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‘Mulan’ Review

Eventually Disney is going to run out of animated films to remake and be forced to come up with an original idea, but that day is not today.

“Mulan” is the live-action remake of the 1998 animated film of the same name, based on “The Ballad of Mulan” legend. The film stars Liu Yifei in the title role, as a young woman in rural China who pretends to be a man in order to take her father’s place in the Imperial Army. Donnie Yen, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Gong Li, and Jet Li appear in supporting roles as Niki Caro directs.

The “Mulan” remake had its share of bumps and blockades before finally reaching audiences, including several delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic and lead actress Liu Yifei (a Chinese-born American citizen) supporting the police and Chinese government in the Hong Kong protests. Those on top of the announcement that this remake would be more in-line with the Mulan legend and not the original film (which meant no songs or talking dragons), angered and confused Disney fans. The cherry on top is this is the most expensive film ever directed by a woman (clocking in at $200 million) and won’t even get a theatrical release in the United States (it is a premium $30 rental on Disney+), so this is just a production full of question marks. And is it worth all the trouble and hype? I mean, no.

As Fa Mulan, Yifei is fine. She keeps the quiet demeanor that would be required of a woman impersonating a male soldier, however there is nothing really captivating or special about her screen presence. I really couldn’t give very many adjectives to describe her character, or any characters here for that matter, and that is just one of the many areas where this film falls flat both on its own and compared to the original. The rest of the cast is solid, even though some lines (and seemingly all of Jet Li’s dialogue?) have awkward post-dubbing.

With $200 million to play with, Niki Caro has constructed a film that mostly looks great, with huge sets and sprawling battle sequences. From what I read about the production and what it looks like on-screen, much of the shoot was practical effects, so when we see dozens upon dozens of soldiers sprinting into armed conflict, that is all happening and you feel the adrenaline. Caro and cinematographer Mandy Walker play with the camera, spinning it as bodies fall or weaving it between sparring men, and it certainly makes this one of the better-looking of the Disney live-action remakes.

The score by Harry Gregson-Williams is probably the standout here, having some nice epic moments but mostly nuanced (taking many beats from the original’s “Reflection” song). The original “Mulan” earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score (back when they separated comedy and dramatic music) and this could very well follow suit.

The film’s biggest issues come from both what it left out from the original and what it replaced those things with. The original film featured great songs (who doesn’t love “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” or “True to Your Heart?”) and a scene-stealing Eddie Murphy voicing Mulan’s loyal dragon Mushu. This film opted to stay closer to the original story, so it makes sense that talking mythical creatures and soldiers breaking out into song wouldn’t fit the tone; ok fine. However they added a magical witch assisting the bad guys army (which aren’t even Huns led by Shan Yu, another seemingly needless change) and Mulan is followed by a phoenix, a sign of her ancestors watching over her. Neither of those are based in reality either, so it begs the question: who were these changes made for? Also now Mulan’s specialness and skills come from her relationship with Qi (ch’i), which is literally this film’s version of The Force from “Star Wars;” it’s just lazy.

The 2020 “Mulan” remake is solid enough on its own merit. It has fine acting and impressive set pieces, but I just don’t know who this film is really for. Fans of the original won’t like the creative liberties Caro and the screenwriters have taken, modern children likely won’t get too immersed in a PG-13 battle epic, and history buffs like me can’t even watch it from that lens. It is just another film-by-committee blockbuster that seems to be plaguing the industry, and since it is so instantly forgettable (I saw it under an hour ago and only remember highlights), it is certainly not worth the $30 Disney is charging on-top of the Disney+ monthly rate. In December the film will be made available “for free” to all subscribers, and maybe then this is worth checking out just to cross it off you Disney remake bingo board; but until then, Mulan can pack it up, go home, she’s through.

Critics Rating: 5/10

‘Beauty and the Beast’ a Colorful but Pointless Remake

Beauty_and_the_Beast_2017_posterMaybe they should just let Jon Favreau direct all the live-action Disney remakes…

“Beauty and the Beast” is a remake of the 1991 animated film of the same name (first animated film ever nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, fun fact). Emma Watson and Dan Stevens star as the titular characters, with Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson filling out the rest of the ensemble cast. Bill Condon directs.

So far, Disney’s reimaginings of their classic animated films has been relatively successful, with each adaption being better than the last. “Maleficent” was met with mixed reviews, most people liked “Cinderella” and last year’s “The Jungle Book” was universally praised. Films like “Mulan” and “The Lion King” have already gotten the remake green light, but hopefully they do a better job bringing their stories to the real world than Condon does with “Beauty and the Beast,” which is a colorful and at times heart-warming, but also empty tale.

Emma Watson is our Belle, and while she’s no Paige O’Hara she is a solid leading lady. She can hold her own singing and is attractive but doesn’t stand out so much that it’s unbelievable, like someone with modern day Hollywood looks would in a mid-1700s French village may do. Dan Stevens is fine in a mostly motion-capture performance, although we never really feel any real reason to root for him other than we know the story. The Beast design is alright, but I can’t help but feel practical effects would have been better suited here (Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy compared to his “Hobbit” films forever showed us that practical > CGI).

