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Movie Review: “Mulan”

A few years ago, in an attempt to broaden my artistic horizons, I sat down to watch the much-renowned anime series “Neon Genesis Evangelion.” Perhaps I simply lacked the background to plumb the true depths of its social commentary—I’m told that it’s a scorching indictment of “Gundam”-style, mecha-and-kaiju narratives—but, frankly, I didn’t find it all that compelling. What I thought was most interesting about the series, in the end, was its frequent use of explicitly Christian or Christian-adjacent elements: “Adam” and “Lilith” and “souls” all become key plot points.

Significantly, though, in the series there’s no attempt whatsoever to deploy these concepts in a context remotely befitting their theologically-rooted origins: for those behind “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” sheer cool factor is all that matters. The anime pilfers the Christian tradition for its iconography, but none of its ideas.

I have to think Disney’s 2020 update of “Mulan” feels, for viewers with a Chinese background, somewhat like that. For all its pretenses toward cultural authenticity, the film merely exchanges the 1998 classic’s theme of filial duty for a ho-hum Western empowerment story, one that just happens to be laced with a very modern notion of Chinese nationalism.

The basic setup of the plot will be familiar to all fans of the original film. After an army of “Rourans” (proto-Mongolians), under the leadership of mysterious Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) invades “Northwest China” (also known as Xinjiang—you know, the place where Chinese authorities are currently incarcerating Uighur Muslims in concentration camps), Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei, who earned notoriety last year for backing Hong Kong police forces over against pro-democracy demonstrators) takes her father’s place in the imperial army, posing as a man.

Ahem. I’ll try to keep the politics to a minimum from here on out.

In any event, shortly thereafter the 2020 take on “Mulan” veers sharply away from its predecessor’s narrative. As it turns out, Mulan herself has strong qi, or individual life-energy, which grants her something resembling superpowers. (Transposed into a Western register, this notion is somewhat akin to spontaneously channeling the power of the Holy Spirit to perform superhuman feats like telekinesis. Pentecostalism meets Power Rangers!) But evidently, Mulan’s qi can only manifest fully when she acknowledges and embraces her true female identity. And so, rather than fighting invaders in male garb and being found out inadvertently, Mulan jettisons her disguise and rides into battle with hair flowing free. Girl power conquers all!

Ironically, despite the movie’s purported emphasis on reclaiming the original Chinese tale—including, controversially, filming in Xinjiang itself—it’s tough to imagine a more Westernized take on the story. The metaphysical underpinnings of traditional Chinese ethics—which (broadly speaking) stress the good of the community over individual self-actualization, the virtue of hierarchy, and the importance of living fully into one’s place in that hierarchy. The joyous revelation of the emancipated self, a theme at the very heart of “Mulan” 2020, simply never enters the picture.

In short, everything that made the 1998 film distinctive, shot through with a haunting sense of fate and social order, is here dissolved. One looks in vain for anything truly moving or memorable. (As far as I’m concerned, the hyperactive dragon Mushu isn’t particularly missed, but it certainly doesn’t help matters that all the classic songs have been excised, except in momentary instrumental clips.

That’s not to say that the film is a disaster, strictly speaking. In the hands of director Niki Caro, “Mulan” is competently—if uninventively—filmed and paced. Some of the fight choreography is pretty good, in all fairness, and Harry Gregson-Williams’s score is unsurprisingly stirring. There are worse cinematic choices for an evening at home, if one can stomach the thought of supporting a film so closely tied to the Chinese state. But all in all, “Mulan”—like so many other live-action resurrections of the Disney classics—simply lacks the original magic. 

If this is the best material on offer, dire times may lie ahead for the House of Mouse.

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2020 in Fantasy

 

Movie Review: “Artemis Fowl”

Ever since it hit shelves, Eoin Colfer’s young-adult novel “Artemis Fowl” was destined to be a movie. I first picked up the series as a preteen, two or three volumes in, and was immediately hooked by its urban-fantasy trappings and underlying moral ambiguity.

The plot of the first book—described by the author as “Die Hard with fairies”—is simultaneously straightforward and inventive. Twelve-year-old genius criminal kingpin Artemis Fowl discovers that the mythological creatures of Irish folklore are real, kidnaps (with the help of massive bodyguard Domovoi Butler) a fairy reconnaissance officer named Holly Short, and demands a ransom. The fairy realm subsequently lays siege to Fowl Manor, sending in dwarf tunneling expert Mulch Diggums and a bloodthirsty tusked troll just starving for human flesh. And in by far the book’s best moment, a mace-wielding Butler dons an ancient suit of armor and goes toe-to-toe with the ravening beast.

