Movies

Disney's Mulan Is an Extravagant Mediocrity

The studio’s decision to thank repressive Chinese government authorities, meanwhile, makes it something far darker.

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As a movie, at least, there is nothing particularly wrong with Mulan, Disney's latest and most explicit play for Chinese moviegoers, but there is nothing particularly right about it either. It's skillfully crafted, as high-gloss modern blockbusters tend to be, and it moves efficiently through an entirely predictable set of narrative beats. But there are no surprises, no moments of real awe or wonder, no scenes or ideas that stand out; even the genuinely extravagant production work seems designed less to wow and more to hit a particular focus-grouped spec. The movie's most notable trait is its bland consistency. It is lavishly perfunctory, spectacularly just fine. Mulan takes "pretty good" to a whole new level.

That's par for the course for Disney, which has recently specialized in paint-by-numbers luxury epics constructed out of recognizable intellectual property, whether in the form of purchased brands like Marvel or Star Wars or in live-action remakes of animated classics from the studio's vault. Like recent adaptations of The Jungle Book, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, Mulan falls into the last category: It's based on the studio's 1998 animated hit, which was itself a retelling of a centuries-old Chinese legend about a young woman who disguises herself as a man to take her father's place as a warrior. 

But this version has not only been remade in the image of its predecessor; it has been refashioned in the image of Disney's other contemporary properties, most notably the recent entries in the Star Wars franchise. While the animated original was a G-rated family film with a wisecracking dragon sidekick played by Eddie Murphy, the live-action reboot is a dutiful PG-13 action spectacle built around a powerful female hero. 

Mulan isn't the disaster that Disney's most recent Star Wars entry, The Rise of Skywalker, turned out to be. In both story and character terms, it's a more polished final product, which is to say that it basically makes sense and does not make a mockery of its source material.

But it clearly draws from the same well as the J.J. Abrams–era Star Wars films. There are no lightsabers to be found, but there's a family sword, an imperial power struggle, a band of raiders led by a man in black, and a mystical energy source that gives the movie's titular heroine great power and special aptitude as a warrior. Disney was apparently hoping that a box-office force would once again awaken. 

Alas, just weeks before Mulan was set to be released, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down theaters in the United States, putting the film's theatrical release on hold. Instead, nearly six months later, it has been released to much of the world as a premium add-on to its parent company's streaming service, Disney+.

For about $30, you can finally have the theatrical experience at home. The problem is that it is not the theatrical experience. Even with a big-screen television and surround sound, you're still watching in your living room, with your dog snoring nearby and the delivery guy ringing your doorbell. The experience is less summer blockbuster and more Blockbuster Video. 

Mulan also shares with the Abrams-verse a timid and studied thematic emptiness, an avoidance of any specific ideas or questions that might upset anyone, anywhere, at all. Mulan fights for honor, for family, for finding herself and owning her power, which is to say she fights for vague and inoffensive banalities that could not possibly stir up any political or cultural controversy. The movie reads as an extended attempt to dodge saying anything about anything in any way, except that nice things are nice and good things are good. Who could argue with that? 

The real world, however, did not cooperate with Disney's plan to avoid ruffling feathers: Parts of the movie were shot near China's Uighur concentration camps, and the credits thank Chinese authorities who help administer those brutal facilities, where as many as three million people are reportedly held against their will in buildings ringed with razor wire, patrolled by guards armed with cattle prods.  

The expansion of global trade has greatly benefited both American and Chinese citizens, and large corporations can sometimes serve as cultural ambassadors, even in countries with repressive governments. But Disney increasingly relies on the box office power of Chinese audiences. Its cooperation with China's Communist Party regime, which restricts the number of foreign films that can be shown each year and implicitly censors American studio content, is one reason for the careful blandness that permeates so many Disney products.

What this means, however, is that a film like Mulan is inherently tied up in the ugliness of governments and politics—indeed, in some of the ugliest political repression on the planet. Judged strictly as a film, Mulan is merely an extravagant mediocrity. But as a cultural proposition, it embodies something far, far darker.

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  1. >>bland consistency.

    is everything now.