The real stars of the show are Luke Evans as the dastardly Gaston and Josh Gad as the bumbling LeFou. Evans is pitch-perfect as the alpha-male villain and his chemistry with Gad is phenomenal; if the film did anything well it was its casting of these two in their respective roles. Gad, who can be annoying in some films but is undeniably talented, has some great one-liners and facial expressions and provides the film’s biggest laughs. Maybe you heard about censor-run countries like Russia and Malaysia threatening to boycott the film because Condon chose to make Gad’s character openly gay, but it’s a non-factor to the plot and you wouldn’t even notice if people made a big pout about it.

Quick sidenotes: there are two bits of irony with the casting of the film. Originally, Ryan Gosling was in talks to star as the Beast but he backed out to star in “La La Land,” which landed him an Oscar nod. Conversely, Emma Watson was set to star in “La La Land” but dropped out to star in this, and she ended up being a Disney princess and earning $15 million. Neither likely regrets their decision. Also, Gad’s LeFou marks the first gay character in a Disney film but ironically, the ultra-masculine red-blooded playboy Gaston is played by the openly gay Evans. All just things I found interesting.

Back to the review.

There are certain aspects and scenes that people are going to be interested to see, such as the “Be Our Guest” musical sequence. Most will find it charming, with the entire thing seemingly being shot-for-shot of the 1991 film, although it does get a little distracting by the end with so much getting thrown at the screen.

Almost all of the musical numbers have something wrong with them, to be honest. Each of the ensemble pieces get muddled together and it is hard to make out the lyrics, similar to the opening highway scene in “La La Land,” and Stevens has a solo which just comes off as awkward. Emma Thompson’s rendition of “Beauty and the Beast” is the most pitch-perfect and resonating of any of the songs, and the scene itself is sure to kick up the nostalgia feels. And the score by Alan Menken is as memorizing as anything.

The biggest problem with the film as a whole is Condon’s handling of the material, and not sure if he should be honoring, recreating or reimagining the original story. The animated film is 84 minutes long, this one is 129 and that extra 45 minutes of padding is felt. Belle is given a backstory about her mother we don’t care about and the film tries to be relevant to 2017 audiences but none of it seems important.

This whole film seems unimportant, in fact, it never gives us a reason for it to even exist outside pleasing die-hard fans of the original and having Disney make a few hundred million dollars. Remakes should have a purpose: “The Jungle Book” was revolutionary with its special effects and put a new spin on an old tale, and films like “The Departed” introduce a great story to American audiences. In 10 years, no one will be talking about the “Beauty and the Beast” remake, much less imploring anyone to watch it.

“Beauty and the Beast” has an A-list cast and pretty costumes, and at times they mesh well to create a fun, nostalgic trip. Josh Gad and Luke Evans are fantastic together (seriously, we need these two to star in a sitcom, “The Gaston and LeFou Show”) and Watson is solid in the leading role. However all-too-often Condon doesn’t know what he wants to do, and the pacing and delivery of the film suffer from it. “Beauty and the Beast” is not a bad movie, it’s just not particularly very good, and while Watson may be the belle of the ball, the film is the belle of the blah.

Critics Rating: 5/10

Walt Disney

Walt Disney

Don’t Have Your Future Involve ‘Tomorrowland’

Tomorrowland_posterFor a movie that is all about trying to succeed, this film sure fails a lot.

“Tomorrowland” stars George Clooney as a former boy genius who embarks on a mission with a teen (Britt Robertson) in order to uncover the secrets of a distant place caught between space and time. Hugh Laurie co-stars as Brad Bird directs.

I really didn’t know much about “Tomorrowland” going in. I avoided trailers, but from what I was hearing even the trailers divulged very little about the film other than it involves George Clooney and spaceships. So I went in with an open mind, and what filled that mind was over two hours of sci-fi guns, robots and other futuristic gadgets, but all leading to very little avail.

Because the trailers don’t give much of the plot away, I won’t do the same here, but just know that it is incredibly simple yet somehow widely convoluted. While things are hinted at throughout, you don’t really get a clear view of what is happening and where our characters are going until the final act of the film, and I for one was not a fan of the mystery.

The film runs 130 minutes and oh boy does it feel like it; the pacing really is poor. It takes a while for things to get going, and Clooney doesn’t really come into play until around the first hour mark. When he finally does show, he is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise mundane “run away from the bad guys who want to catch me for reasons I don’t know why” plot, but that air can only stay fresh so long.

The script, written by Bird and Damon Lindelof, is all about never giving up, thinking positively, and trying to better humanity. Lindelof has never been one to write coherent works (just take a look at “Lost” or “Prometheus”), but the fact that this has Bird’s fingerprints on it is a bit of a letdown. He has two Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay (for “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” both of which earned him Best Animated Feature statues), but some of the dialogue and plot points here just really had me cringing or rolling my eyes.

The film is rated PG, and since it makes sure to slap the Disney name on it you know that the film is meant for kids and families of all ages. I’m sure kids will be wowed by the towering future buildings and people soaring on jetpacks, but they also will have to put up with a teenage girl driving a truck and asking a lot of questions that never get answered, as well as images out nuclear holocausts. Fun stuff.

I don’t hate “Tomorrowland” because it is overly opportunistic or because it tries to get political (revealing what about would ruin the film, but it does make some good points). No, I disliked “Tomorrowland” so much because it is conflicting in its messaging and felt like each scene was disjointed moving from one the next.

The underlying message of the film is to think positively, so fine, here it goes: I’m positive “Tomorrowland” is a bad film.

Critics Rating: 3/10