. None of them particularly stand out to my disappointment and nor was there a sequence when all were inspired by Mulan’s success.
- The journey from her home to the army camp was bewildering to say the least, especially since why would the Army afford to lost another recruit, when she should have linked up at a staging area, before being transported to the actual base itself.
- The passage itself would have been a good opportunity for Mulan to reflect on her decision to steal her father’s honour, through a proper monologue, but instead we got silent flashbacks
- The only true standout action sequence was when the Witch was kicking ass, but Mulan never gets her own proper action sequence, where she proves herself to be the best warrior in a convincing way.
- How was Mulan able to ride behind the trebuchets, whilst in front of them still confuses me or how she was so quickly able to traverse around the Imperial City and get to the Emperor.
- What was the actual point of the Phoenix beyond a ham-fisted symbol? Or Mulan’s sister for that matter? Was her whole character supposed to be summed up as “arachnophobic?”
- Honghui and Mulan’s chemistry was … questionable to say the least.
- Usually avalanches occur higher up. The trebuchet “hot-shot” landed at the base of the mountain.
- Mulan’s “chi” usage was confusing and strange, with a lot of inconsistency regarding her true talent. It also degraded the other men in the Army a lot, something that bothered me greatly.
- Mulan doesn’t particularly have a lot of range, in terms of emotion throughout the whole film.
- Niki Caro clearly stole a lot of scenes from other films. Mad Max Fury Road (2015), Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2003) and bizarrely Dracula Untold (2014) to name a few.
- I truly wished they stuck to Mandarin as the primary language and made the rest of the world read subtitles, because the actors gave it a valiant effort, but could not emote in English well.
- There are a lot of strange cutting throughout the whole film. Some scenes dragged on for too long and some action sequences were cut too short.
- There is this strange precedent to show that women are “stronger” than men, in terms of physicality. I find this dangerously unrealistic and delusional. I do not have a problem with the animated depiction of Mulan’s abilities and strength, because they showed how a smaller, more lithe and agile woman uses those abilities to outsmart and out-think a man who is physically more imposing than her. I found it highly troublesome when Mulan just outright, brute strength her buckets of water to the top of the mountain, when much bigger and stronger men than her struggled. I was truly hoping that during the training sequence, we would see some type of growth, and struggle that Mulan went through that showed how much effort she had to put in to keep up with the boys. But alas, none of that promise came through.
- The lack of musical numbers, robbed Mulan a lot of her “voice.” In the animated films, the musical numbers were there to provide a thrilling, emotional insight into the characters. We never got that with this Mulan, hence the lack of emotional investment in her character.
- Donnie Yen is always underappreciated in Hollywood films. His speed is never showcased properly. Tsk.
- The Witch and Mulan’s friendship … was so out of left-field and lacking in proper motivation. The Witch could have outright just overpowered everyone and became a Queen and force everyone to accept her.
- Khan’s big fire death for the Emperor was … ridiculously unsatisfying. He should have just killed him ouright with her sword.
- The fake-out death of Cricket … is so J.J. Abrams. Cheap, stupid, emotionally dumb and pointless. Please stop this trend.
- Also why didn’t Khan shoot another arrow at Mulan and the Witch?
- Final two thing … Mulan’s scale armour around her legs, proved terribly distracting to me. I really wished her legs were freed from the armour. She removed the upper half, so it still bewildered me, as to why she kept it. It didn’t match the rest of the costume well.
- The words “honour, warrior and phoenix” were so overused. I really wished someone consulted a thesaurus.