Dishonor on Your Cow - Mulan Review
Updated: Sep 8, 2020
Mulan Review - "Dishonor! Dishonor on your whole family! Make a note of this: dishonor on you, dishonor on your cow!-" Mushu, Mulan (1998)
Bruh... It's hard to express how much Mulan let me down. I love the original version and was ecstatic that it was getting a live action remake with what appeared to be a heavy focus on martial arts. Plus a Chinese cast. I was so excited. I cooked up a bunch of food, invited some friends over, and shelled out $30 to experience it. I was really hoping for a Crazy Rich Asians type vibe. Instead, I got Last Airbender'd.
My Mulan review is going to have spoilers. Which is why I waited until Monday to post it. I want to give people a chance to watch the film and form their own opinions. But I straight up do not like this movie. I'm easy to please and pretty much like most movies. I really liked The Lion King remake (not saying it's better or necessary) and I thoroughly believe the Aladdin remake story is better because they made Jasmine an actual person. But Mulan dishonors us all. It does way less with 30 more minutes and a bigger budget; it takes out everything that makes Mulan such a powerful, strong, and inspirational character, and really shows why you need to have diversity behind the camera. If you don't want spoilers stop reading.
Okay, before I go in on everything that I didn't like let me talk about the stuff I did like. I thought the performers did a great job with what they had. They played their parts well, and worked magic with what they had. Also, it was cool to see Jet Li bring back the Yulaw voice from The One. The talent of the cast was underutilized and wasted. The film was visually stunning. The locations were well shot, the action was well captured, and the costumes were amazing. The DP had a lot of shots that played with depth that I really enjoyed. All of which was wasted by choppy editing. Lastly, I respect that they attempted to work in lyrics from A Girl Worth Fighting For word for word as dialogue. Sadly, it had none of the earnest and came off very demeaning.
First, I'm going to talk about how they messed up Mulan as a character. In the original, Mulan is this girl pretending to be a boy and becomes this exceptional warrior that outclasses her fellow soldiers but also inspires them and helps them to become better. She builds bonds with them that ultimately lead them to overcome societal norms and stereotypes. Mulan's exceptionalism is because of her will, her abilities, and her wits. She is resourceful, smart, and comes to realize who she is and garners power from it. In the live action movie, she is exceptional because she uses chi... Why is she a better fighter? She has chi. How is she able to take out an army that would have otherwise killed her garrison? She used chi to earth bend. Everything special about Mulan is thanks to her deus ex machina.
I was open to the chi at first, thinking that everyone had it but she was exceptional in her use of it. Like how there are hella fire benders, but Azula is a prodigy. That's cool and still makes her exceptional. But nah. Mulan and The Witch can use chi and are going to be discriminated against because of it. The Witch basically describes her experience as The Salem Witch Trials. Which is Western thing, China has their own patriarchal problems, but hocus pocus was pretty gender neutral and not cause for burning at the stake. As for Mulan, she already has to pretend to be a boy, but the film doubled down on chi being the reason she would prosecuted and discriminated against. When she reveals herself as a girl, there is never any condemnation of her chi at all. They build it up the whole movie too. As a kid, her adventurous spirit is because of her chi. No one wants to marry a chi user. Not one person gave 2 cents about her chi, they all turned their back on her as a woman.
Then there's The Witch. Having a witch irked me right away. Y'all said no Mushu to ground the movie, but you put in a witch who can possess people, turn into a swarm of birds, or a hawk? GTFO. Then you have a phoenix flying around as her guardian, but the damn thing is using Western phoenix lore instead of Chinese phoenix lore. The whole rise up again thing is not a Chinese thing. You could of had MUSHU DAMN IT!
But back to The Witch. Like Mulan, The Witch can use chi. But she can use chi to magical things, and not just juggle weapons by kicking them. This all powerful being teamed up with the Shang Yu replacement, Bori Khan, to help him take the throne so he can make it law to accept chi users like her. She is more powerful and reminds him of it in physically dominating way. That is, until he flips the tables by saying she needs him to make her dreams of acceptance come true. This ultra powerful witch is using this narrow minded dude to take over China so she can be accepted? Why is she dependent on this man when she can just possess him or any other person, or apparently take on the whole empire by herself? The power dynamic often switches between them, which makes it hard to tell who the ultimate villain really is and also impossible to care. That is until she dies taking an arrow Bori Khan shoots at Mulan... THE STUPIDEST PART OF THIS, Bori Khan shoots the arrow, she transforms into a hawk then flies past the arrow, and takes it in the heart. How are you fast enough to get past the arrow but dumb enough to impale yourself on it?! The Witch is given a scene to humanize her with her Salem Witch Trial backstory, but really it just lets you know that these women are only special because they have superpowers.
