For those of you who have stuck with my blog over the interminable months it’s been alive, you know that I am relatively kind when it comes to movies. I mean, I saw Rise of Skywalker, and I was not ashamed to gush over how entertaining it was.
Clearly, I have very low standards.
As a matter of fact, many of my so-called “reviews” are nothing more than gush-a-thons where I haphazardly talk about how much I liked something. It’s like I can’t do a serious review even if I tried. I’m just caught up with enthusiasm and Below Averageness.
However, every once in a while, a movie just incites my vitriol, and what is usually a happy-go-lucky rant turns into a harsh and critiquing diatribe. (For an example of this, in case you’re curious, feel free to check out my Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald or my Cats review.)
I haven’t been to see a terribly bad movie in a while, in large part because movie theaters are a thing of the past now, what with the pandemic and the temporary closure of all my local movie theaters.
Thankfully, Disney’s live-action Mulan movie is here to save the day!
To be frank, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. My boyfriend saw it first and told me it was terrible, so I was primed for abysmal levels of low-quality movie madness. When it turned out to be very “meh,” that was actually an improvement upon my expectations.
And in order to save you, my beloved Above Average readers, from having to watch the dang thing yourselves, instead of a mere review, I’m going to synopsis the shit out of this movie.
With a few healthy helpings of Below Average commentary on the side.
Are you ready?
Thus Begins My Below Average Synopsis of Mulan (2020)
We get a glimpse of young Mulan as her father (at least I think it’s her father) narrates in the background. She’s in a field whirling a long stick around like a sword. She’s doing a bunch of fancy moves while her father explains how gifted she was in utilizing her “Chi.”
I’m going to pause here to let you know that “Chi” is brought up all the time in this movie, and it basically means mystical-inner-energy-that-makes-you-able-to-do-incredible-feats-like-jump-really-high-and-do-mega-flips-a-la-Crouching-Tiger-Hidden-Dragon-oh-and-it-might-also-let-you-do-magic. It’s like the Force, but even more unexplained.
After seeing Mulan practice using her Chi in that field, we then see the small town where she grew up. It’s a quaint place, brightly colored and rustic. Mulan’s family lives there, including her father, mother, and sister.
While trying to round up some chickens, one of them escapes, and Mulan proceeds to chase it back into its pen.
I don’t know what to tell you, but that chicken must have some pretty strong Chi levels too. It engages in some highly dubious acrobatics, but Mulan is able to keep up with it, showing off her own ability with her Chi as well. During the chase, she breaks a Phoenix statue and pisses off all of her neighbors. Apparently, it’s not proper for little girls to be incredibly agile and gravity-defying.
Late at night, her mom discusses the matter of Mulan’s Chi with her father. The two parents decide they don’t want their neighbors to look upon their daughter as a witch, so they agree she must hide her Chi abilities. And as with any secret conversation, Mulan overhears everything. However, she acquiesces to her father’s wishes, and she spends the next few years tamping down on her gymnastics.
Meanwhile, this dude named Bori Khan wants to bring down the Emperor of China. He’s amassed a sizable force, but his ace in the hole is this “witch” named Xianniang. She is magic times ten. She has incredibly long nails to attack people, she can turn into a falcon, and her sleeves are deadly weapons.
Bori Khan doesn’t seem to treat her too well, but he has made promises that when he takes over China, she will no longer be an outcast for having incredible Chi. It’s now clear that Xianniang possesses great power just like Mulan, and she has suffered ostracism and discrimination because of it.
And it’s at this point that I’m like, “Dude, maybe Bori Khan’s the good guy.”
Anyways, war is upon China, so the Emperor sends his Chancellor to summon all the men in the land to fight. (If you’ve seen the cartoon, you know the line.)
We go back to teenage Mulan, and her upcoming meeting with a matchmaker. She gets dolled up and unhappily goes to see if she’s suitable for marriage along with her mother and sister.
