Hearsay says that either, “Walt Disney Studios’s 2020 Mulan stinks. Universally,” or that “The movie’s solidly OK… for a Disney remake.” I would name some parts forgivable. Other parts? Hard to tell.
Part 1: Little Things
Folks do call this film “pretty.” The color is evocative and the lighting folklike: of high contrast, yet softly glowing. Mulan’s lakeside training montage exemplifies a clear night scene (looking at you, Game of Thrones season 8). I hold few qualms on suspending disbelief: changing “Reflection” (originally the early “I Want” song) to where the filmmakers did is clever foreshadowing, pulling further tension instead of what trailers implied might be the climax, and suiting whatever theatrics the movie chose to add.
Many critics condemn the movie’s choppy edits and tame establishing shots. I’ll concede that these issues shrink the story’s scale and its pacing, though I would say alongside that they open up some haunting transitions. Take Mulan’s first night in camp. The shots flit between two timelines: her present self shuffling about, and her past self watching her sleeping family the night she left home. The camp scene seemed but a pretty (boring) lighting parallel—both parties sleeping in an odd sense of dread, in different environments —until past-Mulan’s appearance reveals the timeshift. Adrenaline distorting time? A quiet sense of abandonment? Sign me up.
Still, for a movie whose main motif seems to be birds, there exists an arbitrary amount of sword-sharpening, and I beg whoever put the imperial infantry in a basin, against cavalry, to please reconsider.
Part 2: Big Thing
A bigger annoyance of this film (and one I will preface by saying I too have no solution, and some will fundamentally disagree with me in return—that my idea of “annoyance” is no failure at all; that struggling with message, even unexplained, is fine) is that Mulan makes motions towards any one statement then backs off. It backs off irresolutely. And yet it backs off hurriedly.
Why does the emperor, so far a nonentity, pep talk Mulan during the final fight? It seems for all the muddled court dynamics earlier, we ought to remember historical folks “respected” the man. Let us assume he earned their respect through his fighting ability and persuasive speeches. Why do Xianniang and Böri Khan stride out of their conquered city side-by-side? Perhaps it’s implying that Böri Khan only trusts her when victory is assured, but more likely (pushed along by Xianniang’s preceding, non-suppressive combat sequence) we’re signaling the audience that, “hey, she matches him because she has all these flashy powers too!”
Much has been made of the thought that Mulan’s parents are mouthpieces, and that many scenes would have been stronger if they were left subtle. Frankly, most of the movie’s characters are mouthpieces, which, deplorable as I find the very idea, could have been excused if the story had a coherent message for which to “mouthpiece” about. Unfortunately, it does not.
The movie held potential for popular relevancy. The training montage begins with the soldiers climbing a mountain. Commander Tung says, “only the strongest will reach the summit,” as the camera zooms to the crumbling, barren, and well-lit peak. I wonder if the filmmakers had kept these qualities of the peak in mind; if so, I’ll guess that one person on the team sighed in the final product’s mixed messages. The peak’s desolation could have solidified some aspect of “strategy over strength,” but it would seem Mulan—our hero—scales said peak to prove she is more badass than the men, validity of brute strength at all notwithstanding.
“Representation”? Much appreciated. “A cultural step”? Sure, even. But the story adds nothing. Mulan is the product of appeasing a hundred artistic movements, falling steps short of being a movement itself. I ask if we saw this coming… It’s okay, Niki Caro. I think you tried.