Mulan (2020) Discussion on spoiler

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Now that Mulan’s almost a week off, I’d like to take a closer look at the film. My friend and colleague, the writer Munir, will compare Mulan to his fellow host and take a closer look at the characters and plays. Since I already have a magazine with no spoilers, why don’t we get started, Munir? What do you think of the film as a whole?

Munir: Hey, Virginia. It’s good to be back. First of all, I’d say Mulan was the only living remake I was reasonably interested in. After the disastrous La Belle et la Bête in 2017 I finished the remakes and missed them all in 2019 (and I didn’t miss much, as far as I can see). But Mulan seemed to me to have potential, especially because it was different from the animated version, and it wasn’t one remake after another like most of the others. The trailers were good, and I was even a little excited. When I saw it, I was totally disappointed. Yeah, it’s not a copy of a cartoon, but that’s the only positive thing I can say about it. History and performance (with a few exceptions) have left much to be desired.

Virginia: I had a similar experience. I agree you didn’t miss much. The only remake I really liked back then was Dumbo. Mulan’s supporters convinced me almost immediately. The visual style and history were different enough to justify the watch. I sincerely thought that this could be the exception that proves the rule when it comes to remakes. Nevertheless, and I suspect you do not agree with me on this point, I still believe that the best thing that will come out of this trend is Cinderella 2015. It’s one of my favorite movies and it’s definitely the only Disney remake I can tell you about.

M : I have a few problems with Cinderella’s third act, but overall I’d say it’s one of the best. But with Mulan, I had problems with most of the movie. Yeah, the visual effects are great, but this is going too far. Mulan hasn’t had any character development, and if your main character doesn’t have a bow, do you really have a movie?

V : I couldn’t agree more. Mulan is one of Disney’s best protagonists because the character she undergoes has grown enormously. It is easy to empathize with them because their journey can be described and is difficult. One of the worst aspects of the remake, and perhaps the worst, is the main character. This version of Mulan is indestructible and overloaded. I still don’t like this character, but the fact that it’s Mulan is insulting. Mulan was a dynamic and imperfect character who made mistakes throughout the story. Of all the changes that were made, this was a big mistake.

M : That’s right, and Aife Liu’s performance is lifeless. There’s no charisma, no semblance of vulnerability. She’s just blindly doing her duty. And the ark with the witch was fully recorded. She had the potential to be a good character, but she was lost and her death meant nothing.

V : We agreed on a witch whose name, it seems to me, wasn’t even mentioned during the filming of the film (although it was published in promotional material). Disney seems to do that a lot. Look, look, look, look, look, look. Bruni in Frozen II. In fact, she was one of the things I wasn’t interested in at first, but Gong Li is a great actress, and the idea came to me. I found it strange to include a witch, because it seemed like they were looking for a more informed and realistic approach to the story, but in general I like witches. Still, she doesn’t have enough in the film to leave a trail. She has an excellent character design (and another beautiful actress), and I think it’s a good idea to show this as a dark parallel result for Mulan. But it doesn’t work, because they only talk to each other twice and the witch’s past is drawn in a line of dialogue she doesn’t even talk about. I think there are too many characters in this movie, and most of them suffer from it.

M : I agree. And for the same reason I was very unhappy with Mulan’s (if I may call it that) love interest. I was fine when they didn’t stand up to Shang, but what they did was terrible. I don’t even remember his name because he was born that way. And his dynamic with Mulan feels limited and has no chemistry.

V : That’s what I thought. Honestly, I found their relationship confusing. He pushes Mulan and calls her a little man, when she gets dressed it all goes wrong. This is all well and good, but when he later apologizes and offers to be her friend, she is heartless and downright rude in return. I know she wanted him to leave her so she wouldn’t see her body in the water and not notice she was a girl, but it was so cruel. And unlike him, she never apologizes and never explains why she did it, even though everyone knows she’s a girl. Eventually he reaches out his hand and she takes him for a while. I think the connotation is clear: they plan to meet somewhere down there, but it’s so embarrassing. I’ve never felt a connection between these two characters, and their relationship was not believable. I prefer Shang because of his connection with Mulan, which ranges from an aversion to friendship and mutual trust to a starting novel. He also had his own history and problems with his father, which made him much more interesting.

M : Oh, really? Moreover, the Mulan family (with the exception of the father) was very different. In the cartoon you never have anything against Fa Li, not even if she wants her daughter to live up to what is expected of her. You get the feeling she loves them. Here the mother is really angry and totally different from the others and feels that she uses Mulan as a prop and doesn’t see her as a daughter. On the other hand, the sister is a completely lost figure, because she appears briefly at the beginning to ruin everything, then appears at the end and is engaged. The irony is that Mulan comes back as a warrior and defies the rules of society, and that his sister just becomes part of the system, making you wonder if everything really changes or if Mulan is just an anomaly of the rules. Dad was much better, but that’s not surprising, because just like in the cartoon he had a great bond with her.

