Under ordinary circumstances, the Daily Lobo would only publish a single review for a film we deem important to cover.
These are no ordinary circumstances. The reimagined live-action Mulan movie divided the newsroom and provoked such polar opposite opinions by Lobo editors Lissa Knudsen and Andrew Gunn that we felt compelled to publish two reviews. We leave it to you, dear reader, to formulate your own opinions.
‘Mulan’ excels with strong heroine and breathtaking visuals
I had the privilege — after paying $30 on top of my Disney+ subscription — of watching the new live action version of Mulan over the Labor Day weekend. And, despite much vitriolic criticism and scathing reviews, I found it to be a gorgeous, uplifting brain break during a socially distanced pandemic that has been grinding on for far too long.
Though the movie has garnered a number of angry, bitter commentaries about how the movie was “too politically correct” — for insisting on having an exclusively Chinese and Mongolian cast — and the dialog was” underwhelming,” I thought it was a gorgeous cinematic feat that had less cultural appropriation and more realism than the original animated version of the movie.
In a year where the nation’s president has tried to capitalize on tribalism and turn the country’s citizens against Chinese people with racist buzz words like “kung flu,” it was comforting to see friendly, familiar faces in high profile actors like Ming Na Wen (who played Jing-Mei “Deb” Chen in the TV show “ER”) and Tzi Ma (who played the father in last year’s indie hit Farewell).
Though I yearned for the movie dialogue to be in Mandarin Chinese (with English subtitles), I appreciated that the English script made the story more accessible to a United States audience.
A number of reviewers have critiqued the dialogue as stilted and lacking in flow, but I read that as indicative of the obtuse, insensitive jump Hollywood consistently tries to make when imposing a Western communication style on stories from other cultures. Unlike English, Chinese communication styles have long been documented as relying on implicit contextual cues rather than explicit verbal dialogue.
Despite the Americanization, Chinese symbolism and values were woven into the story with much more skill than I have seen previously.
“Mulan” appeals to the viewer because it centers the idea of being true to oneself — not pretending to be something you aren’t, even when it feels like the consequences of being genuine will be dire.
It almost goes without saying that another plus for the movie is that it joined the ranks of movies that actually pass the Bechdel test, an assessment used to measure the representation of women in fiction. The criteria for the test are that the movie has to have at least two women in it, those two women have to talk to each other at some point and the theme has to be about something other than a man.
Mulan not only meets these criteria but refreshingly downplays the typical hetero love interest and instead highlights the woman-to-woman anti-hero and hero interplay between Xianniang, a powerful witch character, and Mulan.
Beyond these empowering themes, I also loved the film for its visual appeal. The costumes and the cinematography were irrefutably breathtaking. Australian Mandy Walker — who also was the director of photography for “Hidden Figures,” “The Mountain Between Us,” “Truth” and “Australia” — outdid herself with soaring drone footage of acres of green rice paddies, light-refracting bamboo forests, majestic mist-covered mountains, ochre-colored sulfurous hot springs surrounded by geysers of steam and a dramatic use of color as Mulan emerges in her blood-red garb against a backdrop of white snow.
And if that still hasn’t convinced you to put “Mulan” on your viewing list, the movie also succeeds because it’s notably less fantastical than the animated musical version. By dropping the anthropomorphized, talking sidekick characters that break into scenery-chewing songs every five minutes, the story becomes much more believable.
That’s not to say there isn’t still a generous portion of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” style magical realism, with warriors racing across rooftops and performing gravity-defying martial arts maneuvers. But it just felt more grounded and honest, which helps make the case that it's not such an inconceivable idea that women can lead, women can be physically and mentally strong and women can be heroic.
“Mulan” — especially if you wait until December, when the premium price tag drops off — is a viewing investment that’s worth making.
