Mulan (2020)

Bravery – Truth – Loyalty – Devotion to Family

When I initially heard that Disney was doing a live-action version of Mulan, I thought I wouldn’t bother to see it.  I hadn’t seen the original cartoon, released back in 1998.  Back then, my wife and I had been married six months, so I believe she and I mostly saw films targeted for adults back then.  While I was familiar with the plot of the animated film (a young girl with exceptional fighting prowess and no interest in marital affairs takes her aging father’s place in the Imperial Army), I never sought out watching it.  I’ve never had more than a passing interest in kung-fu movies, or movies based in the ancient orient that involved a lot of swords clanging and people flying around.

Prior to seeing the live-action Mulan, I had read several mixed-to-negative reviews about it.  Most of the complaints were that the movie didn’t have several favorite elements of the animated film.  For example, none of the musical numbers (or songs) were included.  Also, there was no dragon in the film (although a CGI phoenix does pop up here and there).  The makers behind the new movie more or less borrowed the plot of the cartoon to create a more realistic version of the legend.  Perfect, I thought.  There was no chance of my being disappointed, since I had never seen the animated film.  Disney is known for pulling out all of the stops with their live-action retelling’s of their animated films, so I thought the movie would be worth a look.

While I wouldn’t describe the entire movie as excellent, I would give it a “solid good”.  I know that is not what Disney was aiming for, a “solid good”.  There are elements of the film that I rate as excellent.  The cinematography, certainly is.  The locations used for the principal photography are incredible.  This is a movie that deserves to be seen on a big screen (not yet  possible in most of Michigan, rats!). The action is also well choreographed and edited; I always had a sense of where the action was happening and who was fighting whom.  Yifei Liu is very convincing as an action heroine.  I know there is a lot of “movie magic” happening on the screen, but I’d definitely hire her to be my bodyguard.

I liked that the movie spent some time to flesh out Mulan’s–or should I say Hua Jun’s band of brothers.  We get to see them during basic training sequences as well as in the mess hall, talking trash and making fun of each other.  Ironically, these are the scenes where Yifei Liu gets to lighten up a bit.  There is a running bit about Hua Jun smelling bad because she refuses to take a shower that I found humorous.  

The action sequences themselves were very engaging, although they do get into Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon territory a bit too much for me.  I get that the baddies in the story have gotten special powers from the witch Xian Lang (Gong Li), but their abilities border on the fantastical.  Being able to jump from a horse and run up the side of a wall, or being able to stop an arrow flying at you with your bare hands?  With abilities like those, how could these guys ever lose?  This is where I thought the movie could have been even bolder, by eschewing the super human elements and sticking with a realistic approach.

Tzi Ma has some nice scenes as Hua Zhou, Mulan’s father.  Instead of declining to be conscripted into the Emperor’s army, his pride forces him to accept the order, even though he can barely walk.  The reconciliation scene at the end between Mulan and her father was very moving.  That the dramatic high-point comes at the very end of the film is a bit of a disappointment.  Most of the acting is subdued.  Understandably, the movie’s target audience is China, the largest box office market in the world.  I’m not savvy with Chinese film conventions, so the understated performances may be typical for that audience.

Mulan seems so serious at times.  She literally can spin upside down and kick an arrow or a spear at her opponent.  Honestly, I would be pretty impressed with myself if I could do that.  Mulan seems nonplussed about it.  She is humble to a fault.

The movie spends a lot of time talking about Ch’i (or Qi), and how Mulan has a lot of Ch’i for a girl, and how she should suppress her Ch’i so that she would be a good match for a husband.  From what is on display in the movie, Ch’i seems a lot like The Force, where some people got it, and some people don’t.  Sure, George Lucas borrowed (stole?) inspiration from many places when creating Star Wars.  But it’s hard for me to avoid the comparison when over thirty years of Star Wars has been imprinted on my psyche.  Not to be snide, but in this movie, it seemed having a lot of Ch’i is a lot like being a Jedi, or an Avenger.  (I apologize if anyone takes my observations in a negative way.)

The movie also makes it obvious that the witch will switch sides at the end.  Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and his subordinates throw shade at her too many times for that to not happen.  They are happy to have her on their side, but not smart enough to know that you never piss off the source of your advantage?  More subtlety could have been used here, but I guess bad guys are never that smart.  Don’t they know they always lose in the end?

Finally, I liked the movie’s message about being true to yourself and others.  In my opinion, lying about yourself to make other people happy, or to fulfill other people’s expectations for you, will never make you happy.  Mulan is truly her best self and happiest when she’s kicking butt.  Living one’s life according to the virtue of truth is a powerful universal message we all can take to heart.

Overall, I recommend seeing Mulan.  It’s not worth paying $30 to watch it now, so wait until December 4, when it will be included free with your Disney+ subscription.

(Kudos to the film for throwing in a few horseback riding bits straight out of an Old West rodeo show.)

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