Directed By Niki Caro
Starring – Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Li Gong
The Plot – When the Emperor of China (Jet Li) issues a decree that one man per family must serve in the Imperial Army to defend the country from Northern invaders, Hua Mulan (Liu), the eldest daughter of an honored warrior, steps in to take the place of her ailing father. Masquerading as a man, Hua Jun, she is tested every step of the way and must harness her inner-strength and embrace her true potential. It is an epic journey that will transform her into an honored warrior and earn her the respect of a grateful nation…and a proud father.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence
– Intoxicating visuals. The one aspect of production that reigns supreme within this live action remake over its animated original is the abundance of gorgeous landscape photography and serene cinematography that brings forth no shortage of wondrous transitional sequences to constantly take your breath away. Cinematographer Mandy Walker supplants her single most ambitious artistry to date, capturing the immensity of war with these wide angle lenses that constantly remind us what hangs in the balance, as well as some subtle color correction in the green’s of the grass, and pink’s of the sunsets, that splash more vibrantly than the most abstract paintings. It brings forth the kind of imagination and style that once rang true in a Disney world where anything feels possible, and gives these worlds that geographically are so far from our own that three-dimensional feeling because of a paintbrush that vividly illustrates the appeal of the brightest rainbow.
– No cent spared. There’s much to enjoy and commend for the collection of wardrobes and intricate set designs that really bring this immersive world to life, all the while paying great respects to the history of the culture. The gowns garner great definition in the silk and satin that they originate from, balancing color and sequence accordingly so that no two ensembles ever derive nor deduct from one another, and the intentionally thick layering of the make-up solidifies the Geisha girl mystique that emulates the abstract emotions present for a woman whose life has already been spoken for before she can rightfully object. These are matched with the barrage of backdrops and set designs that brilliantly capture the claustrophobia within the village, but more than that convey an essence of heritage and visual language that solidifies pride within the heart of its people. My favorite is definitely a final action set piece atop a series of wooden beams, but even the complexity of the many shops and street vendors playing a presence to the integrity of each scene solidifies depth and purpose for the intention, and preserves the town as its own character within the film, and the reminder of what’s truly worth fighting for.
– Breakthrough performances. This is no more evident than in the work of Liu, who brings forth no shortage of balance between the two sides of her character meant to gracefully mature before our very eyes. In the movie’s first half, it’s her ambition and bravery that set the stage for what’s to come, but it’s in Yifei’s emotional transformation during the second half and climax of the movie that outlines the woman she was destined to become. In that respect, Liu perfectly emits the spontaneity of teenage frailty, bottling up no shortage of emotional depth in an intentionally abstract face that wears the scars of the internal war taking shape inside that is transmitting outside. Aside from Liu, I also enjoyed seeing Donnie Yen portray Mulan’s father. Yen’s stern-but-genuine approach carries weight as the family’s prime breadwinner, yet outlined with a layer of sadness that stems with being physically unable to defend his family the way a man was meant to in this culture. His transformation is every bit as meaningful and nuanced as Mulan’s, and albeit with half of the on-screen time as his female co-star, a testament to Yen’s decades as a silver screen professional.
– Maintained message. If there’s one thing that wasn’t sacrificed in the transition to live action, it’s the heartfelt message handed down to the audience that transcends this film as so much more than a work of pure fiction. The sometimes heavy-handed but effective thesis is to take pride in the person that you want to be, and not the one that others occasionally compartmentalize you to be. In Mulan’s case, it’s her decision to be a warrior instead of someone’s wife that nearly eats her up inside, and condemns her towards error time and time again when she’s trying to be something, quite literally, that she absolutely isn’t. It’s only when she grows tired of the charade do we see the strength and promiscuity destined to be hers, and it’s only then on the people surrounding her, if they choose to support and embrace the woman she has attained. It’s one message that can speak volumes to many different kinds of people who watch it, and offers a sweet sentimentality to “Mulan” that covets one of those bare necessities that Disney has been preaching about for decades since.
– Astonishing musical score. Even without the timely memorable compass of 98 Degrees and Steve Wonder singing “True to Your Heart”, or Donny Osmond crooning through “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”, this movie still manages to churn out a triumphant orchestral musical score that adds layers towards its familiarity. I am of course referring to Christina Aguilera’s revolutionary debut in the 1998 original movie with “Reflection”, but preserved in instrumental circumstance for this spirited remake. Christina does remake the song in the movie’s post-movie credits, but it’s the work of composer Harry Gregson-Williams who truly takes the cake this time, ratcheting up the intensity and epicness of the track with a collection of trumpets and horn percussions that reignites the song without taking away what about it lingers on in our hearts two decades later. When capped off in the heat of the spirited transformation for the movie’s titular character, the song inspires a feeling of pride and no shortage of goosebumps from within us, and redefines itself as a day of reckoning for the poor unfortunate souls who oppose this force of nature with an identity of her own.
