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Non-Review Review: Mulan (2020)

Niki Caro’s Mulan is an interesting beast.

As a piece of production, it’s impressive. It lands neatly among the best of Disney’s live action adaptations of its classic animated films, simply by virtue of its willingness to offer something new. It avoids the limp and slavish devotion of films like The Lion King, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast, even if it never quite transcends its origins like Pete’s Dragon. It is vibrant and dynamic film, one that leans into what is possible in live action rather than animation, with cinematographer Mandy Walker ensuring that colours really pop off the screen.

Claws for concern

However, there’s also something slightly frustrating about Mulan. It often feels like the changes from the animated film were not made with the intention of improving the film or finding a new angle, but instead to render Mulan more palatable to a targetted Chinese audience. After all, for all the attention paid to the film’s video-on-demand release, its box office prospects have always had one eye on China. The result is a film that feels more cautious and more conservative than an animated film produced over two decades ago.

Mulan is clean and stylish, but feels a little too calculated and sterile to be its best self.

A prime cut?

Mulan looks gorgeous. Perhaps reflecting its animated origins, the film is highly saturated. Its costumes are lavish, and often designed around strong colours. Its environments are all built in such a way as to seem hyperreal – emerald green bamboo forests, bright yellow sulfur pits, deep red deserts. Although a lot of the footage was obviously tweaked and manipulated digitally, there are moments when Mulan looks like an old-fashioned technicolour musical, where even the colours of the spices in the baskets have been chosen to heighten the reality of it all.

Mulan is lovely to look at, and that is to the credit of production designer Grant Major and costume designer Bina Daigeler. It has been suggested that Mulan is the most expensive of Disney’s live action reimaginings of its animated classics, and it’s easy to believe that. However, the care that director Niki Caro has taken in building the world of the film helps the film to stand on its own terms. Unlike The Lion King or Aladdin, it isn’t simply that the film replicates the source material. Instead, Mulan looks gorgeous as a piece of live action cinema in its own right.

A straight arrow.

Indeed, Niki Caro dares to make the film her own. Mulan has its own rhythms and its own style. It has been observed that many of the recent Disney “princess” films like Frozen or Moana or even Maleficent have borrowed from the language of superhero cinema in characterising their heroines. Mulan does something slightly different. The film draws heavily from wuxia cinema, especially evoking the Sino-American co-production Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which its own debt to the animated Mulan. (Ang Lee reportedly turned down the chance to direct this remake.)

Caro leans into this family-friendly wuxia, with the film embracing slow motion, canted angles and plenty of sequences of characters literally running up vertical surfaces. It is hardly original or innovative, but it serves to distinguish Mulan both from Disney’s other live action adaptations like The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast and from Disney’s other live action franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Star Wars. It is possible to look at Mulan and recognise it as something that merits a live action production, rather than serving as a mechanical reconstruction.

A word in your spear?

Mulan makes a number of changes to the narrative flow of the original animated feature, most of which seem to be calculated to make the film more appealing to a hypothetical Chinese audience. The original animated film was popular China, but largely through bootlegs when Chinese censors blocked its distribution in retaliation for Bueno Vista’s distribution of Martin Scorsese’s Kundun. As the Chinese box office has become increasingly important to Hollywood, studios have grown increasing eager to court the country’s establishment and its movie-goers.

Indeed, one of the film’s best jokes is likely unintentional. As the villainous Bori Khan attacks China, a distraught envoy reports, “All trade has been disrupted.” Given that Hollywood is one of the industries most openly anxious about the prospect of a trade war (and the ensuing trade disruption) between the United States and China, it is fascinating to see that anxiety so nakedly expressed in a film consciously designed to be sold internationally.

All (sun)set.

There is nothing in Mulan that is quite as cynical as past efforts like the added subplot in Iron Man 3 featuring Wang Xueqi and Fan Bingbing or the fetishisation of Chinese control of Hong Kong in Transformers: Age of Extinction. The alterations that have been made to Mulan are much more subtle in nature, as the studio has carefully tailored the narrative to make it accessible to both American and Chinese audiences. Indeed, some of these changes are actually welcome, such as the deletion of Mushu, the fast-talking dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy in the original.

However, some feel decidedly more cynical. The live action version of Mulan plays up the importance of devotion – both to the state as embodied by the emperor and to the family as represented by the patriarch. Mulan’s journey is not so much one of self-discovery as one that is about recognising her place in the larger social structures. After a brief teaser, Mulan cuts to its title as Mulan is reminded of her responsibility “to bring honour to [her] family.”

She won’t get out of line.

A lot of Mulan feels like it is carefully calibrated to appeal to mass audiences in the United States and in China, but without alienating one of the other. The result is a very meticulous balancing act, where the film tries to reconcile a variety of competing ideas in a delicate manner. Mulan herself is an individualist, but also devoted to her family. She resists conventional gender norms, but her sister complies with them. The film is careful to avoid directly implicating the wider culture as inherently misogynistic, largely treating Mulan’s transgression as one of trust rather then gender.

