On Thursday, March 19th, 2020, I was scheduled to attend a press screening of Disney’s Mulan. I thought this would be a totally normal event – and the last screening I attended was not too long prior: The Hunt (a movie so egregiously bad I couldn’t even bring myself to review it). But on March 12th, I was informed that the screening had been cancelled as the release of the film had been postponed. Needless to say, a few other significant events have taken place since then.
Because of this, Mulan 2020 kept piquing my interest. I was already invested into the concept of the film: the original 1998 film is a classic, and while this one was certainly different, I thought the trailer looked really good. In any event, when the time finally came for its release, I couldn’t wait to take a look.
HONORING THE PAST
2020’s Mulan is a testament to Disney’s in-house production teams’ ability to make only one kind of film anymore: the high-budget, low-effort blockbuster. This is really all you can find looking back at their previous releases. From shot-for-shot live action remakes of their animated successes, to 22 superhero stories that they know will draw an audience just because of the Marvel name. They know that if the poster says ‘Disney’ on it, people will buy it, and because of that, they really don’t have to try.
So can you tell I wasn’t the biggest fan of Mulan 2020?
The movie also draws upon its recent predecessors stylistically. That is to say, even though the tone of the plot is very different, if this movie came on during a Marvel movie marathon, it wouldn’t be all too jarring. It’s shot in the same way: big establishing shots of the lush CGI world they built, faster-than-you-can-blink cuts during action sequences, and shots that are staged almost exclusively with trailers or promotional videos in mind.
I will give them this: in our home theater, we have a very good screen, and this movie was a great way to showcase that. Most of the recent releases on Disney+ are presented in 4K UHD with Dolby Vision, so even a shot of a bug crawling on the ground looks fantastic.
One of the biggest headlines about this movie before it even came out was that it was a more ‘realistic’ telling of the Mulan legend. They nixed the songs, the dragon sidekick, and all the other cartoon-y choices that the 1998 version added themselves.
I was very interested in this as soon as this was announced. Yes, the soundtrack to the 1998 version is good, but it only has four songs anyway, so I wouldn’t miss them (sidenote, if you like the soundtrack of the original, do yourself a favor and research how much of a mess it apparently was to make). And while Mushu is a fun character, I’m always in favor of changing that type of thing for realism – I’m a big fan of how it was done in Aladdin on Broadway to change the monkey sidekick into three human friends of Aladdin.
However, maybe the biggest reason I was looking forward to a new take on the plot, was following the recent Lion King movie – a full blown shot-for-shot remake of the original with almost nothing added and almost nothing removed. A new telling of the story means that it’s more likely to justify its purpose as a live action remake, something that none of them have been able to do thus far.
Ultimately, this was not the result. The movie relies very heavily on its audience’s pre-existing knowledge of the original film, despite being so starkly and, honestly, harshly different from it. It’s loaded with visual references to the original. Something will happen, and the film will pause for a beat, and wait for the audience to say “Hey, that’s the thing from the original movie, I remember that!” Or the soundtrack, which, while not including the lyricized songs from the original, plays the instrumentals of them in emotional moments, so you again say “Aww, I remember that.”
I say it comes off as harsh because while the movie devotes so much time to profiting off of the audiences memory of the first, it’s also completely different plot-wise. While we hear the powerful instrumental of ‘Reflection’ from the first film, we watch our new Mulan use the force to kick arrows into the chest of a nameless enemy.
Yeah, I guess we should talk about the force.
MULAN’S MIDI-CHLORIANS ARE OFF THE CHARTS
1998’s Mulan is a movie that empowers young girls to take a stand, and shows them that even if the world says they’re of less value, they can be just as strong and powerful as those that hold them down. You would think that, in (current year), 2020’s Mulan would try to do the same. And to an extent, it does, but it does so oh-so strangely.
From literally the very first scene, Mulan is described as using Chi. Now, I’m aware that chi is a real thing in Chinese culture. It’s described as an underlying principle in traditional Chinese medicine or martial arts. And, while it is a ‘force’ that is in tune with your energy flow, the movie treats it as a midi-chlorian-style ‘force that binds us’ that can be used to grant someone jedi-like abilities in dexterity.
It’s underlying message may be one of female-empowerment, but the movie pushes very heavily that Mulan can only succeed because she has some innate supernatural ability. She is a weak fighter – everyone in the Imperial Army seems to be. But by harnessing her ‘inner Chi’ she can be ‘just as good as the men.’ It’s very bizarre, and honestly belittles her character. She’s never able to take down opponents one-on-one: every single fight she takes part in ends with her “controlling her Chi” to do a flip-kick and toss a spear or an arrow back into them.
The film even does a Revenge of the Sith-level side plot where a villain who has mastered their Chi tries to influence Mulan into joining the ‘dark side,’ so that she can realize the full potential of her power.
THE HIGHEST BUDGET HALLMARK MOVIE
Obviously I felt strongly enough about this to make it the title of the review, but it’s true. The movie is all around just pretty mediocre. We followed up our viewing of Mulan by watching 2019’s The Lion King, which, let’s just say, I’m notably not a fan of. At least with The Lion King (while upsetting that it exists), it is still just ‘The Lion King’ so it’s a fun story with fun songs and is just fun in general. Mulan 2020 is really very different from the original film in about every aspect. This upsets me, because like I said before, that normally would be a reason that I would enjoy it. But it’s different in a few too many ways.
This is a humourless, bland, movie. There is action, the music is good. It’s very pretty to look at. Most of the costumes are nice. But I don’t think I would ever bother watching it again because most unfortunately of all, it’s just boring.
This Mulan is the equivalent of, instead of watching the original film, someone just describes to you the original Ballad of Mulan upon which it is based. The pacing is very strange, so it feels like someone just telling the story in a very haphazard way. And, despite starring seasoned vets like Donnie Yen and Jet Li, the acting is notably bad. Aside from Jason Scott Lee, every actor here gives the most lackluster boring performances of their career. For some, like Jet Li, it feels like the only filmed one take before he just walked off set and they had to use it.
Because of all of this, it truly feels like a Hallmark movie in both it’s plot and it’s production. The acting is subpar, the plot and writing is very low-quality, the special effects feel rushed, the list honestly goes on.
There’s more I could say about the plot alone, like how the villains (specifically the witch Xian Lang) are legitimately the only redeemable characters. Every member of the Imperial Army and of her own family dislikes and belittles Mulan, and she relentlessly follows them to the ends of the earth regardless. Meanwhile, the villains of the movie, donned in all black, with mysterious intent and magical witch in tow, provide a Palpatine-esque alternative that actually sounds way more appealing than what any of the other characters are offering Mulan.
I don’t want it to sound like this is a terrible terrible movie that is not worth anyone’s time. It’s not. It’s, at worst, “okay.” But it’s also the -nth “okay” movie that Disney has released in a row, and it’s tiresome at this point. This is objectively a better film than The Lion King, for example, but it’s so boring and bizarre that that’s like saying an ant bite is better than a bee sting – I’d still rather not have either.
What makes it worse, is that it’s thirty freaking dollars – or at least $29.99. Not including the Disney+ subscription that everyone who will watch this movie undoubtedly already has. Very, very few movies are worth that much, and there is absolutely no universe at all in which this one is.