The movie-going world was in a great limbo when the pandemic struck. Go out to have a great time catching up your favorite films, risking your health (and others), or, just quietly whip up your coffee, crack open some snacks, and enjoy movies via streaming services?
Hammered by a lengthy span of consumer indecisiveness worldwide, theaters were, or are still, in jeopardy. While the likes of Christopher Nolan stood firmly behind his proposition that his mind-chewing film needs to be viewed in theaters, Disney has other plans in store for Mulan. Nolan is seen as a savior to cinema operators globally. Disney is not.
Instead, the Mouse House saw a grand opportunity to pair up two of their babies, Mulan and Disney+, and perform a large-scale litmus test on the world. Fans in the regions where Disney+ is available are obliged to subscribe to the streaming service, while paying $29.99 on top of that to enjoy Mulan as early as 4th of September. In contrast, for regions where Disney+ isn’t available, anybody can opt to watch Mulan in theaters nearby.
Preliminary reports have shown that the downloads for Disney+ app have spiked after Mulan’s release. Consumer spending within the app has also increased, assumingly with subscribers, both old and new, paying premium to view Mulan. So far, it seems that Disney has got exactly what it wished for; more subscribers, a healthy profit from that “Mulan surcharge”, and, skipping the theaters.
Of course, now everything sounds like a string of good news to us, but we have to remember: we are not Disney. Our focus should be on how Mulan is made, packaged and delivered. You should know whether Mulan is worthy enough to turn you into a new Disney+ subscriber, or taking some risks to turn up in your local cinema. Naturally, this is the aspect that we will look into today.
Mulan, having been directed by Niki Caro, joins the ranks of Birds of Prey (2020) and Wonder Woman (2017) in the increasingly popular trend of woman-directed films with a plot centering around a female lead. The results are movies cultivated in such a way that, they can have big moments or styles that signify women empowerment. These are pretty noticeable in Wonder Woman and Birds of Prey, but for Mulan… I don’t know. It is hard to quantify such traits, but Mulan kind of falls into the category of films that ‘delight’ women, rather than making them feel empowered.
Let’s first row through some of the fascinating parts about Mulan. Of course, the visuals are spectacular, as usual. Caro did not hold back on the colors, and, as ‘grown-up’ as this live-action Mulan is, vivid colors are on display everywhere in the film. This move strikes some resemblance towards Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall (2016), but the variety of colors is not as overbearing as the latter.
The Great Wall has been notorious for bombing hard back in 2016, due to low box-office returns and a high production budget, which I presumed to be hugely contributed by Yimou’s generous spending on the costumes. The results, at least in the visuals department, were hard to be ignored. Who would have thought that it is possible to make a vivid blue armor look tacky-free in a Hollywood movie?
Mulan certainly excelled in this area, and it is not exaggerating to mention that Caro had tapped into the best costume designers in the industry. The designs are not overdone, elegant, and most importantly, spot-on. Costumes aside, do expect the backdrops, props and CGI to be pleasant to your eyes as well, though the CGI is not as crazy as say, The Lion King (2019). Now you can start to see why I termed Mulan’s visual achievement as “as usual”, because Mulan is not the first Disney’s live-action adaptation in line to receive such an honor. Aladdin and Lion King did that last year.
On one hand, the audience (me included) are getting more accustomed and primed towards the astounding visuals offered by Disney’s films, and they are beginning to accept no less than what that has been set. On the other hand, with a production budget north of $200 million, surely something must be fundamentally wrong with the film if the visuals are still subpar?
With Disney just being Disney, you can further expect everything that you see on screen to be flawless and blemish free, something which is prevalent in the reincarnation of Disney’s animated classics since the days of The Lion King. You want Mulan to cut her hair in a similar fashion like the animated film? You wish. Even the horses looked well groomed and had undergone a strict fitness regime.
Despite the mood and nature of the movie, the star that shines the brightest in Mulan goes to the darkest character. Jason Scott Lee’s villainous Bori Khan might not seem like a great candidate to uplift Mulan, but in between Hua Mulan’s (Liu Yifei) empty stares and Xianniang’s (Gong Li) trivial talks, Khan is perhaps the only character that you can count on to maintain your connection to the movie, when everyone else feels increasingly distanced. Khan and Mulan’s father (Tzi Ma) are the only characters that stay grounded throughout the film, but because of the latter’s lack of screen time, it was always Khan who did the job.
