A battle rages and each family must decide how they should step up. People must consider what duty they have to honour it. Do they stay in the safety of their homes, uncertain of what the world will be like once they emerge, or do they head out, accepting all the risks this presents?
Yep, it’s Mulan verses Tenet. The two biggest films of the Summer are up against one another with one in cinemas and one streaming. Both are testing what audiences are prepared to do; will they go to theatres with the social distancing and increased hygiene measures attempting to halt infection or will they pay £20 on top of their Disney+ subscription to watch on their television? It isn’t overstating it to say outcome could have major repercussions for cinema and how big films are viewed in the future.
Mulan will be victorious of course. If just twenty percent of the Disney+ subscribers pay the extra charge it’s going to make £240 million. It is also a more accessible film than Tenet which is getting very mixed word of mouth. Of course it isn’t going to make as many Blu-ray or DVD sales later in the day because that fee gives you unlimited watches forever (unlike the premium rentals on iTunes) but I suspect Disney are going to get their money back and then some.
Personally I don’t think it is as good a film as Tenet but critical comparison is pointless, this little contest notwithstanding they are clearly intended for very different audiences. More significant is that it isn’t as good as the 1998 original which had the same story being told only with vibrant animation, songs and a comedy dragon. With the exception of Cinderella, I have found every one of Disney’s live action remakes to be inferior to the movies they followed but I kept watching them though in the hope that they might be good. In this case I am pleased to say I have been rewarded, it isn’t better than the cartoon but it is still spectacular.
Interestingly, considering the way people will be watching this, Mulan needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible. It may not have the visuals that animation can offer but it does make the most of what you can do with a camera. The cinematography by Mandy Walker showcases the Chinese vistas magnificently (and the New Zealand ones, shhh don’t tell) and the sets by Annie Kuljian and costumes by Bina Daigeler are similarly impressive. Director Niki Caro marshals and frames it all expertly as well. (Notice anything about all of those names? We’ll pick up on that later.) There are also a number of superb set pieces, my favourite of which was a wushu fight among the bamboo construction poles of a partially built palace.
The cast are all strong too. Yifei Liu is great in the title role and I hope Hollywood rewards her with more than supporting parts in silly action films like they did with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s Ziyi Zhang. She is supported by the familiar faces of Tzi Ma (brilliant in The Farewell and Arrival) and Rosalind Chao (you may know her best from Freaky Friday but she’s done loads of TV) as her parents, as well as the more widely known Donnie Yen and Jet Li as commander and Emperor respectively. To be honest Jet Li is a bit wasted but it’s an ornamental position.
Talking of hidden dragons, Eddie Murphy’s Mushu May not be represented in this Mulan but his role is taken by a Phoenix that turns up to offer support and navigational advice when needed so he’s kind of there in spirit.
The group of men around Mulan in the battalion are less well defined than in the 1998 film but there are some nice performances here too. (I realise I’ve not given a synopsis but you all know it right?) Yoson An most stands out here as the guy that gets closest to Mulan. Refreshingly there is no love interest in this version but there is definitely something a little Twelfth Night going on as this dude is drawn toward this person who he thinks is another dude but probably can’t understand why, or in this very oppressive culture won’t allow himself to entertain.
The tone and balance of the film is right too. This is a family movie about war and it doesn’t shirk away from the reality of battle in 400AD Northern China. It’s bloodless of course but this Disney ‘princess’ kills a lot of people. It feels like a regular kids film in the first ten minutes as young Mulan runs rebelliously around the roof tops of her village chasing a chicken but then it grows up a bit. Actually the chicken moment is nicely revisited later with a chase over different roofs after a more deadly bird, making a subtle statement about how the innocence of childhood informs our actions and reactions as adults.
Mulan was already a strong feminist piece, even in Chinese folklore, and this film digs down on this, presenting its protagonist as a loyal, brave and true (to herself at least) hero that exceeds the achievements of the men around her without losing her femininity. I mean she never really convinces as a man but you can except that as I guess none of the people around her would have thought for a second that a woman would have infiltrated their ranks so don’t question it. There is a nice moment where the mantle she wears to hide her womanliness saves her life which presents a nice metaphor and generally she is a hugely inspiring character and a great role model. In this movie there is another woman on the side of the bad guys and they use her to make valuable points and juxtapositions with a clear eye on gender politics too.
As indicated earlier the film also has a lot of women working behind the scenes as well. There are plenty of men on the movie too but Mulan 2020 is a real step forward for equality both on screen and in its production. Caro is from New Zealand which might partly account for a lot of the film being shot there but the cast and many of the crew are Chinese which is both how it should be and not how it would have been even a few years ago. As much as I rate the previous version I do recognise that it heavily Americanised the story.
I suppose the question is whether Mulan is worth the money you are paying for it on top of your existing subscription fee. Well, it is the first of Disney’s streaming releases that comes close to justifying a premium fee and I do think you are getting what you pay for both in terms of quality and production value. At twenty quid it is also still a lot cheaper than taking the whole family to the cinema.
It isn’t a film you have to see now though so you could wait until it is available as part of the regular Disney+ package in December. If you do fancy it though you’ll get some good family entertainment with a, slightly, more sophisticated and grown up edge which is a win in my book.