Review: Mulan (2020)





I was so excited for this movie. So excited.


Of all the Disney princess movies of my youth, Mulan was the one that resonated with me the most. Here's an ordinary girl thrust into extraordinary circumstances, who triumphs not because she's a special snowflake, but because she works hard and doesn't give up and overcomes great obstacles to save her country. Instead of, you know, just looking pretty and winning the heart of a prince. Plus it had amazing music and excellent comic relief.


All those things are missing from the remake.


I'm going to say the obvious just to get it out of the way: I miss the songs. I miss the humour. I don't think these are things that absolutely have to be included for it to be a good movie, but their absence is stark. I understand not everything from an animated movie is going to translate over into live action; I'm not saying they had to perfectly replicate these elements of the animated film. But to lose them entirely made me sad.


Now, onto the real problems.


To me, the remake's biggest flaw comes from how they restructured the narrative from The Hero's Journey to The Chosen One. Rather than following Mulan's transformation from a culturally disappointing daughter to a national hero, the movie opens with a scene meant to demonstrate that Mulan is already the best. She's got qi, which is essentially a superpower. She has preternatural reflexes, instinctive fighting skills, and stellar acrobatic abilities. She also seems to be the only character in the film (aside from the evil bird-lady) to have these abilities. She's clearly a standout. Yet because she's a girl, she's supposed to suppress this side of herself and focus on getting matched with a husband.


The matchmaking scene was awful. Over the top. Mulan's sister as a character is totally unnecessary, and as far as I could tell, only existed for the purpose of this scene. Maybe her existence (and eventually fulfillment of the "good daughter" role) was somehow supposed to soften the blow of Mulan following a different path? Score another point for undermining the movie's whole message. Regardless, not only was the execution of this scene a hard miss, it came in jarring contrast to the very somber tone of the rest of the movie.


Mulan's story revolves around her taking her father's place in the emperor's army because he's injured from a previous war and likely wouldn't survive. When Mulan steals his armour, sword, and conscription scroll in the middle of the night, this should be both a touching and empowering moment. After all, she's making a sacrifice, right? She likely won't survive either, right? Nope, because she's got qi, and since everybody else seems to be just a regular person, she'll clearly outmatch everyone she encounters. And since we already know this about her, instead of the moment being about love or self-sacrifice, it becomes about the chip on Mulan's shoulder. I have nothing against a character trying to prove herself, but again, the execution was a miss.


(Also, personal preference: I like when a character has to prove herself to herself, not just to the external forces trying to hold her back. I never really got the sense that Mulan didn't believe in herself, but rather that she had to contain herself in order to conform to her society's sexist expectations.)


So Mulan pretends to be a boy and goes off to fight. Her time in training is underwhelming - I'm struggling to recall anything that happened. People were being mean to her, boys were snuggling with each other, someone stumbled on her trying to take a bath... nothing sticks out as being well done. Except Mulan's boy voice. I'd buy that she was a dude, albeit a young one.


There's a scene where she's fighting with her love interest, where, for whatever reason, she's not very good. I didn't buy that. She's got qi! And if qi doesn't magically make her a better fighter in that moment, it shouldn't magically make her a better fighter later in the movie. (Which, spoilers, it does.)


I did believe that carrying buckets of water up a mountain would be tough, though. Keeping your arms straight for that long with pails of water that must weigh upward of thirty pounds each? The fact that anyone short of a strongman could do it would amaze me.


(Guess who can do it, though? I guess qi makes you super-strong, too.)


Ugh.


About halfway through the movie, the trainees are drafted into the war and get their first taste of combat, and Mulan encounters her real enemy: the evil bird-lady. (Google tells me her name is Xianniang, but as she can turn herself into birds, I'm sticking with the nickname.)


This woman is the only other character in the film who appears to possess qi, or at least make use of it. She's regarded as a witch, and, for reasons unknown, serves the evil invader guy so that she'll have a place at his side when he takes the emperor's throne. Even though something tells me that if she really wanted to rule the country, she could easily do it without him.


Anyway.


The bird-lady/witch and Mulan have a heart-to-heart about being the same and having to stick together, but Mulan's not ready to go to the dark side, so then they fight, and Mulan takes a throwing star to the chest that somehow slices through her armour but gets stopped by the leather strapping she uses to keep her boobs down. That, she decides, means it's time to stop pretending to be a boy and go show her army buddies who she really is.