And apparently, it’s a crime to be a good sister. During the meeting, a spider crawls onto the table, and Mulan’s sister is terrified of them. Noticing this, Mulan picks up a nearby teapot and places it over the spider to trap it. The matchmaker gets all pissy and is like, “Did I tell you to move that teapot? No? Then why are you doing it? Stop that.”
Mulan is forced to remove the teapot from the spot and reveal the spider.
Unfortunately, like the chicken before it, this spider has got a talent for gravity-defying jumps. It leaps into the air and causes immediate chaos. Mulan tries to salvage the tea ceremony by jumping onto the table and catching pots, but some of them break, and the matchmaker thinks that’s a valid reason for saying she’s a disgrace, completely forgetting the fact that she was the one to demand the spider be seen.
As soon as this meeting is over, messengers arrive to ask men in Mulan’s town to join the army. Her dad has no sons, so he’s the one who must go to war.
That night, her dad shows her his sword, which has the words for “Loyal,” Brave,” and “True” on them. (This is kind of important later.) He goes to bed, and Mulan decides to go to war in his place.
So, my big gripe here is that not enough weight is placed on this moment. In the animated film, Mulan cutting her hair and donning her father’s armor is one of the most pivotal moments in the story. The music is epic, the lighting is fantastic, and her exit is dramatic.
In this live-action version, she just kind of…leaves.
Anyways, her parents pray to their ancestors to help her out. That Phoenix statue Mulan broke while chasing the chicken is part of her family’s spiritual ancestors.
I guess getting to the damn army encampment is a huge ordeal because Mulan ends up in a desert, with no food and no water. While she lies down in exhaustion, a freakin’ Phoenix flies above her, showing her the way to camp.
I don’t know why that part was necessary to the movie. I understand that the Phoenix is a representation of her family’s ancestors. But if you take this part out, nothing changes in the plot. I mean, the meat of the story takes place during her training.
Mulan’s time training is one of the better parts of the movie. She actually lowers her voice to try and sound like a man, and she always volunteers for late-night watches so she doesn’t have to bathe with the other soldiers. If the movie had spent more time showcasing her becoming friends with her squad, it would have been ten times more enjoyable. Every time that happened, I forgot how confused I was by Chi.
Another thing I approve of is the change in love interest. In the animated film, Shang and Mulan are considered an item, and with him being her commanding officer, it’s actually a prickly subject if you think about it.
In the live-action movie, her fellow soldier Honghui is her love interest, and that’s a much better dynamic. They start out as rivals in the army, trying to best the other, but end up on friendlier terms. When they talk in close quarters though, Honghui reveals that since Mulan hasn’t been bathing at all this entire time, she has gained a noticeable stench. That was funny.
Mulan’s commanding officer in the live-action film, Commander Tung, is played by none other than Ip Man! Yup, Donnie Yen is kicking ass in Star Wars and Mulan. Unfortunately, I think he was underutilized here.
In the movie, Commander Tung notices that Mulan is an incredibly skilled fighter, and he comments as much to her. There’s this one pretty tense-ish moment when Mulan, after looking at the Loyal-Brave-True inscription on her father’s sword, wants to confess to Tung that she’s a woman. However, just as she’s about to, Commander Tung starts talking about how since she’s such a skilled warrior, he wouldn’t mind if they arranged a marriage between Mulan (who is going under the name Hua Jun) and his own daughter.
Sadly, this is where the training part ends, and the whole movies landslides down to its unsatisfying conclusion.
Commander Tung and his army are sent to fight Bori Khan and his forces. The scale of these fights is not really clear. You know how movies like The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers showcases the battle of Helm’s Deep perfectly, so that you know where your protagonists are at all times and you can understand how the fight is going?
This movie does the opposite of that.