– Protagonist choices. There’s a lot that bothers me about this version of Mulan, but none more costly than the decision to make her a virtual superhero in the movie’s opening minutes. I’m talking primarily about her ability to define gravity and kick away sharp objects mid-air while riding on a horse. For a cartoon, this is fine because it’s simply that kind of world where literally anything is possible, but to relay this to a live action, real world setting, does its character and film a continued disservice. For one, it cuts short the evolving arc of Mulan, in that she doesn’t grow into the woman she was meant to be. Secondly, it completely halts any semblance of urgency or vulnerability that stems from a human character defying the odds. She’s very much a superhero fighting an army of mortals in an open battlefield, and for my money was built better in an original movie where we witnessed Mulan’s struggles and grew from them, instead of started off in peak condition from the get-go.
– Rating misuse. Nobody was looking more forward to what Disney could do with a rare PG-13 rating than I was. Unfortunately, what follows in execution barely scratches the surface, and what does materialize brings forth a series of logic-stretching situations that constantly took me out of the movie during the heat of battle. There’s a very minimal supply of blood seen anywhere throughout the film, and when I say minimal I mean a drop here or there during anything other than a moment where their permanency would resonate that feeling of danger that stems from a war this expansive. Aside from this, there’s not even a hint of a test towards language or semi-risky adult material to fly over kids heads, and satisfy the adults in the audience who grew up during a time when Disney cartoons were more daring than this watered down consequence-less drivel. This was a chance to really push the envelope of creativity one step further in Disney’s favor, but what we won’t see won’t hurt us, but will apparently kill those who were almost entirely picked apart somewhere in the disjointedness of rigid editing.
– Hard to swallow pills. Nothing personal to the movie’s production or legendary icons of rock and roll, but if you can’t tell Yifei Liu is a woman, you’re less visually inclined than Ray Charles. “Mulan” is one of those films that asks to breed convenience, and go along with a series of men who can’t see through ones gender because of a ponytail. I guess her Adam’s Apple was a casualty of war, lost somewhere between the scenes when Mulan eventually gives up even disguising her voice. There’s no attempt at a visual transformation, or even a momentary lapse in any other character questioning that she might not be who she actually says she is. Just a narrow path involving a man who never takes his clothes off or showers around other men. Come to think of it, this fits in well with the Disney mentality. Other than that, I just love a movie that takes place in China, where not a single Chinese character speaks anything other than perfect English. I understand Disney probably had fears with introducing subtitles to its audience, but if you want authenticity, this was the way to go. Without it, the movie is literally the definition of Americanizing Chinese patrons.
– Horrifying special effects. The decision to shoot the action or intense sequences with a high frame rate condemns the movie’s believability during scenes when it needs to hook audiences the most. Instead of natural stuntmen pulling off these imaginative feats, the movie sticks with Liu for the physical movements of the character. Which wouldn’t be so bad if the high frame rate didn’t slow everything down mid frame, and lead to a series of artificial movements so horribly lifeless that they simply don’t fit into the realism of the counterparts surrounding her. It often feels like Mulan’s character exists in a world somewhere other than the characters and physical properties she interacts with, and falls prey to the same weak effects work that were tiring by 2000 standards, when “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” even exceeded at such twenty years prior. The leaps and movements themselves are so spontaneously silly that a child could look at them and comprehend nothing about them are even remotely real, and for a movie that had this much time to perfect the movie’s computer generated effects work, I simply can’t believe that this was the finished result that they felt confident with.
– Underwritten antagonist. Even in the 98′ original, I had big problems with the movie’s weak villain character who was only there to stand as the triumph in the Mulan’s spiritual journey. The antagonist here is somehow even worse and more unimportant than that sloppy precedent, because it’s so bad that it screws it up twice with two different respective antagonists along the way. The first is the witch advertised throughout the film. This character doesn’t exist in the previous film, but I digress. Throughout the entirety of the film, she is built as the fork in the road to Mulan’s hope to save her family, and rightfully so considering she has supernatural powers. Unfortunately, the movie pulls a red herring with about twenty minutes left in the movie, and brings forth another challenger who we haven’t built or come to even remotely understand along the way. What are his motivations? World dominance, I guess? The switch robs us of the one thing we were building towards the entire film, and leaves Mulan with an outmatched, outwitted antagonist who the movie doesn’t even remotely care about.
My Grade: 5/10 or D+