Mulan (2020)

3 out of 5

Directed by: Niki Caro

With the acquirement of Marvel, and the massive success and wide-ranging appeal of the MCU, Disney may have made some their own film outings a bit more difficult. Not that they’re struggling, mind you, but a live-action Mulan, released into a different world than the late 90s animated version, can’t quite as easily go the full-fantasy route of other notable animated-remakes such as The Jungle Book and Aladdin, and then, rooted to a human-led cast – a la your Avengers and whatnot – it needs to juggle a more delicate historical and political tone with the crowd-pleasing spectacle its Marvel neighbors encourages. It’s squarely a kids’ movie, but then again, it’s not: Mulan is stuck between mimicking something of an historical epic and a Summer blockbuster, a tonal hinkiness that maybe affected its script and direction and edit in unknown ways, but seems to have ultimately plopped the flick into something of a wishy-washy vibe as well.

Mulan is the tale of its titular character (Yifei Liu) a girl of matchmaking age in a Chinese village during the country’s imperialist era. Alas, Mulan has made a girlhood of defying much of the propriety matchmaking demands – showing off her martial arts-endowing chi; horse-riding with hair a’flowing – and although doing her best to don the makeup and do the subservient bit, a comedic mishap during the matching leaves her family in shame. Around the same time, Rourans staking invasions around the country encourage China’s emperor (Jet Li, more of a guest star here ‘neath lots of robe and beard) to conscript one male from every family for war. Mulan’s father, Zhou (Tzi Ma), though injured in the last war, has no sons to send and so must be the one to go, or else risk more dishonor for the family. Knowing he won’t likely return from such a battle, and knowing she’s not likely to be a proper match-made damsel anytime soon, Mulan nips away with his armor, sword, and horse, and tucks up her hair and affects a deeper voice – women not being allowed in battle, or to even have super power chi – to take his place in the fight.

Mulan’s script has been criticized as being fairly shallow, and it is, but I think the majority of it works. It’s all shorthand blips we recognize from big box office fare – the one sentence back-and-forth exchanges that are supposed to establish initial caution toward and then camaraderie with Mulan’s fellow soldiers; her self discovery and acceptance of identity and she has a brief chat with the enemy’s witch, Xianniang (Gong Li); the inevitable “you’re female but you’ve proven yourself and so we’re going to ignore however many centuries of gender bullshit and make you our leader” speech by her commander (Donnie Yen) – but the one sentence blips are on par with the majority of the comic book soap opera prattled in the MCU, and generally manage that balance between serious drama and by-the-books entertainment.

It’s the larger movements that suffer. Niki Caro’s film language establishes itself early on in both young Mulan’s acrobatics and a Rouran invasion scene: she swoops fluidly, poetically, between Gareth Evans-esque camera flip-flops that follow action and slow-motion, graceful wirework. It’s often quite beautiful, and captures other-worldly motion well. But there’s no patience for downbeats. This is where I wonder if a need to hew closer to a 90 minute movie versus a 2 hr+ Marvel one dictated excessive cuts, and / or some occasions just required snipping between actors and stunt people, but scenes which could’ve used a longer breath or a still camera to better capture the emotion / movement are clipped, flipping the 180 rule back and forth or just going for more poetic camera twirls. A more obvious example of this comes late in the film: a dramatic shot of Mulan on horseback mired in smoke; cut away, she’s out of the smoke; cut away, she’s off the horse. Leaving in those transitions could’ve added some drama, but we’re robbed off that for the shorthand version.

Extend this to how it affects the big movie beats: we’re not allowed enough moments to identify side characters with their names or a single identifiable trait; the movie’s use of magic and wirework is somewhat ill-defined – chi just seems to automatically grant those with it high kicks and weapon twirling abilities – and so its employment isn’t “earned,” it’s just visually cool. Mulan is intended to have a connection with a spirit animal, a phoenix, and that connection is told through the same quick-paced method, not rendering it into much of a connection at all.

So there’s a sense of a movie with more impact beyond the horizon – something that’s not wedged so squarely ‘neath the Disney “appeal to everyone” banner, and that could’ve more fully pursued a historical vision, and taken more time with some dramatic beats. However, these criticisms mainly affect the movie’s stitching; stitching which is certainly important, as it runs (hopefully) unseen to keep it all together, but doesn’t have to make the surface unappealing. Liu isn’t given much script to work with, but I bought her in the main role, and though I think the movie’s sense of female empowerment could’ve been, as with the other aspects I’ve mentioned, given deeper due, it’s still undeniably there and powerful. She’s not saddled with a romance, and there are no “you’re good… for a girl” type comments – it’s kept smartly to her being limited due to culture, and once having shown off her skills, she’s able to buck that culture. And Caro’s visual slickness (some dodgy bird CGI aside) is pretty fantastic when we’re in the midst of things. I was not unentertained with Mulan at any point, I just hope / wish Disney can find its own form of expression amidst its MCU juggernauts and nostalgia and produce something that ends up truly surprising instead of just pleasing.