Mulan, Tenet, Antebellum: Critical Insights

Posted on September 6, 2020 at 12:00 pm

Some of the best writing about film I’ve read this week:

Copyright Warner Brothers 2020

Jackson McHenry on Vulture discovers that The Best Parts of Christopher Nolan Movies Are All the Dainty Snacks and Drinks.

His films are full of immaculately manicured and coiffed heroes who tend to sport expensive suits, nice watches, and a level of deep sadness about women who’ve died in their proximity. They rarely sit down for a full meal, but they often pause for a quick cup of a tea and maybe half a sandwich, often while delivering some bit of exposition to another character. Once you start noticing the number of conversations that take place over dainty drinks and appetizers in Christopher Nolan movies, you simply cannot stop. He loves a small, civilized repast, especially if it involves a silver serving tray, and his universe is full of angsty men having a cup of a tea and a little something to tide them over till later.

On Slate, Sam Adams explains “Tenet” as thoroughly and clearly as it is humanly possible. Here’s a sample:

The word tenet reads the same backward and forward, one of several references to reversibility embedded in the film. Andrei Sator’s surname comes from the Sator Square, a five-by-five grid of interlocking letters that reads the same in every direction. It was first discovered in the ruins of Pompeii, which is a location that Andrei’s wife, Katherine (Elizabeth Debicki), and their son seem especially keen on visiting.

The other five words in the Sator Square all turn up in the movie at some point: There’s Rotas, the name of the security company that guards Andrei’s warehouse in the Oslo airport; Opera, the location of the movie’s first set piece; Arepo, the name of the art forger whose bogus Goya Katherine, who works at a high-priced auction house, arranged to have sold to her husband, and which he’s now using as leverage to keep her from leaving him. And there’s the central word in the Sator Square, the axis on which it turns: tenet.

Tenet is also the word ten backward and forward, which becomes key to the movie’s climactic sequence, in which synchronized attack teams move through time in opposite directions on a 10-minute countdown, performing what the movie calls a “temporal pincer.”

“Mulan” director Nikki Caro talks about filming the battle scene in the New York Times. At Polygon, Petrana Radulovic writes about one big change from the Disney animated version. The scene where Mulan dramatically cuts her hair off with her sword does not occur in the live-action remake and the larger implications of the Eastern vs. Western ideas about characters.

Copyright Disney 2020

From an East Asian perspective, it’s pretty apparent why an independent Mulan wasn’t working well with the story. The idea of pursuing an individual destiny has been romanticized for male protagonists throughout Western canon. In adapting fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, where female protagonists passively waited around and suffered, Disney found it empowering to reinvent them as active heroines taking control of their own destinies. But Mulan doesn’t draw from a history of male heroes embarking on journeys. The idea of striking out against family goes against the Confucian notions of the original ballad.

My friend and one of my favorite critics, Roxana Hadadi writes about “Mulan” for Pajiba. She calls the film “visually resplendent but narratively stifled.”

On paper, the representation politics of the film hold up—but they act in service of a story that is so adamant about traditional masculinity and nationalist loyalty that there’s literally no other plot. Niki Caro’s Mulan is grandly rendered but narrowly minded, and the film’s self-seriousness will make you long for the 1998 animated version’s subversive gender politics and sense of fun.

And Robert Daniels says that “Antebellum” is the worst movie of the year. His review may be one of the best of the year. “‘Antebellum’ is an unrepentantly violent film, and this entire sequence shows how it falsely equates shock value with empathy.”

In Antebellum, Bush and Renz desperately prod around in the dark, trying to discover the gravity of prestige slave movies like 12 Years a Slave. Slaves whistle “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in the cotton fields; one Confederate soldier calls another “snowflake”; grey-coats chant the Nazi refrain “blood and soil”; a statue of Robert E. Lee materializes on a foggy battlefield. The directors evoke these images as symbols, but don’t have the next-level horror-film ability to match symbolism with meaning. The narrative’s metaphorical thud resounds as loudly as the rolling sea.

In one of the movie’s few satisfying moments — and in a lyrically beautiful image — Eden rides a horse while wearing a Union coat and brandishing a battleaxe. She careens through Confederate lines, mouth bloodied and agape. But her uplifting revolution can’t redeem Antebellum’s grotesque wallowing and jangly script.

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Critics Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Mulan (Live Action 2020)

Posted on September 3, 2020 at 1:08 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended battle sequences, fights, swords, explosions, falling
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 4, 2020
Date Released to DVD: November 9, 2020
Copyright Disney 2020

Disney’s live-action remake of “Mulan” is closer to director Niki Caro’s touching, both mythic and intimate “Whale Rider” than it is to the animated musical with Eddie Murphy as a quippy little dragon and Donny Osmond as a Chinese warrior.