Outside of Mulan and The Witch, the other characters are pretty pointless. Bori Khan, looks threatening and menacing, and is a great visual adaptation of Shan Yu, but is completely mishandled. They introduce him by having him catch and arrow while riding horseback, and shoots that arrow back at the person who shot it at him. It's a dope scene. Then they have him being emasculated by The Witch. Which would be great if she was the ultimate villain and Bori Khan was some conniving weasel. But they switch the dynamic back and forth a lot, and neither of them establish any strong presence because of it.
Protagonist, ruined, Antagonists, ruined, now onto the supporting roles... useless. Shang, the young and accomplished general who trains Mulan and the rest of the troops in the original, is split into two characters, Commander Tung and Honghui. Honghui is a recruit who initially gets into a tiff with Hua Mulan, or Hua Jun in her male persona, that eventually comes to respect him as a warrior. He tries to befriend Jun, but as Mulan is pretending to be a boy, she pushes everyone away to retain her identity. Then there's Commander Tung, who has a stunning display of sword prowess, but otherwise just barks orders. There is a scene where he praises Hua Jun (Mulan) as being a good man and wants to introduce him to his daughter, but it only reinforces that no one knows who Mulan really is. I will say it is kind of nice there isn't a heavy romantic subplot in this movie, but it's because of failure to execute. They do give a pretty obvious hint that Honghui likes Mulan after he finds out she is Mulan and not Jun. It's nowhere near as interesting or engaging as it was with Shang in the animated version.
Another incredibly tremendous letdown, is the treatment of Yao, Ling, and Tien Po. In the film, they are technically there, with the addition of Cricket... who is now a person instead of an actual cricket... First off, the casting of these characters is horrible. Nothing against the actors, but none of them look like their characters. The thing about Yao, Ling, and Tien Po were that they were all physical extremes and opposites of each other. Yao short and stocky, Ling long and thin, and Tien Po big and round. It gave the characters a visual presence that is completely loss in the live action adaptation. I don't even know what Ling looks like, and Yao and Tien Po are given the exact same personality and facial hair. I don't know who is who. The characters are called by name, but operate as a group, and have no individual distinction. Ling mentions he has been matched with someone to marry, but I can't remember actually seeing his face. They also share no meaningful interactions with Mulan outside of the failed adaptation of A Girl Worth Fighting For and a scene where Mulan jokingly says she'll kill Yao herself. Then there's Cricket, who I think was supposed to be a clumsy goof that is good at archery. The gag with him is that he's lucky, but it is immediately ruined in his introduction as he says something along the lines of "I'm Cricket. I'm Lucky." They could have attempted being clever and go with naming the character Qióng, and let the audience realize he's the lucky cricket... But thought in the movie is obviously lacking. Of course they would give everyone Chinese names but give this character an English word for a name...
Aside from Mulan's father Zhou, The Emperor, and the Matchmaker, none of the other characters leave any impression at all. Mulan's father does a great job of being a likable father and the Matchmaker was perfectly cast in appearance and performance. The only reason The Emperor gets a mention, is because he's portrayed by Jet Li and he uses the evil Yulaw voice from The One.
So, every character is mishandled and watered down, which brings me to the story. Mulan follows all the major beats of the original animated feature, but fails to land any of the emotional impacts. It tries to achieve the same results without earning it. An example being, the village burned and ransacked by the Huns, Rourans in the live action, has zero emotional impact. Visually it looked good, but it does not evoke any sense of tragedy. I don't know if it was the cutting, the score, or lack of burned teddy bear, but it really didn't work. A big part is probably due to not having the joyful and upbeat contrast of A Girl Worth Fighting For leading into it.
The worst offender is Mulan taking out the Rouran Army. In the animated film, Mulan through resourcefulness and quick thinking, devises a way to take out the entire Hun forces using a firework to cause an avalanche. In this film, Mulan miraculously crosses an open battlefield to get behind the enemy, unnoticed, and trick them into catapulting a giant burning boulder into the mountain that causes an avalanche that reaches way further than seems possible. Also, it seems like Mulan uses chi to earth bend more intensity into the avalanche... which again is another example of the choppy editing.
