‘Mulan’ is just another Disney Action Movie

September 11, 2020

My faith in Disney’s live action adaptations was spent a long time ago. I went into “Mulan” with no expectations at all, and I was satisfied to find that I never needed any. Like its predecessors, Disney’s latest adaptation lacks life, plain and simple. The actors seem bored, the special effects are too sharp to believe and the editing manages to be jumpy and bland at the same time. The saving grace of the film is its spectacle of colors. I fell in love with the pale reds, blues and yellows of the good guys contrasted with the blacks and browns of the bad guys. The colors play against a hazy landscape of mountains and stone edifices. The film is constantly dreamlike, even at its most excited. As a set of stills, “Mulan” is beautiful. As a moving picture, “Mulan” does not hold water.

It is interesting to note that, despite being a live action adaptation of an animated film with a talking dragon, the new “Mulan” manages to exude more unreality than ever before. The live action version removes Mushu and replaces him with a new antagonist, a witch named Xian Lang who makes ample use of every ounce of CGI smoke available to her. Her presence within the film begins subtly enough as a shapeshifting ally/prisoner of the bad guys. We are introduced to her as a dark mage with the intimations of darker powers. A shot of the ground shows her melding with the shadow of a desert wanderer as she possesses him. The idea is creepy as its execution is cool, and I was excited to find that the director had seemingly taken a massive leap in introducing a more intimate antagonist to counteract the brutish Huns of the original film. 

Unfortunately, the subtlety of this new character does not last. When the first real battle of the film begins, Xian Lang surrenders her subterfuge to attack with blasts of smoke, ninja stars and magical, whiplike capes. It’s Marvel movie b-roll set in Mongolia, and she’s the supervillain. While the witch is putting on her weightless fight choreography moves from within the castle, the new Huns are scaling the walls of the keep just as they did with the Great Wall in the original movie. This time, however, rather than climbing grappling hooks, they are literally running up the walls of the castle. I’m not joking, the shots look as ridiculous as they sound, and the nauseating camera spins that accompany the sequence do not help in the slightest. This scene is particularly disappointing because the original was such a wonderful introduction to the Huns. 

In the original animation, the Huns attack under cover of stars and torchlight. With heavy grappling hooks and staggering numbers they overtake the walls and barely fail to prevent the alarm flare from being lit. Despite this moment of victory for the Chinese, their enemies are undaunted. Such dominating terror and cunning is completely lost in the new Huns. In the live adaptation, they are a horde of brutes with the power to scale vertical surfaces with their legs. Regardless of their new historically accurate portrayal, they have only become less interesting.

The fights don’t get much better. The action is always either too slow or too fast. Slow motion is employed abundantly. When the motion isn’t too slow, it is too fast. Sometimes, rapid cuts combine with lightsaber-esque swordplay to create sequences that are too rapid to handle. When the Chinese forces finally muster and face off against the baddies, we ought to feel anxious for the recruits that haven’t even finished their training. What we ultimately get is yet more action movie filler. Flurries of dancing blades and arrow trick shots fill screen time without introducing an ounce of tension. Perhaps these antics would be more welcome in a lighthearted animated film, but “Mulan” carries itself with all of the emotional dread of a real war movie. 

The project winds up with an identity crisis that surpasses that of its own titular character. “Mulan” wants to be a Disney movie and a medieval war drama at the same time. It obviously wants to say so much about women and war and self-determination, but it tosses all of its opportunities for character building aside for a string of empty spectacles and boring introspective shots that ultimately say very little. Xian Lang’s onscreen presence as a brooding powerhouse of an antagonist never quite develops into something more substantive. If all of the characters actually spoke to each other at length, perhaps the film could get somewhere.

An inability to control pacing lies at the heart of this movie’s defects. Where the original film had quippy dialogue and songs to fill the time between action sequences, the new “Mulan” is all introspection. It is a very quiet movie when nobody is being cut down. The best sequences in the movie are those that dwell on Mulan fighting by herself. Whether on horseback or dueling with Xian Lang, the viewer relishes the opportunity to actually root for somebody. The scene involving the fight with the witch upon a frozen mountain pond is a particular treat, though it ends all too soon when Mulan is cartoonishly thrown against a boulder and knocked out.

I am glad that “Mulan” was released in the wake of so many other adaptation failures. I might have gotten my hopes up and been crushed otherwise. Disney simply does not know how to handle the medium of live action. The studio overcompensates and falters. The camera is obviously not a tool that Disney possesses even an ounce of their old mastery with, and it is a shame that they are practicing the craft on their most iconic works. Had this film been given another name, perhaps it would not have been so offensive. It would be lackluster regardless. If you are looking for pretty pictures loosely connected by mediocrity, give “Mulan” a shot. If you want a great movie, seek out the original animated film.

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