MCN Commentary & Analysis

Review: Mulan (spoiler-free)

The opening of Mulan, after a magic drone ride through the lush, green Chinese countryside with some wise male voice over about the story we are about to embark on, reminded me of Beauty & The Beast. The camera swoops into a Hakka walled village, establishing the town of personalities and, indeed, Mulan, who is chasing a chicken.

It isn’t long before dad is telling little Mulan to hide her light under a bushel in order to be a traditional girl in a traditional world. This fills the void of an opening musical number like “Belle,” in which everyone opines on the beautiful, quirky girl with her face always in a book. (I bet she could handle a chicken pretty well too.)

Then, as fast a running bird, the movie turns into an Ang Lee/Zhang Yimou high-end chop-socky movie with some great Chinese action stars and the man who was once Bruce Lee.

The rest of the way through Mulan, the film hops back and forth between the two ideas. Fish out of water meets a legitimate Chinese war movie with the requisite touch of magic.

There is something about the reality of Mulan being a real-life teenage girl that changes the dynamic of the whole experience, as compared to the animated film. Director Niki Caro never mocks… never goes for the easy gag…. never forgets that her Mulan is a real life young woman.

As a result, there is something truly dangerous about this young woman pretending to be a boy to defend the honor of her family (and ultimately, to do much more than that). The frathouse culture that sometimes comes of military training is as uncomfortable as the occasional threats that lying to could lead to death or worse. But Mulan is not a sexualized girl at all, though the actress is beautiful. Caro & Co. don’t indulge in anachronisms. Nor is she a plain Jane who finds her beauty when she takes off her glasses or her kimono or her battle gear. She is from a time long past and she feels real.

There is a lot of classic moviemaking… characters you are interested in talking for extended periods. And it’s lovely. Caro’s films, large-budget and small, have included this. As impressive as Mandy Walker’s cinematography is, the intimacy brings the magic.

And then… it’s just fun. Big canvas. Solid action. Plenty of weird Shaw Bros stuff done with a great deal more sophistication. There’s the wacky boys in military training, a dumb jock and a round-faced goof amongst them, and – hee-hee – the cute one.

Yes… She will only become a great fighter when she rocks out with her… uh… hair down. This is no spoiler. And there are moments that read as silly. But that is part of the joy.

The reason the movie works – and it really works – is that you want to believe, you like this rather silent young woman, you are rooting for her to find her higher self, and Ms. Caro never gets in your way, making the experience too sweet or too sour.

There’s even a Marilyn Monroe homage… but I’ll let you find that.

After my 10-year-old watched the film with us (“What do you mean there’s no Mushu!?!?”), we turned on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but he wasn’t ready for the subtlety of that one. Executioners from Shaolin is probably a better fit. But he had a great time, even without Mushu.

As for whether it’s worth $30 to see now instead of in December as part of the regular Disney+ package… that’s up to you. I can promise you won’t feel ripped off by the movie. Value for the dollar is in the eye of the beholder.

4 Responses to “Review: Mulan (spoiler-free)”

  1. Hcat says:

    Had no idea that Gong Li was in this, that’s not enough incentive for the extra thirty, but enough (along with Caro at the helm) to give this a look in December.

    The end of the summer movie season is still sad even without a summer movie season.

  2. YancySkancy says:

    I enjoyed it and the girlfriend loved it. I see it’s getting a lot of criticism re pandering to China, but we just sort of went with it as a Zhang Yimou-like adventure with the usual tropes of a family movie based on folklore. Great to see Gong Li, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Jason Scott Lee, Tzi Ma, Rosalind Chao, and Cheng Pei-pei.

  3. Bradley Laing says:

    Some articles have appeared about “Mulan,” showing complaints. Will the complaints about “Mulan” lead to anything being different about Disney’s relationship with China?

  4. Ray Pride says:

    A chunk of articles about the Mulan-Xinjiang story are in the news feed.

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