It’s been awhile, but you can’t keep a good Vampire Princess down. It shouldn’t really surprise anyone that yes I threw down the $29 to watch Mulan today. I had a single member of the Darke Court with me today who has been part of my pod during the needed safety precautions. You may be asking if I will review Tenet or New Mutants anytime soon? I shan’t. Arizona is still no where near safe enough for me to go to the theatre and while I trust my local cinema to do its best and that it is doing its best, it’s the other humans that are not to be trusted. My safety and the safety of my Darke Court and Dark Princesses comes first. Thankfully Disney did offer this alternative and for a price point that is still cheaper than the theatre is for me; and let’s be honest if you’ve had my cooking – my food is better.
Now Disney has a very loaded track record when it comes to their live action remakes, despite making tonnes of money few of them are actually “good” to me.
EDITORIAL ADD: I mentioned in the review I cannot speak on the Cultural implications. Someone who can has. I urge my readers to check that review as well as mine. I stand by my review, but with the problematic elements identified…not good.
Editorial Add 2: 9/17 – I maintain the review for the purposes of my opinion at the time. I However CANNOT RECOMMEND THIS MOVIE after finding this quote from the director: “Although it’s a critically important Chinese story and it’s set in Chinese culture and history, there is another culture at play here, which is the culture of Disney,” Caro said in a new interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “And that the director, whoever they were, needed to be able to handle both—and here I am.””
Is Mulan a movie worth fighting for?
Let us begin as, we often do, with the writing. The movie does violate my rule of 3 (writers), with Amanda Silver and her husband Rick Jaffa who worked together on The Relic, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Jurassic World together. We add Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek who are making their cinematic debut, after a short film and a Lifetime Christmas movie together. I need to address the elephant in the room – none of the writers are Chinese. So while intentions may have been good, even great here, if there are cultural or other mistakes around the legend of Mulan they perhaps could have been avoided. I also am not Chinese and will defer to Chinese voices on such mistakes – so you won’t see me discussing the legend of Mulan or any potential significance here. Nor will I stray into current geopolitics – because we don’t have all night. Well you don’t. I’m the vampire here.
What I can say is that structurally, the movie fixes many mistakes (*cough Eddie Murphy*) made in the original animated version. It removes more than a few elements of second hand embarrassment and some of the stereotypes shown in the first that make it a legitimately uncomfortable watch for me at times. They wrote in two villain characters with Bori Khan and Xianniang who have definitive weight in the story and solid throughlines that inform the rest of the emotional arc of the film. What they do best here is not just remove some of the more problematic elements of the original, but they deviate the story enough that this movie can stand on its own and not be seen as many other live action remakes are of pale reflections of the original animated. Overall the script and story that is delivered is fairly strong, with a handful of exceptions that may be a result of director or editor.
On the topic of director, we have one the short list of female directors in Niki Caro (The Zookeepers Wife, Whale Rider) at the helm. While there are many female directors out there, Hollywood still doesn’t give enough of them the chance to lead such high budget projects. Again a missed opportunity by Disney to give the directors chair to someone like Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs, Birds of Prey) or Lulu Wang, but this was in production long before she exploded with “The Farewell”. Back to Caro, she knows how to get good shots and performances from her actors; and in all due honesty as with the animated movies, the villains performances overshadow everyone else. I think there is a really solid first act to establish and second act to bring it together, but the third act and choices made by the director here leave it a bit rushed for me. Some moments needed more time to breathe and just a few more beats between them to let the weight of them sink in.
From a technical perspective, Caro clearly worked well with Cinematographer Mandy Walker. Walker is one of the 5% of women who can claim the title of director of photography and that’s a damn shame. Her ability to capture and frame shots in this movie are amazing. While I admit I am not a fan of some of the closer quicker cuts that are clearly a western influence in what is supposed to be a Wuxia low/mid fantasy epic, there are a handful of mid and wide shots that are really quite good. Choices made between her Caro deliver for a solid 95% of the movie – but not every shot sticks and sadly some of the ones that don’t are towards the end. One cannot talk East Asian film and not discuss the costume and set awe they often bring. Bina Daigeler (Costumes) and Anne Kuljian (Sets) deliver strongly here and practically where possible – which really puts this as top tier Disney live action. I’d love to say its a home run but when I consider movies like Hero, Crouching Tiger, or Curse of the Golden Flower, at best I can give them a triple and loading the bases. Yes. I can do sports metaphors.
