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Brooke Shaffer

Author, Ski Patroller, and Pasta-Eater Extraordinaire

Mulan: Then and Now

I think it was last summer that I posted a thing about The Lion King, how the new live-action compared to the original animation.  I mentioned that I would do the same for Mulan when it came out.  Well, we don't have Disney+ and even if we did, we weren't going to pay extra for it, especially for all the crap I was hearing about it.  SO we waited until it came out on DVD.  Caution, there may be spoilers.  Here we go:

Is it worth it?
My opinion, it was worth $2 at Redbox, but it's not something that I'm going to add to my collection.

Things you couldn't pay me to change

The biggest change that I actually loved was how the story was visualized through the eyes of Mulan's father.  In the original animated, you know he loves his daughter and there are some nice scenes (first and second scene under the cherry blossoms), but I think that it was done far more effectively in the live-action.  There isn't a lot of narration or dialogue, but what there is, it's rich, it's meaningful, it's poignant, it's beautiful.  I love it.  And the scene where Mulan and Zhou are talking the night before he is supposed to leave is absolute perfection in this story.  The very end dialogue between Mulan and Zhou is a little awkward, I think, but I can't decide if it's just bad writing or realistic considering the circumstances.

Things you couldn't pay me to keep

I am fully aware that chi is a real force in traditional Chinese beliefs.  But in the context of Mulan (Disney) it's treated as Chinese midichlorians.  Mulan's a superhuman?  Oh, she has Level 80 Chi.  No big deal.

The animated Mulan already had the awkwardness and the fight and the drive to take her father's place.  That is what set her apart.  That is what made her unique, but she was still human.  She was still a woman.  She still had to work and fight to prove herself.  She was relatable.  Having Level 80 Chi made live-action Mulan so unattainable.  Her sister would never measure up, nor any of the other girls in the village.  Yes, she's accepted at the end, but how are other parents supposed to tell their daughters to look up to her when their daughters only have Level 6 Chi?  Her brothers in the army would never be as good.  She would be their savior because she had enough Chi, not through any particular cleverness on her part.  She doesn't even accept/reveal her womanhood until after a minor pep talk, not because she has something to back her or because she's accidentally found out.  She's got the Chi to save her.  How do you level up your Chi and become just as awesome?  Well, screw you, that's what.

I will say that I appreciate that they don't drive hard the whole "feEMaLe EMpowErMeNt REEEEEE!" as the "misunderstood female in a man's world" shtick, but the Mary Sue is still very much present in the Chinese midichlorians.

Things I didn't expect to like

Nixing the Mulan/Shang relationship.  As a kid, it was expected.  As an adult with critical thinking skills, it didn't make much sense.  Getting rid of that relationship actually helped to clean up the story and restore the relationship among the soldiers.  I wasn't overly impressed with the pseudo-relationship that they used instead.  It should have either been taken to its end or scrapped entirely.

Similarly, I like how they redid the army and the training.  There were divisions and battalions and training and locker room gags.  It really helped to sell the relationship of the soldiers coming together as brothers.

I also really liked the Rourans.  Don't get me wrong, I loved the huns and Shan-Yu, and I really wasn't sold on the revenge theory in the live-action, but the organization and strategy was very well thought out.  Attack the Silk Road, distract the army, head for the Imperial City.

Things I wanted to like but couldn't

The music was pretty forgettable.  I can't even remember any of it...EXCEPT THAT FREAKING REFLECTION REMIX.  Every time something dramatic happens, the SAME DAMN REMIX plays.  Always the same segment of the same song.  And it comes up SO MUCH.  I love the song, but that was pretty much the only one they used.  No I'll Make a Man Out of You during the training montage, no Bring Honor to Us All during the matchmaker bit.  Nothing.  Or if they were there, they were so boring that I didn't notice.

Speaking of the matchmaker, I feel like their effort to make it as humorous as the animated version was so forced that it may have been better to keep it all serious.  I understand that you can't set the woman on fire and put it out with a teapot, but it was a fraction of the length of the original with a joke that is not readily expounded on otherwise except as a background gag that is barely recognizable.  So to bring it to the front in that way is stunted, awkward, and kills the scene.

And the third thing would be the phoenix.  I get that it is a Disney movie and kids probably don't understand the significance of the phoenix.  But it is so tired and I feel like it doesn't really fit with the narrative.  The phoenix dies and is resurrected.  I guess they're trying to say that Mulan has to suppress her Level 80 Chi until she can rise and burst into Level 120 Chi, but with exception of the hot springs scene, it makes zero sense.  I feel like it would be more appropriate to show some expression of Pokemon evolution.  Also the phoenix is wretchedly ugly and looks like a cross between a turkey and a peacock and painted bright pink.

