Sunday, November 22, 2020

Down to Business: MULAN

Disney’s first Mulan is a great androgynous adventure musical. The 1998 film about a brave girl in ancient China who disguises herself as a man to take her father’s place in the army is vibrantly animated with fun songs and terrific action sequences, cut with generous comedy and a commitment to being a casually open-minded argument for gender fluidity. It’s fantastic. Now here’s the inevitable live-action remake, because Disney appears determined to regurgitate every one of its animated classics. At this point, I wonder if the studio has a mandate to filmmakers requiring each remake to be twice as long (or more) and half as good (or less). You have to admit the consistency, at this point, is amazing. Some have merit, but none best or equal their inspirations. For a while, Niki Caro’s Mulan looks like it’ll hold its own. Done up like a fantasy — with a new side-villain in the form of a shape-shifting witch (Gong Li), and talk of Mulan filled with “chi” as if it’s The Force — it’s painted in vibrant reds and greens and oranges borrowed from the Zhang Yimou palette. The film follows the broad outlines of the original, with Mulan (Yifei Liu) flunking a matchmaker’s test before stealing the armor, sword, and conscription scroll of her old man (Tzi Ma) and heading off to boot camp. The characterization is efficient, and the early camp scenes with likable fellow soldiers have a pleasant crackle. And who doesn’t like a good training montage? The score, too, has some nice melodic references to the memorable songs that have all been excised here, along with the dragon sidekick, in favor of aping the historical epics that are better done when its a Yimou or Tsui Hark.

That’s about the extent of the call-backs, though, and, while I much prefer the attempt to deviate somewhat from the original (far better than the soulless carbon copy of The Lion King that disgraced our screens last year), the attempt has nonetheless removed its sprightly energy, and its sense of character-based cause-and-effect. Instead we have beats hit and lessons learned, with clunky exposition (or paraphrases of missing song lyrics) and clumsy speechifying reducing the dramatic stakes instead of heightening them. Secrets are revealed when the movie needs them, not when they make the most dramatic sense. Gentle romantic tension between Mulan in drag and a male soldier is strangely tamped down, and the movie consistently elides the original’s gender fluid undercurrent. It’s also, one coy nighttime dip aside, strangely unconcerned with the actual bodies involved. (Why bother transcribing an animated movie into on-screen humans if you’ll put less attention to the physical form?) And because the film is a more somber affair, it really starts to drag in the back half. Most of the comedic relief has been removed. It has too few action sequences, despite kicking up some mildly Wuxia-adjacent energy in its better moments—and despite casting Donnie Yen and Jet Li in choice supporting roles, only to have them stand around in fabulous costumes instead of, you know, getting in on what they’re among the best in the world at. The cast is so great, one wishes the movie was at their level. The movie is totally functional, but often empty, too often missing a reason for being beyond the cash at hand.

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