Mulan (2020) (Review)

Seeing as there are many legitimate reasons to boycott Mulan, it certainly helps that it is awful. This takes an animated classic, and an evergreen story, and repurposes it as a flat, nonsensical mess with almost nothing of value. The film prods at the wuxia genre, as a way of legitimising it not being a cartoon this time, but has no idea how to play in that space. The filmmaking is infuriating throughout: scenes feel missing; shot choices are bizarre; editing makes parts of it almost unwatchable; all the acting is wooden and the film barely even establishes a tone. Again, nothing here works.

The story should be familiar, but it is now full of nonsense and contradictions. We also have characters who basically have superpowers, female characters with the ability to channel a spiritual force and perform magical feats. At points, they can do anything then at points nothing. We have characters catching arrows, shapeshifting and doing basically whatever – and then being utterly powerless and vulnerable when the plot wants to force an emotional beat or contrived narrative choice. The idea of a special power also cuts against the feminist heart that made the animated original such a longstanding favourite – especially with female audiences. In the cartoon, Mulan proves sexist dichotomies wrong by presenting an everywoman who is every inch as good as the men – and often superior due to her open mind more than anything else. There is a progressivism that empowers that character, not a connection to mysticism. The Mulan here is not empowering and you won’t see yourself in her. She is good because she can perform super human feats, not because of any inherent equality – which just doesn’t sit with the narrative thrust of proving women are the equal of men. It’s yet another point where the film does not work.

But, again, nothing works. Even in watching the opening scene we are treated to a whole host of issues that will define the film. There is the potential for fun and creative action here but it is so bizarrely directed. The camera is far too mobile to make a lot of the action readable, and cuts too quickly – and to strange positions – in a way that is utterly infuriating. At the start, Mulan as a child chases a chicken and the camera just won’t stick in one position. There are impressive feats in this sequence but the editing and camera work disguises them all, as it continues to do throughout the film. The scene also feels redundant, a way of proving a point about recklessness that seems utterly forced when we’ve just spent five minutes watching a young girl magically leap around a building after a chicken. The scene is so hyperbolic that to boil it down to ‘she’s a scamp’ seems bizarre. The film just does not know how to sell its narrative beats or how to establish character – and never gets close to working this out. The general sequencing is also bewildering, full of awkward transitions and head scratching moments. At points this even becomes amusing, as scenes clash into each other awkwardly and evoke accidental Kuleshov effects: Mulan gets to the top of a mountain and stares over the land below her with glee and relief; cut to scene of a village being brutally ransacked by invaders in a valley – clearly not what Mulan was looking at with such glee but the shoddy filmmaking forges this unfortunate connection.

Though, perhaps brutally attacked is the wrong phrase, which takes us to another issue: the bloodless, empty violence. Now, I’m not saying give children gore. I am saying that bloodless violence when people are getting slashed and stabbed is sanitising and implies a lack of consequence – and that that is a problem. It is violence as escapism, and as play for children (the way around this? Don’t have this level of violence in a children’s film. Easy). In a cartoon, there is already a clear disconnect from reality – the acts in this world do not directly reference reality. Mulan works as a cartoon. In this film, it all looks real and a real sword hitting a real person has real consequences. So, the film tries to cover this up with camera movements that are always over the top, and frequent cutting. To make the violence acceptable for children, they have made it ugly and unreadable. Which is such a shame as there is the potential for beautiful wuxia inspired set-pieces here. The locations are stunning and we do get some good choreography, but you can’t see it.

So what is the point of this? Well, money, obviously. However, the epic scale of Mulan could be a great live action film – especially one that leans into wuxia like this one thinks it does (there have been live action Mulans that are acclaimed). But, this film still has the sensibilities of a cartoon – a bad cartoon. The tone is all over the place – though it rarely ever feels established – and nothing feels real. This live action Mulan gains nothing from not being animated and the reality only hinders it. It brings consequences the film shouldn’t have and the verisimilitude of live action makes us ask questions we would never have asked of the cartoon (especially about how Mulan can get away with certain things during her moments of disguise). So, again, by all means boycott this film; however, take solace in the fact that the thing you are against is terrible anyway.

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