Review – Hey, Where’s My Mushu? (“Mulan”)

When I first saw the trailer for Mulan (another Disney animated feature film turned live-action) I was genuinely annoyed. Where was Mushu? Where were the songs? Where was the comedy of those lovable rascals, Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po? But then I realized, this wasn’t THAT film!

Oh sure, it’s got practically the same storyline, but do NOT expect all the fun, whimsy, and songs you saw from the 1998 animated feature film, ’cause none of that’s here. We start with a strong, young, feisty Fa Mulan (Crystal Rao) who shows she’s got a whole passel full of chi (inner power) that makes her daddy (Tzi Ma) proud. But growing up into a beautiful woman, Mulan (Liu Yifel), along with her silly younger sister (Xana Tang), are beset by their stern mother (Rosalind Chao) to get a man through the town’s nosey matchmaker.

The rest you already know from the animated movie: the Emperor of China (Jet Li) needs an army to defeat the super-nasty Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), a Mongol-ish tribal leader that has an ace-in-the-hole, a personal slave and all-powerful witch named Xian Lang (Gong Li) who hates being subservient to her master. Mulan dresses up like a man to take the place of her disabled father and, with the occasional help of a phoenix bird flying around (I’m guessing that’s Mushu?), she’s enlisted into the Imperial Army. There she meets Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) who’ll turn these boys into men, but more importantly, she meets Chen Honghui (Yonson An), a fellow recruit whom she likes and respects.

As Khan, his shape-shifting witch, and his band of bad guys decimate town after town with their eye on the Imperial Palace, Mulan (going by Hua Jun for her disguise) goes through a typical training montage and showing off her highly proficient fighting skills and powerful chi. She puts those to the test once her regiment is called up to face Khan and his hoard on the field, but Mulan has to square-off with the witch Lang first, and that’s where she decides to throw off the shackles of deceit and just be herself. This gender-reveal, needless to say, does not sit well with her commanding officer, even though she just saved all their collective butts.

Even though disgraced, Mulan knows Khan’s secret plans and offers her sword and chi to her fellow soldiers to save the Emperor and the Imperial Palace from the bad guys. Yeah, it’s like the animated movie, but NOT like the animated movie. With four writers at the helm, Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver (Rise/War of the Planet of the Apes), and newbie’s Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin, this decent retelling has many things going for it, but has many flaws that would have made it outstanding.

First, it wasn’t made in China with an all Chinese production group. This is a slick, standard Hollywood-style made movie that lacks all the gravitas and “wow-factor” that so many authentic Chinese movies like Lady Snowblood, House of Flying Daggers, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon have. Yes, director Niki Caro (The Zookeeper’s Wife) has a firm grip on the action and knows how to film it, especially the fight scenes, but the problem is the screenplay. It’s overlong, confusing, forced, and would have you believe that an all-powerful witch wouldn’t just kill Khan and rule them all. And this Mulan never struggles to be the best, she already is, leaving no room for growth. Now, I’m not gonna pick this movie apart and compare the two films because they’re clearly different, however, I will give kudos to this one having breath-taking cinematography and choice casting.

Liu Yifel carries this movie with natural beauty and some world-class martial arts (she did 90% of her own stunts!), giving us a no-nonsense Mulan that, unlike her animated counterpart, is stronger, empowered, and rarely shows emotion. Then you have a who’s who of some major Chinese stars like Donnie Yen, Tzi Ma, Rosalind Chao, Jet Li, Jason Scott Lee, and Gong Li who are given either some juicy roles (Lee, Ma) or resigned to only a few scenes (Li, Chao). The acting is simply top-notch next to a standard screenplay and excellent direction. So, you take the good with the not-so-good.

Apart from all that, I have to bring up the elephant-sized mouse in the room, and that’s the exorbitant $30 extra fee you gotta pay to see this movie, unless you wanna wait until December. That’s expensive if you live alone, but if you’re a family of five or more, I guess it’s a bargain. Right? Disney, who makes approximately 11 billion a year and owns half the planet, says they’re losing money because of the whole virus thing. You decide.

Currently streaming on Disney+

Mulan (1998)

Based very loosely on a Chinese folk tale, this terrific Disney animated feature film was made during the mighty resurgence of the Disney animated era (Hercules, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tarzan, The Emperor’s New Groove) and featured a great story, catchy songs, and Eddie Murphy as annoying mini-dragon.

China, back in the whatever dynasty, is having problems. The evil Huns, led by the ruthless Shan Yu (voiced by Miguel Ferrer) invade China by breaching the Great Wall. Not a good thing. The Emperor of China (Pat Morita) orders a general mobilization, requiring one man from each family to join the Chinese army. But when old and weak family man, Fa Zhou (Soon Tek-oh) volunteers, his only daughter, Fa Mulan (Ming-Na Wen) gets worried about his health. Even though she’s being groomed for marriage, she breaks tradition and cuts her hair, steals her father’s armor, and disguises herself as a man to fight in her dad’s place.

When her family learns of her departure, Mulan’s grandmother (June Foray) prays to the family ancestors for Mulan’s safety. The ancestors answer by ordering the “great stone dragon” to protect Mulan, but a small disgraced dragon named Mushu (Murphy) accidentally destroys it in the process. Whoopsie! Mushu, along with a lucky cricket called Cri-kee, resolve to protect Mulan and introduces himself to the girl, much to her amazement. But she’s gonna need all the help she can get as training camp is NOT what she expected. Under the command of Captain Li Shang (B.D. Wong), she and her fellow recruits, quick-tempered Yao (Harvey Fierstein), goofy Ling (Gedde Watanabe), and sumo-large Chien-Po (Jerry Tondo) gradually become trained warriors and friends.

Orders are received to fight the Huns, but after a skirmish where Mulan cleverly uses a cannon to start an avalanche and defeat the bad guys, she’s found out to be a girl. Ostracized and expelled from the army Mulan, on her way to the Imperial City, discovers that Shan Yu has survived the avalanche! While Li Shang and his troops are receiving accolades over the defeat of the Huns, Mulan tries to convince them of Shan Yu’s attack plans. Naturally, they won’t listen, so it up to her and her pals, Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po to defeat Shan Yu… with some assistance from Mushu. A delightful, funny, thrilling, and adventurous movie that directors Barry Cook (Arthur Christmas) and Tony Bancroft (Animal Crackers) fashioned for both kids and adults to enjoy. The action moves at a continuous clip, always ready for some great sight gags, Mushu antics, and even stopping for occasional drama. It took FIVE screenwriters to re-write and hone this script to where it got to today; even CEO Roy E. Disney suggesting the character of Mushu.

After many rewrites and plot changes (a romantic comedy like Tootsie?), the movie came together and made the House of Mouse very happy, bringing in $22 million, a huge opening. It was even hailed by the Chinese community, which was a good thing since many of the voices in the movie were of the Asian persuasion. Curiously, the songs were NOT written by Elton John, Tim Rice, or even the team of Alan Menken/Howard Ashman. These songs were a scattershot collection from Steven Schwartz (Godspell, Wicked), and songwriters Matthew Wilder and David Zipple. And catchy they are! It’s a pity that the sequel, Mulan II, sucked so very hard.

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