Perhaps Disney films should be reviewed differently. In previous decades that may sound like a limp argument in favour of not subjecting children’s films to critical scrutiny, which is just as untrue now as it would be in the 90s. But in 2020 this is more a question of scale. When Disney releases a film, a significant amount of people will see it all over the world but particularly in the west. Big budget family entertainment can be like Hen’s Teeth so it makes sense that parents will flock to show their children this film. What then is the obligation of Disney?
Firstly it must be addressed that the film is problematic even before the curtain opens. Filming in questionable places, thanking unusual organisations in the credits and being possibly made under the watchful eye of the Chinese government is not ideal for any big budget production. From a globalist perspective Disney should be held to a high standard and should be careful about the precedent it sets for other western studios. The film’s star has also publicly criticised the Honk Kong Democracy Protests which further fanned the flames of controversy around the film and Disney’s silence over these comments was very audible.
Secondly the film has been made with mostly white Americans behind the camera. The director, producer, and four screenwriters are all white. Some will argue that this doesn’t matter, that anyone can tell any story. Again, context is important here. This film is THE big American film set in China. There won’t be a similar production next year, or the year after. We will have Marvels Shang-Chi eventually, but this is hardly a regular occurrence. Therefore, to have this story which will shape many people’s knowledge of Asian culture and perpetuate new stereotypes mainly being shaped by people who are not of that culture and have no stakes in it, is problematic. It’s clear to anyone that the film has borrowed a wide array of Asian aesthetics regardless of context and that it is using the word Chi in a strange way, analogous to The Force. Disney had an opportunity to lend it’s very loud voice to a community that could have said something very special with it.
The film is also a remake of the classic Disney cartoon that is much beloved to many. Although this cartoon has many similar cultural issues, it is also the product of it’s time. It has pop songs, a talking dragon voiced by Eddy Murphy and the impressionistic art style of an animated movie. The biggest problem with remaking these animated classics is that they were so much of their time. There are so many aspects that simply would not be accepted in a modern production that were expected at the time. Taking the wise-cracking dragon out of the story makes sense, but it does rob the film of a lot of it’s warmth and humour which they haven’t managed to replicate elsewhere. Having a group of soldiers objectify women is more obviously satirical when said soldiers are actual caricatures with distorted proportions. You can’t replicate that with live action performers.
The removal of songs is also a big decision. Recently the Disney remakes have kept their songs and haven’t necessarily benefitted for doing so. It’s hard to replicate the wonder of those sequences without just seeming to arbitrarily one-up them. Does anyone remember the live action renditions of Hakuna Matata or Friend Like Me more than the animated versions? I would suggest they don’t simply because animation has a visual clarity that make these moments more iconic. It’s a simply matter of appropriate amounts of visual information and it’s important to kids.
Finally we may talk about the film itself. Anyone who claims this should be the sole focus of discourse around the film is forgetting that films are not made without context. We live in a complex world and culture is a vital part of it. To consider films in a vacuum is to disservice art’s ability to reflect and maybe even shape our world. Before considering what Mulan is, it’s worth remembering where it came from and a moment’s grief for what it could have been.
Mulan (Liu Yifei) is a young woman who has incredibly powerful Chi and is therefore a great fighter (the movie is fairly consistent in it’s inaccurate portrayal of beliefs around Chi). When an invading army threatens the nation, every family must send a man to be a soldier for the Emperor (Jet Li). To spare her father (Tzi Ma) Mulan steals his horse, armour and sword and ventures off to battle disguised as a man. If she’s discovered she will be killed but for her family’s honour she is willing to do anything.
Mulan excels most in it’s aesthetic. It’s a hodge podge of oriental concepts that coalesce into a westerners fantasy of China which is stunning to behold. This China does however feel a little underpopulated. There aren’t the bustling crowd scenes that gave the animated film such a bold sense of scale. This is particularly felt in the battles. Although the fight choreography is fantastic and mostly complimented by the camera work, it can’t help but feel like small skirmishes.
Perhaps the biggest change to the original ballad and the animated film is that Mulan has superpowers now. She is able to harness her considerable Chi (don’t blame me, blame the four screenwriters) to achieve great feats of strength and power. Typically Mulan is portrayed as just a typical person just as capable as the men around her, but who’s real strength is her bravery and determination. This isn’t inherently a bad change, as it is powerful to build compelling drama around superpowered characters. Here the tension lies with Mulan wanting to hide her gender. It’s implied that her fear of the oppressive society around her is diminishing her powers and she will only achieve her potential if she stops being dishonest.
This is reflected in the other significant departure of the film, the presence of a witch named Xianniang who replaces the villain’s pet falcon. She is a witch and capable of transforming into birds and is a talented martial artist. She longs for a society that will accept her as she is, and believes she will have this with the invading army, despite the fact they all seem to hate her. She urges Mulan to take revenge on the society that scorned her, and therefore fulfils the common trope of the militant feminist who represents what may happen if our hero takes her quest for acceptance too far. Ultimately Mulan submits to the society that scorned her and hopes to earn their respect through great deeds. This is also very problematic.
Mulan is fine. It’s an entertaining blockbuster with minimal characterisation and some stunning visuals. It’ll keep you and the kids entertained whilst possible probing some emotional response around Mulan learning to believe in herself and achieve her full potential Some of the action is engaging and although it isn’t funny, it has a pleasant atmosphere and moves briskly. But films are not made in a vacuum and so although the film isn’t bad, it’s a great shame it wasn’t afforded the opportunity to be great.