Monday, September 7, 2020

Mulan: A Graceful Discovery of Identity

 Of the Disney live action remakes, the idea of Mulan made the most sense to me. The animated film lends itself well to live action because it is in fact much like watching an action movie, something more associated with live action than with animation. And I think it's generally one of the underrated (or under remembered?) of the Disney animated films, so I've been excited just to see more of the story.

This movie would definitely have looked better on the big screen than on my laptop (not that my TV is much bigger, but anyway it isn't new enough to be able to play Disney+, which is why I'm limited to my laptop for their content). Visually, it's a nice-looking action movie. Because that is what this movie is: it's an epic, a legend, the story of a heroine representing her family and her country. 

Niki Caro's Mulan returns the story to a specific time and place in Imperial China. Therefore it has much more respect for the traditions of that time and place (I will state outright that I have little knowledge of such traditions; there are others more qualified than me to speak at length on that, so that isn't my goal). For instance the marriage plot. We see Mulan as a girl and then a young woman with talents and interests that don't fit in with the docile and proper image of a female in her community. But instead of the film showing her as a klutz like in the animated version, we see her display extreme agility in the tea serving scene--just not in a way that fits within the role she was supposed to play while serving tea. And while we see Mulan's hesitation about the idea of marriage, the film does not condemn a whole society's approach to marriage. At the end, Mulan's sister shyly and excitedly tells her that she has been matched and she is pleased with the match. This is important: it means that the story is not meaning to upend the entire culture. After all, the story comes from this culture.

So Mulan's personal journey is a little different in this movie than in the animated one. We don't see her learning new skills (battle) that better suit her personality (as compared to domesticity). We see her learning to accept a part of herself. And because it is a part of herself, her community accepts it, as well. Mulan is not a rebel. She doesn't go to war because she's sick of serving tea and wants to wield a sword. She goes to war to honor her family. She knows that her father cannot and that she can. 

Which brings us to another important point. Humility. The animated film makes a bigger deal of Mulan's willingness to stand out, whereas the live action shows that Mulan is respectful to her culture. Respect for elders and leadership is big, as is a certain humility and calmness of bearing oneself. She's not a big-mouthed, 21st century American. And given that I'm a little sick of the big-mouthed rebel characters, this was refreshing. Mulan takes action and is respectful at the same time. That is why she is remembered as a heroine of legend.

At certain beats in the story, I did wish each new realization had the weight that it did in the animated version. For instance, the "To Be a Man" sequence is a huge turning point as Mulan realizes that with strength and determination, she can achieve as much as anyone around her can. Live action Mulan's realization of how to express her own strength is quieter--which is in character but makes the emotional journey appear more subtle on screen. 

I didn't care for what I saw of the witch, Xian Lang, in the trailers. But when you watch the movie, her role makes sense. She is the foil or flip side for Mulan. She allows Mulan to have dialogue with someone about what she is going through. And she provides that necessary contrast, to show what Mulan is doing. Again, Mulan is not bitter and rejected (well, at least not as rejected as Xian Lang, though she's already brought some dishonor to her family); she is seeking to honor her community. Mulan and Xian Lang both realize that it is possible to fully express this personality as a female and still have the respect of the community. It's quite . . . graceful. 

They also did a good portrayal of Mulan's relationship with her fellow soldiers. Their camaraderie is natural and genuine. And after hearing that Shang would be taken out (I understand why they wouldn't want Mulan's love interest to also be her commanding officer, even though I don't myself mind it in the animated version), I was glad to see a bit of a love story in there. Just nice and subtle to satisfy those of us who are happy to see it but small enough not to bother those who don't want it. 

Because the point of the story is not that Mulan gets a relationship. Outwardly, she finds her place within her community. Inwardly, she finds her place with herself. And she is able to reconcile the two. She finds that she is loyal and brave but wants to also be true. So her secret is not discovered by circumstances out of her control (the treating of her injuries). She freely tells it herself. Again, her motivation is not rebellion, it is aligning herself with the virtue's of her people. She wants to be true to herself and to them. 

I'm sure I could continue rambling, but I suppose these are my main thoughts. Because this is a war movie, it probably won't be one that I'll be rewatching often. But I did think that overall they did a nice job with it. It reminds me a lot of Cinderella in the sense that it freshened up the familiar story and quietly added a graceful nature to its heroine that would still resonate with modern audiences. 

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