Whenever Khan crosses swords with the good guys (and a girl) or vice versa, the scenes get entertaining in the form of acrobatic action sequences. Yes, Mulan’s ch’i movements (which is just a superheroic name to kung fu) are graceful and elegant, thanks no less to cinematographer Mandy Walker (a woman, too. Surprise), who even mentioned that Liu did 90% of her own stunts. She might not be Tom Cruise or Jackie Chan, yet, but to see a young female lead with such dedication towards her own stunts is admirable, nonetheless.
On top of that, the backdrop set-up of Mulan’s final showdown is a sweet call-back to Hong Kong’s very own action movies of the 90’s, which, coincidentally, frequently starred the likes of Jet Li. In case you missed out, Jet Li plays the Emperor in Mulan.
Now, if Mulan has a story to match its visuals and choreography, everything would have been rainbows and sunshine. Except, that it does not. It’s almost funny to think of how Disney managed to produce proper classics with animation decades ago, but now that they’ve grown into a giant, fearsome Mouse, those very same titles got ‘live-action-reincarnated’ into beautiful but soulless offerings.
It is simply too hard to brush-off how textbook-ish Mulan’s story-telling feels. Everything seems set on the stone right from the start, and the characters feel too well-prepared for what’s going to happen next, even before that event happens. “Alright guys, this is the part that Mulan is going to come off as a girl. Let’s be amazed for a second and then pretend nothing happened,” or “Hey, this is the part when Mulan needs verbal support, let’s throw our support the moment she has finished talking, okay?”.
It is up to you to spot more of such examples throughout Mulan, that is, if you still feel that the film is worthy for you to pay premium via Disney+, or give that much needed support to your local cinema chain. Even if you don’t mind the characters and plot being out of touch with the audience, I still think that the storyline’s habit to steer clear of any pressure build up will tire you eventually. Mulan may be loyal and true to the plot of the animated film to some extent, but the lackadaisical delivery translates into a mundane experience, despite having twice the budget of the original film.
But what about Donnie Yen? The force is strong with Yen since his appearance in Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One, and he has become quite a household name for movie-goers craving for some crazy, bad-ass action. I would advise anyone against succumbing to Mulan because of that Donnie-Yen-factor, because, despite dishing out sword-swinging action that may be too fast for Caro to film, there is very little that Yen’s character, General Tung, has brought to the table for Mulan.
If even big names in Mulan like Donnie Yen and Jet Li did not receive any meaningful development towards their characters, what do you think could have possibly happened to the rest of the characters? I think the case that we have here is rather clear. Apparently, no one in the production team managed to highlight the fate of the plot and characters, while the key persons got obsessed with which shade of red to pick for the costumes, or how to come out with graceful combat movements. While Mulan has certainly triumphed visually, the neglected script means that the team were fighting a losing battle right from the start.
Mulan did not get annihilated right off the bat per se, as Disney is still enjoying strong returns from the film as we speak. Mind you, that the moviegoers worldwide are still in an extreme state of hunger because of the scarcity of blockbusters, or because the theaters nearby to them are still shutting their doors. But once the dust settles and the nostalgic-hype is gone, we may finally see if the tide has turned.
The term “spectacular visuals, but lacking in soul” is getting increasingly popular with Disney’s live-action adaptations, and Mulan is no exception. At the very least, Mulan is supposed to engage the hearts of many simply because of the nationalist nature of the story, or delight the fans who turn up because of nostalgia. Yet, the movie relied on an entirely different strategy and attempted to coat its paper thin plot and characters with pleasing visuals and graceful action, which, may had missed the mark entirely. Yes, having access to Mulan in cinemas means that you may get something in return of your cash because of how big screens complement the visuals. But if you have no choice but to stream it, do not expect Mulan to bring honor to your home TV. And your $29.99–The Film Addict
*Mulan is now available on Prime Video
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