Coming to us on DisneyPLus (for an extra $30) due to the pandemic, it gives us just a fraction — literally — of the grand vistas and meticulous framing Caro uses so beautifully in the film. This version of the classic story of a young woman who pretends to be male to join the military and saves the day with a brilliant strategic maneuver is more sober, ambitious, and grand in scope than the first version. Note that some of the characters and names are changed to further remove it from the original. And it is the first of the Disney live-action remakes of animated classics to get a PG-13 rating.

The movie recalls “Frozen” at the beginning, with two sisters, one with some special, almost magical skills. The young Mulan (Crystal Rao) shows determination and remarkable agility and skill as she chases down a runaway chicken with parkour-style acrobatics. Her father (Tzi Ma as Hua Zhou), is proud of the “qi” (life force) in her. But her mother knows that in their world the responsibility of the women is to attract a propitious husband. That does not require strong q. It is about modesty, decorum, and silence, almost the ability to disappear except when needed. Even Mulan’s father tells her that it is time to hide her qi so she can bring honor to the family.

Invaders come to China, led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), with the help of a shape-shifting witch (Gong Li). Every family has to supply a warrior for the military. To protect her father, Mulan (Liu Yifei) disguises herself as a young man and joins up with the soldiers who are in training. She quickly volunteers to cover night watch to avoid the group showers. And she begins to prove herself with skill and determination.

Then comes the battle, the revelation of her true identity, and then another chance to save the day when she realizes that Bori plans to attack the emperor (Jet Li).

Director of Photography Mandy Walker shows us breathtaking vistas (New Zealand standing in for China in much of the film) and stunningly staged battles. The scenes in Mulan’s village are colorful but gritty enough to be authentically rural. And the production design is everything we expect from Disney, meticulously researched and gorgeously imagined.

The shifting of the storyline to focus on the parallels between Mulan and the witch, two women who struggle to express their essential qi in a world that has rigidly limited expectations for women gives the film additional depth. They are on opposite sides, but they recognize all they have in common. As in the original film, we see the literal constrictions and distortions in the clothing and makeup Mulan must put on to meet with the matchmaker. She is far more comfortable in the armor of a warrior.

Niki Caro keeps the film brimming with heart and sincerity so that even in the middle of battle scenes the focus is on what makes Mulan special — her dedication and loyalty even more than her skill and her qi.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and violence with battle scenes, swords, explosions, and hand-to-hand combat. Characters are injured and killed.

Family discussion: What is chi and how do you access it? Why did the matchmaker and the warriors have such limited ideas about women?

If you like this, try; the original “Mulan” and live-action remakes “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Jungle Book” along with Chinese films for older audiences like “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.”

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Interview: Tom Bancroft of “Mulan”

Posted on March 18, 2013 at 3:59 pm

One of my favorite Disney movies is out in a glorious new Blu-Ray/DVD release this week, Mulan and its sequel, Mulan II.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkjbRNazucw

“Mulan” is a gorgeously hand-animated film based on a traditional Chinese folktale about a girl who dresses as a boy to enlist in the army and serves with skill and courage.  It has one of Disney’s most tuneful scores and characters who are funny, smart, and endearing.  It has an exceptionally engaging and heartwarming plot.  I especially love it when the guys have to dress as women for a stealth maneuver, a very satisfying turnabout.  It has a very modern but very touching romance, featuring a female heroine who is as strong and brave as her love interest.  Eddie Murphy as the dragon Mushu is one of the all-time great sidekicks.  And it has simply spectacular setting with visuals inspired by Chinese works of art and geography.

And one of my favorite Disney World experiences is the tour of the animation studio led by Mushu himself, who explains what went into creating him.  It is astonishing to compare the version we know so well with some of the early sketches.  So, it was a special thrill to interview one of the “actors with pencils,” Tom Bancroft, the animator responsible for Mushu, who appears in that exhibit.  He talked to me about some of the early thoughts about the character (Richard Dreyfuss??) and about how one of Disney’s least successful movies inspired him to become an animator.

How did you become involved with “Mulan?”

I was in the Florida studio since it opened.  Mulan was our first feature film to create by ourselves in Florida.  Before that we had done pieces of other feature films, but California was the hub because we were such a small studio.  But we had grown and “Mulan” was our first “all right, we’re going to do it on our own” movie.  When they started doing the development for it, they offered me the supervising animator position for Mushu, but this was a good year before we went into production.  The scripts were being rewritten constantly.  Mushu was still very much in development.  They didn’t have a voice selected.  We were still looking at people like Joe Pesci and Richard Dreyfuss.  So that whole first year was designing him, but designing him kind of generically.  What are the aspects of an Asian or Chinese dragon, looking at old artworks.  We were still trying to figure out his personality.  A lot of his posing and expressions came later, once we knew that Eddie Murphy was the voice.

So he recorded the voice before you did the animation?

Yes, the actor always goes first.  We get an audiotape and for whatever scene I’m sitting down to do that day or that week — it’s slow, usually a scene a week, I listen to the line over and over and over again and just try to figure out, “How would Mushu say this?”  Sometimes it’s “How would Eddie Murphy say this?” and sometimes its me acting it out in front of a mirror.  A third of the way into the movie, it really becomes “How would Mushu do it” and that’s when you’ve really got it.

