There’s a lot of people who don’t like the direction this film is going in. The live-action remake of Disney animated classic Mulan is, indeed, shaping up to be very different from the story that most Western audiences are probably accustomed to: no wise-cracking dragon, no flashy musical numbers, plus a darker, more atmospheric tone. It’s almost an entirely new movie. Now, you all know how much I love the original Mulan – that movie is very special to me, and I love it as it is.
But at the same time, I have to admit that this Mulan looks…better. At the very least, it looks like the best live-action remake Disney has done yet. At best, it looks like a Best Picture nominee (just so you know, I’m not kidding about that).
This version of Mulan is clearly borrowing a lot from the style and story of martial arts classics such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which features a similar story of a young woman who escapes from an arranged marriage to seek a life of adventure. There’s even a whole bunch of fancy wire-work action scenes in the trailer, something I am ecstatic about: my personal favorite example has to be when our villains, Bori Khan and his army of Hun invaders, literally jump from horseback onto the sides of the Great Wall of China and proceed to run straight up the wall. Khan is allied with a powerful witch, played by Chinese screen legend Gong Li, who is like this movie’s version of the Jade Fox – and though we were all worried about the idea of a new antagonist, her character looks like one of the highlights of the film: she’s decked out in one of the most beautiful outfits I’ve ever seen onscreen, and she has bird talons for hands. Like the Jade Fox, she’s also merciless and brutal: I wouldn’t be surprised if Mulan becomes the first PG-13 Disney Princess movie.
The trailer beautifully showcases the film’s majesty – while the original Mulan was largely comedic, this version is more beautiful and elegant: again, very much like Crouching Tiger. While it’s still very clearly built from a story we all know and love, this film also looks like it’s taking more risks than the live-action Cinderella, Beauty & The Beast, Dumbo, Aladdin and The Lion King – combined. In each of those cases, the filmmakers were tentative about adding new elements to the story, or removing classic characters, songs, etc. Director Niki Caro clearly doesn’t have that problem, nor should she. Instead of trying to work around the constraints of the original film, Caro is going to tell her own story – and she’s going to tell it her own way. She’s not going to try and shove Mushu in there just to please fans, because that wouldn’t work in the story she’s telling. She’s not going to pause the movie to throw in a couple of songs, because her movie doesn’t have time for them (though she does use instrumental versions of the classic songs such as Reflection). That sort of bravery should be respected and admired, especially at a time when filmmakers (especially for franchise properties) are being told not to break with tradition or disregard the “nostalgia factor”. And when filmmakers do rebel, they get torn to pieces – look at what happened to Rian Johnson after he dared to tell a radically new Star Wars story in The Last Jedi. Don’t let that happen to Caro, and Mulan.
Clearly, I’m impassioned, and I hope that many people are – this movie looks so brilliant, just from this teaser trailer, that I want to see it succeed in every way. I want to see it cross the billion-dollar mark at the box-office; I want it to be nominated for Oscars. I want it to bring honor to us all.
The eagerly-anticipated sequel to 2014’s blockbuster Maleficent has a slow-paced, sluggish story that rarely, if ever, matches the splendor of beautiful visuals bursting in rainbow hues on the screen. Having strayed so far from the original fairytale that the occasional name-drops of “Sleeping Beauty” are actually jarring, Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil lacks a clear narrative purpose, but makes up for that with stunning beauty, fabulous world building, and the power of Angelina Jolie’s knife-edged cheekbones.
Never underestimate Jolie’s ability to carry a scene, or even an entire movie, with the sheer force of her presence alone. She commands any scene she walks (or flies) into, and her physicality conveys the depths of her emotions far better than any of the rather poorly-written dialogue she is given. She’s still not really the Maleficent that most Disney fans are familiar with, and she’s never likely to be, except in those behind the scenes photos and videos that somehow give off more classic Mal vibes than anything in the actual movie: but what we get from Jolie is just as good – a raven-dark persona with a heart of gold, wielding height, severity, and an impressive wardrobe. In short, she’s the witch-mood, without actually being a witch. Jolie is only rarely able to make much use of the CGI wings her character is burdened with, but does achieve some form of composure when she’s in flight or descending with the force of a small helicopter (on the other hand, her “hovering” scenes leave much to be desired). Nonetheless, she’s still able to do more with them than her co-star Chiwetel Ejiofor, who fights a losing battle with the wings of his troubled Dark Fae character, Conall, for most of the movie. While it’s Conall who carries Maleficent to safety early in the film’s run-time, it’s Maleficent who returns the favor and carries the entire movie in her clawed grip, though she has so little competition until Michelle Pfeiffer’s Ingrith heats up the forges of war, that it’s hardly a surprise.
In the first half of the movie (the weaker half), the script leans heavily on the “romance” between Elle Fanning’s Aurora and Prince Phillip of Ulsted (Harris Dickinson), two of the most boring and frustratingly naive people to ever step foot in a Disney movie. Fanning has her moments, but the role is so underwritten in this movie that she doesn’t get much time to do anything in particular: almost at once, she is forced to neglect her only duties as Queen of the Moors when Phillip proposes to her, and so we never get to see her develop a close relationship with her subjects – as the leader of an entire nation, she fails spectacularly, attempting to have peace for peace’s sake, without considering any of the subtleties involved with aligning oneself with a foreign and possibly hostile power. As for Phillip, he shows up every so often in a loose-fitting shirt to stare dreamily into the camera, as Disney princes so often do: his only concern in the movie is Aurora’s safety, and he too is thwarted so many times, and so dramatically, that he’s an almost laughably pathetic addition to the cast. There is no chemistry whatsoever between the two, who spend almost every scene together talking wistfully about fairy politics – hardly romantic material.