Lissa Knudsen is the news editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @lissaknudsen
‘Mulan’ falls flat with the force of a great typhoon
On Sept. 4, the Walt Disney Company — after a coronavirus-induced delay of just over five months — released the much-anticipated live-action adaptation of “Mulan” on Disney+ just over two decades after the debut of the classic animated version.
Here’s the thing: I wish they hadn’t.
Steeped through with underwhelming, derivative screenwriting and loaded with scenery porn, ill-timed comedic breaks and disjointed dialogue, “Mulan” takes itself more seriously than anything ever should and will rather quickly fall out of favor in Disney canon — but not before making Bob Iger and Co. more money than god.
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way before delving into more subjective material.
The $30 “premium” price to unlock access to the updated fable of Hua Mulan, both unprecedented and borderline extortionate, came to fruition in light of the pandemic and rather blithely represents the massive divide between the haves and have-nots. In the era of COVID-19, large-scale unemployment and historic levels of income inequality, Disney board room suits obstinately chose to forge ahead with the release and recoup as much of their investment in the film as possible with a limited virtual release — but only to those who can afford to splash the cash.
Now, to address the film’s aesthetic and expository shortcomings. I don’t think I have enough column inches.
Lethargic pacing in the dialogue hinders the progression of the film’s plot to the point that I found myself reminiscing on the 1998 animated version and wishing I were rewatching it for the thirteenth time, rather than endure the rhetorical slog which the screenplay seemed intent upon reinforcing.
And while the film’s central motif of “when employed correctly, four ounces can move 1,000 pounds” (imperial measurements?) may ring true circumstantially, it managed to reverse the adage and achieve a quarter-pound of satisfaction under the half-ton juggernaut that is Disney’s promotional hand.
Kiwi director Niki Caro occupies a peculiar space between the fantastical and true-to-life that, in a curious twist, hinders the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. If a phoenix, quite clearly a mythical creature, can appear and inspire Mulan to military might, why not just name him Mushu and have him accompany Mulan on her quest to save the emperor?
The film’s anticlimactic resolution draws a particular brand of eye-rolling ire for and sympathetic commiseration with the film’s screenwriters. The empire saved, Mulan receives her lionization from the emperor of China, and it’s one of the film’s recurring liabilities that the venerable actor and martial arts legend Jet Li is obliged to regurgitate a forced, awkward line to transition to the story arc’s downward trajectory.
Perhaps the greatest takeaway from this live action, predictably inferior version of “Mulan” was its reignition of my nostalgic love for the animated film’s cheeky wit, inspiring animation and fully fleshed out characters and story arc. Some may accuse me of holding onto the past and not embracing more inclusive paradigms of filmmaking or a director daring to deviate from dated source material. It is true that the world in 2020 — coronavirus, the age of Trump and unprecedented political chicanery and Black Lives Matter — has rightly discarded many of the toxic standards of old and nudged society toward a more progressive future, albeit in a painfully slow manner.
However, the film’s transparent attempts to be radically woke and still cater to its core demographic — families with children — manifest in bland characters and a piecemeal script, lending “Mulan” an unfortunate aura of store brand amateurism. The diversity of the film, which righteously employed a cast of almost-wholly Chinese actors and actresses to stage a production of a time-honored Chinese story, is a victory for an industry undergoing a radical transformation in the wake of #MeToo, but all the woke progressivism in the world couldn’t rescue an unsalvageable script.
Rotten Tomatoes, the barometer set by the professional critic mob by which all widely released films are measured, gives “Mulan” a 78% approval rating. The development hell in which the film languished beginning a decade ago quite clearly wasn’t a long enough duration to hone a script worthy of the subject matter, but critics are still entitled to their opinions, even if they’re wrong.
“Mulan” will be available without the $30 “premium” fee to all Disney+ subscribers on Dec. 4. If you value the health of your checking account and the intrinsic good of aesthetic art, I’d advise putting a viewing on hold until the return is worth the investment.
Andrew Gunn is the copy editor and a senior reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @agunnwrites