Listening to Eddie Murphy’s voice was a huge influence.  Even before we got his dialogue, I did my research, watching “Trading Places” and his old Saturday Night Live sketches to get his facial expressions, what he does with his hands.  I wanted to really try to get that in there.  He does a lot of the work himself just in the way he delivers a line.  You listen to the audio and it’s already funny. Robin Williams is the same way.  Job one is not to lose the humor, to keep it as funny as it was when I heard it.  And two, if I can make it even funnier, with a visual, then I really won the day.  A lot of time that’s just trying to find an expression or a little piece of action that just fit the moment.  That’s my goal.

What animated movies did you watch growing up that inspired you to get into this field?

The irony is that the one I watched that made me say, “I want to become an animator” was not very good.  It was “The Black Cauldron.”  It’s the movie that Disney doesn’t confess that they made.  But it was in theaters when I was the right age, 15 or 16.  I loved cartooning and was doing comic strips for my school paper, and I loved animation from afar.  But I went to that movie, even as a teenager, because I thought it was cool and it hit me for the first time as the credits rolled — people worked on this.  There are a lot of artists behind this movie.  This was before we had DVDs with all the behind the scenes features.  So it hit me on that movie and I said, “That would be fun to do.”

Is there a classic Disney movie you wish you could have worked on?

Oh, there are many!  “Lady and the Tramp,” for one.  It’s just such a perfect movie. “Pinocchio” would be up there, too, and “Dumbo,” and “101 Dalmatians.”  But the one I really wish I could have worked on was “The Little Mermaid,” because I just missed it.  I was an intern then and it was all around me, and I saw the rough pencil tests, heard the music, watched the animators. But I was training, taking Goofy tests and learning the Mickey Mouse walk cycle.  To this day, it kills me that I didn’t work on it because I was there and watched it being made.

What are you working on now?

I’m freelance now.  Right now I’m working for Christian Broadcasting Network, the lead character designer on a series called “Superbook.”

What can we see on the Mulan Blu-Ray that we didn’t see before?

Everything is crisper and more vivid.  What you’ll see on Blu-Ray is even better than what we saw doing the final color mix.  It’s even sharper than that.  We can see movies even better than what we saw at the theater.  And this is a great movie to see with real sharp color.  You can see the paint strokes in the background. And I think traditional animation looks even better on Blu-Ray than the digital films.

 

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Animation Behind the Scenes

Mulan

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Disney’s 1998 animated feature is based on the legend of Mulan, a Chinese girl who helps the Chinese army defeat the Mongols. After the Mongols invade, led by Shan-Yu (voice of Miguel Ferrar) every family is called upon to send one man to the army. Although Mulan’s father, Fa Zhou (voice of Soon-Tek Oh) must use a crutch to walk, he is willing to fight for the honor of his family. Mulan (voice of Ming-Na Wen) disguises herself as a man so that her father will not have to risk his life. The ghosts of her ancestors order a powerful guardian dragon to protect her and bring her home. Instead a tiny disgraced dragon named Mushu (voice of Eddie Murphy) joins her in the hope that he can help her achieve a triumph that will bring honor to both of them.

Mulan finds pretending to be a man and meeting the standards of Shang, her tough captain (voice of B.D. Wong) tougher challenges than she imagined. But her determination earns her the respect of the others, and in the midst of battle her quick thinking and courage save the day — instead of shooting her hopelessly outnumbered battalion’s last cannon at the enemy, she shoots at a snow-covered mountain, causing an avalanche that blankets them with snow. She then saves Shang from the avalanche.

Nevertheless, when her true gender is revealed, she is left behind. Instead of going home, Mulan and Mushu travel to warn the emperor that Shan-Yu is still alive, and again she saves the day when the Mongols attack.

This is one of Disney’s best, with gorgeous animation inspired by Chinese paintings, a hilarious performance by Eddie Murphy as Mushu, and a witty, intelligent script that transcends the usual formulas. In one nice twist, the macho soldiers who are certain that no “girl worth fighting for” would have a mind of her own end up having to dress as women to defeat the Mongols. And Captain Shang learns from the wise emperor that “the flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all.”

Families will have much to talk about, including the notion of honor, the traditional Chinese view of the ancestors, and the importance of freedom from stereotypes. Be sure to have kids check out the web site, which has an online coloring book and some delightful old puzzles. Note: as with most Disney movies, there are some scary parts that may be overwhelming for small children.

Family connections: Adults with sharp ears may recognize Donny Osmond singing Shang’s songs and June Foray (of “Rocky and Bullwinkle”) as Mulan’s outspoken grandmother. Listen very carefully when the grandmother sings, though — it’s none other than Marni Nixon, who provided the bell-like singing voice for Natalie Wood in “West Side Story,” Deborah Kerr in “The King and I,” and Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady.”

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