    1. I will likely be the last one to see it, and the price tag on top of the subscription fee is absurd. I hope they fail miserably and are adequately and appropriately publicly humiliated for being the greedy little bastards they are. With a $30 premium cost, the only thing that would drive an audience to this movie is extreme COVID boredom or having raised such little monsters that parents will pay anything to get the urchins to shut up for 2 hours.

      That said, this isn’t the first movie to thank a government that has severe human rights issues for their assistance in making a film, so let’s not pretend that taking out that line would make the movie any better. We consume products every day that are made in the same damn country and carry a “Made in China” tag on them. How is this now suddenly so much worse? It isn’t. Their biggest fault according to Sudderman is that they neglected to scratch his particular itch just this once.

      More importantly, the idea that there isn’t a political or social message in the film should be celebrated, not reviled. WTF happened to being tired of Hollywood preaching morality and political correctness? Sometimes folks can just tell a story without moralizing. We all know Suderman is an idiot, but I thought for once he could do something just for fun, not crying that he had to watch and listen for 2 hours without hearing the beat of his particular political drum.

      1. >>having raised such little monsters that parents will pay anything

        iow “the economy”. i won’t see it because i don’t do Disney but it’s a 25+ year thing at this point not a China thing

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  2. The cartoon was mediocre too.

    I’d like to see a multi-picture epic based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

    1. the delivery guy ringing your doorbell.

      And by delivery guy, you mean Mom with a slice of meatloaf, correct? And Dude, delivery guy is not preferred nomenclature. Delivery person, please.

      1. Not supposed to be a reply. Damn you reason.

        1. fwiw i was picturing a multi-picture epic of his mom answering the door for deliverypersons.

  3. China has money and lots and lots of people to spend it on entertainment. And the government there is not one little bit tolerant of criticism intended or implied [see Winnie the Pooh].

    Disney likes money, and makes movies to earn it. They will do what is necessary toward that end; dissidents you say? And what’s an Uigher, anyway? As long as the issues can be kept separate and distinct [and out of sight], no problem.

    I just wish I had access to their internal communications on this: “Damned Uighers, they fuck up EVERY THING!”

  4. There are so many high quality films of this type out of China, I find it hard to watch them when they’re in English. I prefer to hear the Queen’s Mandarin and read subtitles.

    1. And most of those films won’t cost you $30 plus whatever at least one month of Disney+ costs to see either.

      1. I’m getting Disney + for free right now because it came with my cell phone package, but yeah, it costs something above that basic subscription.

  5. “The expansion of global trade has greatly benefited both Americans and Chinese citizens, and large corporations can sometimes serve as cultural ambassadors, even in countries with repressive governments.”

    This idea falls apart completely when those large American corporations give up on American ideals in order to do business with the repressive government.

    The whole idea behind bringing them Starbucks and blue jeans is that they convey the underlying values that allow Starbucks and blue jeans to exist in the first place. If you kowtow to the CCP and remove all those ideals you’re not influencing them.

    That’s fine, go ahead and make your money, but this idea that you’re helping “Westernize” them or whatever with a movie like Mulan is bullshit.

    1. >>If you kowtow to the CCP and remove all those ideals you’re not influencing them.

      nope you’re just making a filthy bloodstained buck.

      1. Redbacks? Or is that too close to Redskins?

        1. more akin to redneck. which is okay because white men are awful.

    2. “The whole idea behind bringing them Starbucks and blue jeans is that they convey the underlying values that allow Starbucks and blue jeans to exist in the first place…”

      While I admire the ideal, I believe the real goal was to tap into a very large and lucrative market. As such ideals are very relative and disposable; if American companies can sell their shit for good profit and enjoy their own [Stateside] freedoms at the same time, then fuck the other guy. Not their problem.

      1. Oh I agree, I’m not faulting Disney for making as much money as they can. That’s their job.

        What I’m saying is you’ll get no credit for doing social good by making propaganda pieces for the CCP. The rejection (or at least malleability) of those American values should also open you up to a great deal of criticism from Americans. If cancel culture had any merit at all, Disney would’ve been canceled over this.

        1. “If cancel culture had any merit at all”

          They’re just way too busy with their own isms right now.

        2. And yet they wouldn’t make a movie in Georgia because of a proposed abortion restriction bill.

    3. One can do business with kommunists and still retain one’s morals. But Disney is not just doing business with Winnie the Pooh, they’re kowtowing to a petty tyrant. China made their own fake Disneyland, they can make their own fake movie.