The role of the emperor himself has been bulked up, and the character is treated as much more important and worthy than he was in the original film. He is played by Jet Li, who receives some questionable dubbing in the English language version of the film. The emperor serves to centre the story, and is given greater personal stakes in the drama. When he hears that Bori Khan has mounted an attack on distant outposts, he gasps, “I killed Bori Khan.”

Ride or die.

Mulan is structured so that the emperor is never presented as anything less than heroic and capable. The climax of the film involves the emperor repeatedly snatching arrows out of midair with supernatural reflexes. Even at the end of the film, Mulan herself is not afforded a moment of pure triumph against Bori Khan. She ends up facing down the big bad with the assistance of her male ally and the representative of state authority. It’s a choice that somewhat undercuts the feminist bona fides of the original film.

Those feminist undertones are also undercut with the addition of a new character, the witch Xian Lang as played by Gong Li. Xian is mirrored with Mulan, at one point actually stating, “We are the same.” Like Mulan, Xian is a woman in a man’s world. She knows what it is to look for “a place where you are accepted for who you are.” She has allied herself with Bori Khan in the hopes of creating a space where she might be able to develop her power without being hated or resented by the men around her.

Expectations are through the roof.

There’s something slightly awkward in the way that Mulan plays Mulan off Xian. It feels very much like an effort to be “feminist, but not too feminist.” Mulan and Xian are both women who seek empowerment, but Mulan seeks it to prevent her father from conscription while Xian seeks it on her own terms. Similarly, while the movie is sympathetic to Xian’s plight, it is also wary of how Xian’s legitimate frustration can be harnessed by transparently evil men like Bori Khan who exploit her anger to further their attempts to destabilise the status quo.

The result is a clear tempering of the movie’s feminist themes. The animated Mulan obviously ended with the title character returning to domesticity having proven her worth, but she did so on her own terms. The live action Mulan suffers from having to contrast the eponymous heroine’s return to mundane life with the more openly feminist attitudes of a character who is introduced as a villain and is then developed into a tragic and cautionary tale.

Crossing spears.

It’s notable that the live action Mulan also aggressively plays down the animated film’s queer subtext. The remake has completely stripped out the romance between Mulan and her superior officer, with the studio arguing that this was a necessary concession to the #metoo era. However, it would have been possible to change Mulan’s romantic partner so that one of her male colleagues might have been attracted to Mulan while she presented as a man, thus retaining the implicitly gay romance.

Of course, it’s also possible that Mulan has fallen subject to the more general de-sexing of movies. By and large, most modern blockbusters tend to avoid romance and sex. When they do include romantic subplots – as in Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbes and Shaw – those subplots seem to exist largely to exclude the reading of homosexual subtext into the relationship between male characters. There have any number of theories about why this is, including some speculation that romance is not something that “translates all that well” across language barriers.

Soldiering on.

Still, the deletion of this subplot perhaps reflects a more calculated choice to avoid any content that might clash with China’s unease with homosexuality – after all, the country cut all gay content from Bohemian Rhapsody and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. To their credit, Chinese censors reportedly allowed the “exclusively gay moment” in Beauty and the Beast to pass uncut, but that blink-and-you-miss-it moment was hardly a triumph for inclusivity.

Indeed, it’s worth noting that one of the big changes at the climax of Mulan removes a sequence that involved a group of male characters infiltrating the Imperial City in drag – a moment that played in the animated film as both a clever inversion of Mulan’s earlier deception and its own parody of gender norms. The live action Mulan has no room or no patience for such farce. Its male characters are more conventionally and stereotypically masculine, less likely to subversively play with gender roles.

When it comes to state authority, it’s best to kiss and make up.

This is not to suggest that Mulan is anti-feminist or anything like that. The film still wears its credentials proudly. When Mulan returns to warn her unit about an inevitable attack on the Imperial City, her colleagues all repeat in turn, “I believe Hua Mulan.” It is obviously an update on the classic Spartacus moment, but the language directly evokes the feminist credo “I believe her.” This is not nothing. It does matter. It has value. It is just a shame that so much of the complexity and nuance of the original film has been tempered down.

Although Mulan fares better in the translation to live action than films like The Lion King or Aladdin, there are still a few moments where Niki Caro’s adaptation suffers from direct comparison. Perhaps because the animated film included fewer showstoppers than The Lion King, Aladdin or Beauty and the Beast, the musical numbers are completely removed. This isn’t a bad choice per se, but it does mean that the film cannot reproduce one of the best jump cuts in the Disney canon as the song A Girl Worth Fighting For is interrupted with a grisly discovery.

Snow escape.

Caro doesn’t necessarily try to emulate that shocking reveal, but the movie still needs to hit that narrative beat – the characters still need to be confronted with the horrors of war, and the live action adaptation ultimately underscores this point in a manner similar to the animated film. However, the shock is less effective without that sharp juxtaposition of childish innocence and brutal horror, illustrating the limits of live action as a medium directly emulating animation.

Mulan is a solid adaptation. It certainly has a stronger and more distinctive identity than many of the other efforts to translate these animated classics into live action. However, it still feels compromised in a number of intriguing and frustrating ways. It’s strange to think of the ways in which the live action adaptation of a twenty-two-year-old cartoon feels sadly behind the times.

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