Sunday, April 4, 2021

Mulan (2020): A Review



I am at a unique position to review 2020's much-delayed Mulan in that I have yet to see the original animated version. As such, apart from the absence of Mushu the dragon I cannot note what differences there are between the animated and live-action version. Mulan has many positive qualities but it's a bit hard divorcing its qualities from some of its production.

Hua Mulan (Yifei Liu) is the elder daughter of Hua Zhao (Tzi Ma), a once great warrior who now is infirm with old age and a war injury. The Rourans, headed by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) are invading China and the Emperor (Jet Li) orders all families to provide one male for his Imperial Army.

At first Zhao plans to go, but in the dark of night Mulan steals his armor and sword to take his place. Now disguised as "Hua Jun", Mulan channels her "chi" to become a mighty warrior. She also reluctantly makes if not friendships at least comradeship with her fellow troops. Chief among them is Huanhui (Yoson An), who sparks curious feelings.

However, the Rourans continue their war and the Chinese are unaware that Bori Khan has a secret weapon: the sorceress Xianniang (Gong Li). She not only is a shapeshifter but a powerful witch who can command great resources against Bori Khan's enemies. Xianniang sees a kindred spirit in Mulan, the light to her darkness, but Mulan will not betray her people. Mulan is forced to reveal herself and gain both her fellow warriors trust and family honor as she and her friends confront the Rourans in a final battle.

As I have yet to see the original Mulan, I certainly can't compare. What I saw in this Mulan was a beautiful looking film that had some issues in terms of character. The various sets and costumes were quite well-crafted, with the scenes of the Imperial Throne Room exceptionally dazzling visually.

However, I think Mulan suffered from being overly serious and stern, as if wanting to erase any suggestion that past versions had any sense of lightness. Even the few times the characters try to crack wise, particularly at the expense of chubby recruit Cricket (Jun Yu) or some comedy bits with Mulan's bungled tea ceremony, it falls flat.

Yes, war is a serious subject, but the lack of joy in any of their lives makes it hard to enjoy.

As for Mulan herself, her "chi" is essentially the equivalent of the Star Wars universe's "The Force". She does not grow to become a mighty warrior as she is a mighty warrior from birth. At the opening, we see her effortlessly float down from the highest roof in her circular village. By making Mulan essentially perfect from the get-go, you lose a sense of her growth as a warrior and a woman. Liu is fine as Mulan, able to do the warrior part but less confident when called upon for a hint of comedy.

The other roles are surprising in that Jet Li and Jason Scott Lee are almost unrecognizable. It would have been nice to have seen them fight each other, but also Li in particular didn't seem to be important enough to feature. I also think Hollywood has done Gong Li wrong by having her vamp it up to full force as this sorceress. She shows hints of wanting to be more fully-rounded but the script pushes her down again and again.

I do wonder about how the closing song Loyal, Brave and True works. It wasn't a bad song but for some reason both the delivery and the visuals made it look like it was a Bond theme.  

Mulan is not a bad film, but it could have been more. As it is, it's entertaining enough.


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