    4. Totalitarian regimes are a threat to freedom everywhere. Humanizing a culture that has caused the death of more of it’s own citizens than any other in human history is not the way to make the world a better place.

      As to the economics, that government should be ripped off and starved every chance we get. It needs to be clear that the current regime is the enemy of the people, not their savior. War with China is inevitable unless there is another revolution.

  6. “But as a cultural proposition, it embodies something far, far darker.”

    Yeah remember those days when there were protests against China over Tibet. Then Hollywood gave up that schtick when profits got bigger from Asia. And the NBA caved in. And then the Chinese communists launched a bioweapon at us to disrupt the election and our economy. Took over Hong Kong and probably Taiwan before too long. And now Biden is the leading candidate and he’s pro China all the way.

    So no I don’t think it embodies anything darker because the media will not report it except on page 30 and as with covid or climate change if you dissent against the commies you will get canceled everywhere. That’s not darker that is normal business as usual. And nobody will give a shit because we managed to get more distracted by riots, wildfires, blmantifa nonsense, and anonymously sourced bullshit articles that get debunked but still reported on long after (aka russian collusion aka impeachment on non crimes)

    1. >>And now Biden is the leading candidate

      not really.

      1. Really, in a list that includes “the Chinese communists launched a bioweapon at us to disrupt the election and our economy,” that’s what you’re quibbling with?

        1. more like in none of the universes is Biden a viable candidate let alone leading anything real

  7. “the credits thank Chinese authorities who help administer those brutal facilities, where as many as three million people are reportedly held against their will in buildings ringed with razor wire, patrolled by guards armed with cattle prods. “

    I usually poop on Suderman, but I want to give him credit for being one of the few Reasonistas to mention the Uighur holocaust.

  8. No way in hell am I paying $30 to watch a movie. I’ll wait for it. No, I won’t, not this movie.

    Bill and Ted’s New Movie is $20. Still outrageous for a home viewing, so I’ll wait until it’s done streaming and on DVD.

    1. >>Bill and Ted’s New Movie is $20

      four friends make it $4.00 apiece. like the original.

      1. I couldn’t get excited for the new one at all. I mean, the first two were fun and all, but they’re also 30 years old and are more fondly remembered by late-stage Gen-Xers for being a fun time capsule of 1990’s California, before the state started its decline into becoming a socio-political cancer to the American West. The trailer for the new one struck me as a less-pretentious version of thirtysomething or The Big Chill.

        Shit, if I want that kind of nostalgia, I’ll just watch the first two movies.

        1. your stepmom is kinda cute though.

          shut up, Ted.

          remember when I asked her to prom?

        2. Everything I know about San Dimas I learned from Bill and Ted.

          1. Or Raging Waters commercials.

          2. San Dimas High School football rules!

  9. “Mulan fights for honor, for family, for finding herself and owning her power, which is to say she fights for vague and inoffensive banalities that could not possibly stir up any political or cultural controversy.”

    Mulan looses her father’s sword, and is given another one by the emperor–once she decides that her honor compels her to serve the emperor over, above, and rather than her father and her family.

    Because you missed the propaganda message doesn’t mean it wasn’t the point of the film. This film was not made for American audiences. Disney made a propaganda film for Emperor Xi–targeted at average people in China.

  10. It’s based on the studio’s 1998 animated hit, which was itself a retelling of a centuries-old Chinese legend about a young woman who disguises herself as a man to take her father’s place as a warrior.

    I think I saw this movie – Yentl, with Barbra Steisand.

  11. “Mulan fights for honor, for family, for finding herself and owning her power, which is to say she fights for vague and inoffensive banalities that could not possibly stir up any political or cultural controversy.”

    So, just like most of stuff marketed to kids.

    1. “Mulan fights for honor, for family, for finding herself and owning her power”

      So she’s a women’s studies major.

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  14. “No Uighurs Were Harmed In The Making Of This Film That Didn’t Have It Coming”

  15. The best part of the original was Lea Salonga singing “Reflection.”
    Today, that song would never make it past the storyboard.

  16. I figure it’s just PRC propaganda, like that Jet Li film “Hero”, which was released some 18 damn years ago.

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