This is the kind of story—filled with action, drama, creative imagery, and exciting set pieces—that should’ve been almost impossible to mess up on the screen. But somehow Kenneth Branagh’s new adaptation, originally intended for theatrical release and then dumped unceremoniously onto Disney+, manages to blow it again, and again, and again.

The version of the story we see onscreen bears no resemblance to Colfer’s book. The film opens with Artemis (Ferdia Shaw) surfing off the coast of Ireland—bizarre, given that the books describe him as a scrawny preteen who wouldn’t know a bench press from a barbell. Artemis’s father (Colin Farrell) is a collector of fairy technology who clues Artemis in to the hidden world—no painstaking investigation required. Soon, Artemis’s father ends up kidnapped by the villainous pixie Opal Koboi, who spends the entire film stalking around in her lair muttering ominous platitudes (rather like an old Bibleman villain). This is the impetus for Artemis’s kidnapping of Holly, which in turn sparks an attack from fairy Commander Root (an oddly cast Judi Dench) and her team. As it turns out, Opal is after a mysterious fairy gadget called the Aculos (though it might’ve just been called “the MacGuffin”) whose function is never quite made clear, but that Artemis’s father somehow managed to purloin from the fairies at a prior point.

Confused yet? I sure am, and I’ve read the source material. But it’s not the viewer’s fault—the script is so bad that I can only describe it as what might result if the first two novels in the series were run through a shredder, the pieces were pasted together into something resembling a narrative, and then a Disney executive spilled coffee on the script and just threw half the pages away.

It is almost impossible to tally the ways in which this film goes wrong, but I will do my best to recount some of them.

  • The film opens with almost a solid fifteen minutes of “tell, don’t show” exposition-via-narration. Nothing is left to the audience to discover.
  • Remember the sacred “Book of the Fairies” that Artemis has to find and decode at the start of the novel? Nah, none of that here.
  • MI6 somehow knows about the existence of fairies. In any coherent movie, this would be an absolute franchise game-changer, but here it’s just…dropped.
  • The fairy legions’ attack on Fowl Manor begins when they roll in a full battalion of D-Day-style troop transports and battle hovercraft. They’re armed to the teeth with guns and grenades galore. But instead of mounting a real onslaught, they decide to send a recon force of six or seven up to the front gate. Artemis and Butler knock down three or four of them, and the rest retreat. Then the fairies just give up and we hear no more from them.
  • Somehow Holly and Artemis magically become friends—and later co-belligerents—despite the fact that he’s imprisoned her. There’s no ransom subplot.
  • The emotional heart of the first book is Artemis’s relationship with his mother, who’s suffered from mental illness since his father’s disappearance. Here, Artemis’s mom is just dead.
  • Butler (Nonso Anozie) never once suits up to fight the troll. In fact, his competence resembles that of Paul Blart, Mall Cop. Repeatedly wheezing and struggling to get up when knocked down, Butler is not clearly capable of performing the duties expected of a typical bodyguard. (It might be time to lay off the burritos, sir.)
  • The troll in this movie looks like an orc who strayed out of the 2016 “Warcraft” movie. In a fine example of CGI gone wrong, he is also functionally weightless. And he doesn’t even have any tusks.
  • Butler’s “niece” Juliet (Tamara Smart)—in the books, his sister—spends the entire film in the kitchen making sandwiches for our male heroes. I am not joking.
  • Artemis’s announcement by film’s end that he is now a “criminal mastermind” is positively risible. Unless the Irish justice system operates very differently than any legal regime I know, Artemis never once breaks the law in the course of this movie.
  • The last shot of the film depicts Artemis, his father, Holly, Butler, and Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad) flying on a helicopter into the sunset. This couldn’t be more different from the snarky, somewhat bleak coda of the novel. “Artemis Fowl” is not a freakin’ Avengers movie.

To be clear, I don’t have any inherent objection to films deviating from their source books—“Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings” showed that this could be done brilliantly. But “Artemis Fowl” so egregiously abandons its foundational premises, in ways that totally contravene the spirit of the series, that it can barely be said to be an “Artemis Fowl” adaptation at all. The books recount, at bottom, the story of a sociopathic but brilliant child who slowly and painstakingly learns to love and sacrifice. They are not, in any sense, tales of a sympathetic young hero just trying to save his dad.

And even beyond that, Branagh’s bastardized version of the “Artemis Fowl” story is so cinematically bankrupt that it can’t even be described as a “spectacular failure.” The plot is almost incomprehensible, the editing is chaotic, the effects work is poor, and protagonists never develop. Fifty minutes in, I turned to my friend and asked “who’s supposed to be the main character?”

Maybe someday, these books will get a proper miniseries treatment like “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” And that will allow us to forget that this aberration was ever made.

 
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Posted by on June 14, 2020 in Fantasy

 
 
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