Things I can't decide

The witch.  Let's talk about the witch.  From what I understand, the original epic of Mulan does have a witch of some form.  If that's true, then hey, there's a witch in the story.  If there isn't however, I feel like it was a huge burden.  You could have had the Rouran revenge theory and military strategy just fine without the witch turning into birds and doing funky physics maneuvers.  She doesn't actually add anything to the story.  If she were removed, nothing significant would be lost.

Now on that, I know she's meant to be some kind of foil for Mulan.  But she still doesn't make sense until you watch the deleted scene where Mulan and the witch meet in the forest.  Her pep talk at the hot springs is very strange except as some sort of plot device to INITIATE THAT FRIGGING REFLECTION REMIX and the confrontation at the end also makes no sense.

If the two of them have any good scene together, it would be the one on the ridge after Mulan's expulsion.  I think that was the only scene with worthwhile dialogue between them and the actual chance that Mulan might switch sides (which would have been a great plot twist).

Overall, Mulan with her "fledgling chi(nese midichlorians)" is supposed to be so super awesome that she can devastate half an army by herself.  And yet, this witch with her much greater power can't do jack except a few flippy do's and turn into birds.  Supposedly, she's helping the Rourans because then she'll be accepted for her awesome chi power.  Understanding that she is probably really hoping that things really will change and get better for her, it still feels really strange that with all the stunted, bad dialogue and confusing actions, that she would help Mulan at the last minute.  I feel like there was really awesome potential here, but it was tragically executed.

And I also have to mention something.  As anyone who has ever played video games (or has basic knowledge of the laws of physics) knows, once an arrow is fired, short of magic getting involved, it is subject to the laws of physics, that is, gravity and other forces acting on it.  In a basic example (like the movie) that arrow will fly along a calculable parabolic track.  Now then, good archers can judge distance and weather to correct their shots and be forces to be reckoned with, but once that arrow is gone, it's gone.

FOR GOODNESS SAKE, if you see an arrow coming at you, you don't need to speed up or slow down.  You need to step to the side.  The Prometheus School of Running Away From Things, to quote CinemaSins.  So the witch's sacrifice is entirely arbitrary and unnecessary except that the writers apparently couldn't figure out how to give her a happy ending where normal people accept her.  Never mind that she would never be recognized without her makeup and funky dresses.  So that was one thing that bothered me.

I also can't decide on the ending.  I do like that they left it open for the viewer to decide whether or not she goes back.  That was good.  It was the visit and offer itself that threw me off.  I liked the dialogue between the animated emperor and Mulan more than the live-action.  The scene where the emperor bows to her and the crowd follows is fantastic, and it segues well into Shang's visit, both in terms of the relationship and returning the helmet.  The live-action is a little strange and choppy, and I got no sense that the emperor was going to pursue her that much.

Other Notes

I guess it would make sense for the emperor to have Level 80 Chi since he's supposed to be the son of heaven.  And since we're doing Level 80 Chi characters, okay, fine.  But the animated emperor was composed and wise.  Live-action emperor is...well, it's Jet Li.  You can't have Jet Li without giving him some martial arts, I guess.  Maybe they should have made him the commander of the army or something.  I guess it was kind of nice to have some connection between the emperor and the Rourans, though the revenge theory is still hard to swallow.

I also really like the spatial orientation of the village, but when they try to make it look like there are a bunch of people packed into this apartment complex (and understanding that movie sets do need extra room to move around), why and how do the Hua family have at least two stories to their home?

Last Thoughts

Mulan is my Disney princess.  As a kid, she showed me that you can work hard and achieve anything you want.  You can be a woman and still measure up.  You can be a bad ass and still fall in love.  Mulan showed me that you can have it all.

Live-action Mulan tells girls that you have to be born with it, you can never measure up to someone who has it, and only those who have it can do extraordinary things and have leading roles; everyone else is secondary.  I think Mulan having a sister only drives that wedge further, which can be a dangerous thing.  You might say that kids will never remember, but let me tell you something: they do.  I still remember.  I remember Mulan saying that you can have it all.  Imagine this Mulan saying that if you aren't born with it, you'll never be good enough.

This was basically supposed to be an examination of the storytelling elements, how things changed, what worked, and what didn't.  As always, just my opinion.

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