For some reason, Bori Khan’s forces rush Commander Tung’s, and then they run away. Mulan is part of a detachment of horse riders that chases after the group. Every one of those riders is picked off by Bori Khan’s mounted archers except for her, and when she finds that she’s on her own, she does not tactically retreat. She continues forward alone.
That’s when she is confronted by Xianniang, the witch. Xianniang tells Mulan that they are very much alike and should therefore be fighting on the same side. It would have been really nifty if this convo had, I don’t know, been extended beyond this one line, but it’s not. They fight, Mulan gets a bit injured (by which I mean she loses some armor), and then…she has an epiphany.
She decides to embrace being “True,” just as her father’s sword says. She lets down her hair, even though that might not be a sound practice on the middle of a battlefield where flowing hair can a) obstruct vision, b) be grabbed by a close-range opponent, or c) catch on fire thanks to the explosive weapons your allies are using, and goes back to the main battlefield.
Since we’ve been with Mulan this whole time, we haven’t really seen how the fight has been going for the rest of the army. Turns out, it’s been going terribly. Bori Khan’s forces have bombarded Commander Tung’s forces with projectiles from far off, and Xianniang has been pestering them as a weird flock of birds (?).
Using previously unknown powers of teleportation, Mulan gets behind enemy lines (even though she had been in the middle of the battlefield not one scene ago), and she starts firing down on the opposing army with a bow and arrow. She has also placed abandoned helmets from her side on rocks nearby so it looks like there are more people with her.
Bori Khan’s trebuchets start casting projectiles over at Mulan’s position instead of at the rest of the troops, and since she’s situated near handy mountains, the force of those shots creates an avalanche.
The battle ends with most of Bori Khan’s forces being buried alive, and most of Mulan’s comrades surviving.
Afterwards, she goes up to her friends and commanding officers with her hair let loose, clearly exuding the fact that she is female. They tell her to get lost because that’s how the story is supposed to story. If she comes back, they say, they’ll kill her.
On her way back home, Mulan is intercepted by Xianniang, who found her again in the middle of nowhere for no explicable reason. Xianniang plays the sympathy card, and I honestly wish Mulan would have sided with her. I mean, Xianniang is right. Those dudes at the army are basically her oppressors. Why on Earth should she side with them? But the moral of the story is clearly that perseverance wins the day no matter how deeply ingrained gender prejudices are. Xianniang lets slip that Bori Khan survived and is going to capture the Emperor, and upon hearing this, Mulan rushes back to her friends in the army.
After reporting to Commander Tung about Bori Khan’s plans, Mulan submits herself to be killed as long as they believe what she’s saying, and that’s when Honghui steps up (finally) and speaks in her defense. The rest of her army buddies do too, and next thing you know, they are rushing to save the Emperor.
Mulan goes from being the outcast of the group to being the veritable leader. She’s in charge of her own squad rushing forward to save the Emperor. It is a drastic change, and one that does not feel entirely earned.
During this time, Xianniang has undergone a change of heart and wants to help Mulan by turning against Bori Khan. But even though she’s shown to have amazing abilities in battle, Xianniang can do nothing to stop an arrow from striking Mulan except place her body between it and Mulan. Xianniang dies in Mulan’s arms, and we’re left wondering why, if this relationship was so important to have its own dramatic death scene, it was not explored more fully.
I hate to rush through the ending, but the movie finishes up with Mulan saving the Emperor, Bori Khan dying, and the Emperor offering Mulan a top position in the army. Not much really happens beyond that. No resolution with Commander Tung offering his daughter to Mulan. No exploration of how powerful Mulan’s Chi really is. No resolution with her friends in the army. She does get to reunite with her family at the end. So there is that.
Mulan (2020) was not satisfactory, though I wouldn’t rush to call it the worst movie ever. I had really low expectations for it, which could be why its shortcomings didn’t rankle me so much.
And I watched the whole thing so that you, my favorite Above Average people, don’t have to.
I rate Mulan a below-average-movie-that-disappoints-more-often-than-it-delights.