It's also worth noting that she hasn't really done anything yet to benefit the army, and that she knows full well that if she's discovered, she'll be expelled from the army and bring dishonour on her family. It doesn't really seem like the right time to reveal herself to me, but what do I know.


Mulan proceeds to ditch most of her armour (why?), let down her hair (why?), and return to the battlefield to reveal herself. She arrives to find her troops under attack, and actually does a cool maneuver to get them out of the pickle that only requires a little bit of qi. Instead she relies on her brains, and I like that.


But even though she just saved their lives, everyone is horrified to discover she's actually a female, and her commanding officer immediately expels her. She says she would rather die (also a cool move), but he tells her that's what'll happen if he sees her again.


There's some other stuff here I don't really remember - Mulan goes off on her own for a while, and I think she cries in a very, very rare show of emotion. Then somehow she learns that all the attacks have been a feint, and that the bad guys are already at the emperor's palace. When she returns to her commanding officer to inform him, he's preparing to behead her when all her army buddies come to her defence. The fact that the female lead would never be beheaded in a Disney movie only kinda-sorta undermines Mulan's bravery, but it doesn't make or break anything. But what happens next is totally bizarre.


Her commanding officer puts Mulan in charge.


Um, what?


Yes, she's just provided critical information, and yes, she's done some good on the battlefield, but you were just about to behead her, dude! And now you want her to lead?!


I don't get it.


Moving on.


Mulan and her buddies go off to the emperor's palace to save him, but he's already been kidnapped. The evil bird-lady shows up and then takes off again, and Mulan chases after her, leaving her friends to hold down the fort. Surprise, surprise, the bird-lady leads Mulan to where the bad guy is holding the emperor hostage, then proceeds to take an arrow through the chest to save Mulan's life.


The evil bird-lady wasn't evil after all!


(If anyone over 10 didn't see that coming, shame on you.)


What follows is an epic sword fight between Mulan and the bad guy, which somehow ends up on top of a suspended beam, and culminates in Mulan snagging the bad guy's sword, slicing through the beam's rope, and sending the bad guy to his doom.


But wait! He's not dead! He takes one last shot at Mulan, who uses her qi powers to kick it right back at him, and yep, now he's dead. And the emperor's saved! Yay!


Things wrap up when the emperor offers Mulan a place in his personal guard (which is the greatest honour in all the land), but she turns him down so she can return home to her family. But lest her family think less of her for taking off in the middle of the night, all her army buddies, acting on behalf of the emperor, follow her home and announce to the whole village what a hero she is, and that the emperor himself thinks she did good. And she gets a new sword, because she lost hers. The end.


...


There were some bright spots, I'm happy to say. The scenery was beautiful. The cinematography was well done. The Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style acrobatics were... um... well, they weren't as over-the-top as they could have been? And I'm always down for a kickass female lead.


But.


Oh, the buts.


The story was a mess. I think the change in structure was the first crack in the foundation, and then nothing they built after that could be solid. Mulan's superpowers (I mean, qi) really threw off the balance of power. The bad guy was just no match for her. As for the evil bird-lady (the only other character with qi, remember), well, she wasn't evil after all!


So where's the drama? What are the stakes? The movie comes right out in the first scene and tells us that Mulan is the chosen one, and then strips down her hero's journey until it's meaningless. She doesn't have any real obstacles to overcome. Nothing she does has any consequences, at least none that are realized. There's really no character development, for her or anyone else. She doesn't learn anything. She didn't undergo any sort of change or emerge a better person. So what was the point? What did anybody learn? Not to underestimate women? At least, not to underestimate women with qi? That anybody can be a hero? At least that anybody with qi can be a hero?


Can you tell I'm hung up on the whole qi thing? If changing the story's structure was the first crack in the foundation, then qi was the hammer that struck the blow.


Male or female, alien or human - if you're going to give a character abilities beyond those of a regular person, you'd better step up the rest of the story. Give her an equally matched villain. Give her high stakes. Give her an Achilles' heel. Make her struggle under the burden of her responsibility.


This isn't the only movie to collapse under its own premise. I had the same problem with Captain Marvel and Man of Steel. Yet somehow it's more disappointing, because they had such great source material to work with. They did a whole lot of dicking around, and for what?


One star each for the cinematography and a female lead.