V : Yeah, I hated my mom. She’s so mean in that version, and I don’t know why. In the cartoon she was in love and only wanted the best for Mulan. In this film she constantly makes unpleasant remarks and even tells Mulan’s father that no man wants to marry her. That’s very rude, especially when it comes to your baby. I also thought my sister did nothing but ruin Mulan’s meeting with the Sampler, because it’s the only thing she ever did that affected the story. And as Mulan’s pseudo-girlfriend, she still doesn’t have chemistry with her sister. I never felt anything for her. I also think it was a big mistake my sister screwed up with Swatcher. In the cartoon it was such a disaster and such a shame because Mulan did it himself and blamed himself for embarrassing his family. Besides, it’s so stupid to show Matchmaker again at the end and make her faint when Mulan comes back. Who cares about this character or how she feels when she sees Mulan? At least the lively matchmaker was entertaining and memorable.

M : You mean part of the problem is that the whole crew was white? Because I know there were white directors in the animated film, and many of the crew members were white, but they had a screenwriter (Rita Xiao) and many Asian artists who took care of the look and design for the film. (For more details, see The Art of Mulan Jeff Curtty.) Here, the whole team was white and seemed afraid to make these characters memorable, but instead they treated them favourably for fear of hurting someone. But when you watch movies like Goodbye and Crazy Rich Asians, you’ll see how these movies display authentic characters with exciting arches and vulnerabilities. Everyone here is stoic, almost afraid to laugh and make the film completely lifeless. I don’t think there’s any point in just having variety on the screen if the film crew can’t capture the mood and feelings of the characters outside the screen.

V : It’s an interesting moment, and frankly, I haven’t even thought about it. It makes sense, however, because some writers are afraid to write flawed and plausible female characters for fear of hurting people or putting women in a bad light. The characters in this film (with two exceptions, in my opinion: Donnie Ian in general and Zi Ma as Father Mulan) are sweet and flat. If it wasn’t a Disney movie and I’m not usually a big Disney fan, I know I’d forget about it as soon as the review came out. Before I finish I’d like to mention a film that tries to make you feel older and more mature. That’s definitely the impression the trailer made, and when I saw the movie, I think that was the point. However, if that was the goal, some creative solutions are confusing. Why did they carve the scene in which Mulan steals her father’s armor and prepares physically and morally for the choice she’s going to make? It was a beautiful scene, visually, acoustically and for what it meant to the character. It’s a hard decision to make when your life is at stake and Mulan doesn’t know what’s going to happen. This is the first step Mulan takes to get the situation under control, not just to express his feelings. In a live film, the scene is simply cut out in a full combat dress. What a pity, a net loss for the whole film and especially for the character. It symbolizes the challenges of the whole film, in which Moulan finds everything easy. She doesn’t have to work on her decisions or face physical and mental obstacles, because she starts this film like a goddess. The other scene they remove for no apparent reason is the one that follows the girl worthy of the fight, where they discover the ruined village. Shang discovers that his father was killed in battle and comes into contact with the Shang Yu doll he found earlier. The little girl who owned it and all the inhabitants of that town were killed, leaving only ashes and rubble. For the first time, the war seems real to Mulan and his comrades. They trained and developed physical strength and discipline, but were not ready for that. Sheng wasn’t ready to accept that his father was dead and no longer in his shadow. Another decisive moment that is lost without equal or greater value.

M : I agree. I think that in their desire to do things differently, they forgot what made this story special in the first place, and hastily added changes that made no sense. As you said, Mulan is essentially a superhero without trials and tribulations, which makes history descend upon his face automatically. They didn’t have to copy the cartoon, they had to understand what makes these moments special, and find their versions, not just skip it and suck the life out of the film.

V : That’s too bad. I know I keep saying it, but it’s hard not to. So much has been lost in translation and little or nothing has been achieved. If you want to do a completely different version of the story, fine, do it. But if so, why all those interrupted dialogues in which songs from the original are quoted? Why play pieces of Jerry Goldsmith’s score on scenes they played in the animated version? The problem is not that Mushu and the songs are gone. The problem here is that the bad things have changed and the bad things have been saved. This film is such a waste.

M : I couldn’t agree more. Like most Disney remakes of live shows, it doesn’t justify its existence, except that it’s a cheap nostalgia to make a lot of money. Here we go. The only place I really smiled was when Mingnah Wen came by, because I love her, and she reminded me of the big version of the cartoon.

M : In summary, a new living Mulan may look good, but it offers nothing in terms of character, history or emotion. It is an inanimate novel, full of mysterious decisions and with mostly flat and ordinary scenes. It’s a perfect case of wasted potential. If you still want to see it, you can see it on Disney+, but it’s better to choose the classic animated version.

V : Or you can watch Hamilton.

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