Mulan (2020)

Kam and I watched the new Mulan, and enjoyed it quite a bit.

It’s very clearly intended to be a wuxia movie rather than a musical for kids. I don’t know enough about wuxia to be able to judge it as an example of that genre, but I thought it succeeded as a movie pretty well.

It is much more a reimagining than a remake of the original Disney movie; it shares the same general plot, but it’s very different in a lot of ways. If you go into it hoping for the same kind of live-action remake that Disney has been providing for the past few years, you’ll likely be very disappointed. But from my perspective, the changes here are pretty much all for the better.

For example, most of the reviews and discussion that I’ve seen of it, both before and after its release, have complained bitterly about the removal of the songs and especially the removal of Mushu the dragon. Apparently many many viewers consider Mushu to have been an essential part (possibly the essential part) of the original movie. But I have always strongly disliked Disney’s comic sidekicks (I think there’ve only been two or three that I’ve ever liked), and I found Mushu’s absence in this version to be a relief. I do like some of the songs in the original—especially “Reflection”—but I don’t miss them at all in this movie. (And bits of an instrumental version of “Reflection” nicely appear in the soundtrack at a couple of key moments.)

Instead of comic sidekicks and songs, this new version provides lots of wuxia-style action (both combat and non-), two prominent new female characters (Mulan has a sister! The movie passes the Bechdel-Wallace test in its first five minutes!), and gorgeous big landscapes. Kam noted that, given the landscapes, the director and cinematographer must get very sad every time they see this movie on a home TV screen instead of the intended big movie screens. Halfway through, we considered pausing to write them a letter of condolence. :)

The cast surprised me: Jet Li as the Emperor; Rosalind “Keiko O'Brien” Chao as Mulan’s mother; Gong Li as the supernatural warrior/witch Xianniang; Ming-Na Wen in a cameo. (I tend to think of her as Melinda May from Agents of SHIELD; I keep forgetting that she played Mulan in the original Disney movie.)

One unfortunate thing about the cast that I didn’t know until after I saw the movie: “the movie’s Chinese-born star, Yiu Lifei […], who is an American citizen, voiced support for Hong Kong police” in 2019. :( As a result, there was a whole boycott movement, but I completely missed that.

A couple more thoughts:

  • I think that the writers and director are white. I’m sure that Disney was trying very hard to make the movie appealing to Chinese sourcelander audiences as well as to other audiences, and they appear to have done a lot of research toward that end. But I have no idea whether people of Chinese descent were involved in making the movie. (Aside from the cast.)
  • I particularly don’t know whether the movie’s use of chi/qi is at all in keeping with traditional ideas. It’s essentially magic here; one probably-unintentionally funny line makes it sound like it’s The Force. I basically considered it to be magic and was fine with it, but I don’t know whether people with relevant background would be put off by the way it’s handled.
  • There’s been a lot of controversy over Disney’s decision to charge an extra $30 to watch the movie. I figure that’s about the price of two movie tickets around here (and it lets me watch the movie as many times as I want, as long as I have a Disney+ subscription), but also worth noting that if you don’t want to pay $30 to see it (on top of the small monthly D+ subscription fee), you can wait until December and see it for the cost of a one-month D+ subscription. If you want to see it, I mean.

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