Of course we do need to talk the actors themselves. Yifei Liu (Forbidden Kingdom, The Assassins) doesn’t have an enviable task as Mulan, as she is following after the incredible Ming-Na Wen, but she proved herself capable of the task before her. She brings the heart, sincerity, and weight to all the scenes where she is allowed. I will give the blame to Caro on some of the scenes that didn’t work as well for me on that front since Liu can do the emotional work. Thankfully she is not expected to carry the movie and has the incomparable Donnie Yen as Commander Tung, character actor Tzi Ma (Wu Assassins) as her father doing more with body language and facial expressions than most ever achieve, and Jet Li as the Emperor to help bring decades of work to bear. Yoson An takes up the role of comrade and the romantic tension for Mulan and also is able to do quite a bit with a look or a look away and still be charming as hell. As mentioned before though the villains. The villains are just fantastic. Jason Scott Lee (Dragon the Bruce Lee Story, Soldier) is just a PRESENCE on screen. The make up and hair help obviously, but on someone else they may not have worked. My only complaint here is that they didn’t use him to his fullest, but they did use him and the movie is better for it. Li Gong (Memoirs of a Geisha, Curse of the Golden Flower) is probably the real stand out as her villain the sorceress Xianniang. She is everything I want my villainesses to be and more. Every scene she is in is better for her in it and the biggest flaw around her is they don’t use her more.
I really enjoyed Mulan for everything it was and many of the things it wasn’t. I can honestly say of the live action Disney remakes this is the top of the list. True the bar is very low here, but I spent a solid ten minutes debating between this and Maleficent for the top. The debate was only because Act III didn’t quite stick the landing for me as well as I think it could have. I wasn’t -as- emotionally satisfied as I think it could have delivered for me. That said, I was still satisfied enough that there was even a debate between the two movies.
Taking the movie for its craft, its film making, storytelling, and everything it does – this is a very solid film and absolutely worth the watch. Aside from the emotional resonance of the movie not being everything it had the potential to be, the only major drawback was the westernization of what could have been an incredible Wuxia epic that would have rivaled the greats. I would have enjoyed seeing Donnie Yen pull double duty as Stunt Coordinator over Ben Cooke. Not that Cooke was horrible, just it could have been MORE. Some of the CG is a little rougher than I’d prefer, the blue screen rougher than I prefer – but the net product is greater than those flaws.
Mulan is a good movie that is so close to being a great movie it kind of hurts.
So should I pay Mouse for seeing it?
I can firmly recommend this movie. I do recommend if you are to watch it at home and pay the extra to do so you should have a large screen. While not AS big as some other films, this is still a big picture and deserves more than a phone or tablet to watch on.
As to paying vs waiting until December. If you plan to watch this multiple times, have friends or family with you to watch it with – absolutely. Figure it’s $10 plus for a single ticket normally, then concessions, etc. Now I can watch it tonight, tomorrow, next week, next month. I normally pay for 2-3 tickets for my Darke Court, so this is already the price of admission for me. The fact I can watch it several times within this price point makes it worth it for me. If you have kids – hands down yes. The price point is mathematically worth it. We can have the debate if you should have that extra price point another time.
So do you plan to watch it again?
Absolutely. I had some stuttering due to bandwidth as probably a few million other people are watching this tonight and want to go back over it again.
Yeah I mean technically I have already and have it so long as I have Disney+ which is at minimum until 2022 since I already paid them for a 3 year sub.
It’s been awhile – any parting thoughts?
I miss a handful of beats from the animated. Obviously I miss some of the songs, but the music here is solid and used well. I think like I mentioned in my Aladdin review when the Disney Live Actions really try to do more and fix the mistakes of the past or deviate the plot in meaningful ways the DLA’s show their true potential. Maleficent did it. Parts of Aladdin did it. This absolutely stands on its own as a separate film where you can see some of the callbacks and references, but is definitively it’s own movie.
I don’t have faith movies like Cruella, The Little Mermaid, or anything else that is in production will learn this lesson and embrace it, but maybe I can be surprised.