Not only does the film fail to match impact of the original film's story beats, it fails to track logically. For example, the tea scene with the Matchmaker, the pot and cups are seen full of tea, but when they break they are completely dry. Then when the remains are shown it's wet all around the debris... Then Zhou's injured leg. Normally he walks with a cane, but he tightens up his brace to walk without it when he receives his conscription to join the Emperor's army. He noticeably has trouble walking and he eventually falls as his leg is unable to bare his weight. Then he uses the injured leg to stand up... The very next scene after an argument with Mulan, he storms out of the room without a cane and no trouble walking... There's also a scene where Commander Tung orders the left flank of his army, which is easily hundreds of soldiers, to chase down and flank Bori Khan and his forces. However, the left flank appears to mean the 6 people to the left of him... It was a powerful and seemingly strong strategic command, but executed in lackluster incompetence. There is a lot failure in the logical tracking of the film, which culminates in The Witch flying faster than an arrow, only to impale herself on it rather than catching it.
I expected the saving grace of the movie to be the action. The trailers set the movie up to be a martial arts epic. I was hoping for gorgeous fight scenes and high-flying combat... What we get is gorgeously choreographed fights cut like an Instagram commercial. There is maybe 2 actual fight scenes, with the rest being a montage of cool attacks. Most of the "fight scenes" play out like a turn-based RPG. The only thing missing are the characters calling out their attacks before hand. The wire fighting is largely used for slow motion dodging, wall-running, and Mulan kicking weapons at people. It's entirely uninspired and loses any entertainment from the third repeat of the move and starts to get annoying by the fifth time. The most offensive use of the wire-fighting is during the final hallway group fight, when two villains run up the wall for three steps and back to the floor for absolutely no reason at all. This is then followed by Mulan wall running to meet a third villain wall runner. Which is actually kind of cool, but the two pointless wall runners dug too deep a hole for you to be impressed.
Basically, Mulan was interpreted and executed like The Last Airbender. The team believed they knew better than the source material and completely missed the core of the content. Where the original Mulan is a story of a girl who breaks through societal norms and prejudices through her own character, she is now a superpowered girl that gets people to believe her. Martial arts is watered down into gif-worthy fighting moves and a movie about Chinese characters is somehow about the Salem Witch Trials. The vibe I get from the movie, is that the people behind the film wikipedia'd chi, saw Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon one time and thought it was cool, and had the original script translated into Mandarin and re-translated into the most formal English possible. The original film did not feign to be Chinese, the dialogue was perfectly natural and spoken with or without accents. This live-action attempts to force the actors to speak in accents by matching poorly translated cadences.
I think the source of all the shortcomings starts behind the scenes. There's too many white people behind this movie, none of whom seems to have put in the work to understand and appreciate the culture as the original team did. The original was written and directed by white people, but Disney's animations teams are notorious for their research and interpretations on whatever culture or topic they are writing about. The film team on the other hand, did not put in the work and just based their work on the original and some cool things they associate with Chinese culture. So, it's a half-assed effort on an already second hand account of Chinese culture. On top of that, they force Western lore and mythology and disguise it as Chinese... There's a huge focus on "4oz being able to move 1,000lbs" which is a popular saying associated with Tai Chi. But that itself is the white interpretation of a Chinese saying. I would say the original Mulan is an American telling of a Chinese story and the live action is a white story told using Chinese people. It dishonors us all. Also, to further prove the whiteness of this movie, the available audio and subtitle languages are pretty damn white... there's literally no Asian languages available, let alone Chinese languages for the "Chinese" movie.
The live action Mulan is 30 minutes longer, yet accomplishes far less than the original. I first thought, it was maybe because the original had musical numbers that moved the narrative. However, the live action has a narrator and it still doesn't move it along. The film has an entirely Asian cast, yet still feels like a bunch of white people who are misinterpreting Asian culture. I truly admire the cast for doing what they could with the horrible material, but in the end it still did not work out. Mulan not only fails to respect the source material, it fails to respect Chinese culture by yellow-facing white culture. The live action Mulan brings dishonor to us all. My Mulan review gets a 1/5
With that being said. I would say it's worth a watch. I don't recommend it for the $30 price tag. But when it's on Disney+ December 4th, definitely worth watching. I also came up with a drinking game that would add entertainment value. It's a movie that's fun to call out.
Mulan is out now via Disney+ Premiere Access. Paying the $29.99 for Premiere Access will make the movie available on your Disney+ account for as long as you have an active subscription.