Then, Ingrith gracefully steps onscreen, haughty, cool, calculating and formidable in a pair of diamond-encrusted high heels and a pearlescent gown, and for one brief, shining moment in the faux Camelot constructed for the film, the violent, power-hungry Queen appears to be one of Disney’s best villains in recent history. She handles a loaded crossbow with ease and assurance, goes through extensive costume-changes that showcase her wealth and luxury, keeps a collection of creepy mannequins, and is accompanied by a black cat: a more classic formula for a villain could not be imagined. But it’s the execution of Ingrith’s power-play that causes things to fall apart: while the heartless queen (speaking of heartless, I give it a couple of years before Ingrith shows up in a new iteration of the Kingdom Hearts Disney video game franchise) should have been an easy parallel to the caring mother that is Maleficent, the movie largely misses the mark with Ingrith, never quite using her (admittedly vicious) ambition to the full potential, never quite exploring the depths of her hatred for fairy-kind. She nearly gets there! She has a striking visual style, looking for all the world like the White Queen off a chess-board of death, and an intricate plan to establish total control of the fairy realm. She is certainly an active character, driving much of the plot, and she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty with the blood (or magical dust) of innocents – and yet the film establishes her as so aloof, so high and mighty, that she never actually seems involved in the action she’s causing: not until she’s threatened, and in a place of weakness: and, well, who wants that? She could have made for an incredibly fun villain, one operating from the topmost pinnacle of the impossible heights of her CGI cathedral – but to achieve that, she would need effective servants, loyal to her cause. And the only one who fits the bill is her henchwoman Gerda (Jenn Murray), who is in absentia during the third act due to a sudden fit of musical ecstasy that sees her transform into a crazed, sadistic prodigy of Mozart. The scene in which this happens is one of the most memorable in the entire film, just for the absolute craziness of the scenario, but it does rather undermine Ingrith’s own control over the hearts of her servants (the rest of whom might betray her at the drop of a hat).
But craziness is what keeps Mistress Of Evil aloft for as long as it does, right up until a predictably average ending. Whether we’re watching Gerda tickle the ivories and take down waves of innocent fairies (there’s a surprising amount of death in this movie!), or witnessing the rituals of the Dark Fae with their vast, multi-colored wings and distinctly unique cultures, there’s always something to look at – occasionally so many things at once, such as when Maleficent first soars through the realm of the Dark Fae – that it’s hard for one’s eyes to focus, there’s just so much. In terms of visual spectacle, the film outdoes itself time and time again, culminating in a final battle that is actually surprisingly engaging and emotional, and sees humanity pitted against the Dark Fae in a war for peace.
There’s a lot of stuff going on in Mistress Of Evil, and thus a lot of themes and messages that the story tries to get across, with varying degrees of success. One line of dialogue delivered at the end of the movie attempts to sum everything up by saying that “we’re not defined by where we’re from, but by whom we love”. But in my opinion, no dialogue from the imaginations of scriptwriters Linda Woolverton, Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue can achieve what is already being said countless times throughout the movie, without a single word spoken: that the entire story is focused on the mother/daughter relationship between Maleficent and Aurora. War rages around them, and this time between them, they are parted and reunited, but they endure. And the vividness with which their relationship is realized is a stark contrast to the flimsy connection between Ingrith and her son, which is nothing more than a shapeless concept that goes nowhere: as I previously noted, there was plenty of potential for a parallel there, but the film loses its one and only chance to demonstrate this parallel by not having Ingrith ever try to kill her son or even hinder his actions very effectively, despite how many chances she gets, and how much motivation she would have for doing so: yet it seems like such an obvious choice, in light of what else happens in the movie, that I can’t imagine that it was never discussed.
One of the most interesting elements of the entire Maleficent franchise is its focus on femininity, and a different kind of strong female character than is usually seen in modern film: the three women at the heart of Mistress Of Evil are diplomats and politicians rather than warriors – even Ingrith, unabashedly a warmonger, only bears arms under dire circumstances; for most of the film, she exercises her power either from behind or atop a throne. Maleficent, meanwhile, moves in the shadows, preferring wars of wit to open conflict: and as for Aurora, she is sunny, optimistic and gentle, ruling with kindness and tender compassion. Yet all three are rightly considered powerful forces in the world they inhabit, as queens and unchallenged guardians of their respective plots of land. And there is one female character (no spoilers!), who has only a small role throughout the film, but a critical part to play in the third act: the culmination of her arc has a ripped-from-the-headlines quality that is at once startling, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking.
With so much progressive, forward-thinking messaging going on, there is one notable instance that stands out to me as either a bad – and unintentional – decision on the filmmakers’ part, or a conscious decision with a third film in mind (a third film that will only happen if Mistress Of Evil takes off at the box-office): and that decision is putting humans in control of fairies. It screams of colonialism every time it gets brought up, and the film outright denounces it, but never actually does anything about it when it’s Aurora, our heroine, doing it. Queen Ingrith has a point when she tells Aurora that there’s more to ruling a kingdom than running around barefoot with flowers in one’s hair – but, well, Ingrith is evil, so obviously Aurora doesn’t actually heed her warning or do anything to remedy the glaring problem. She’s simply not a very effective queen, and she spends probably ten minutes (at most) with her own people – but we’re supposed to trust that she’s the best person for the job because…she left the fairies in the lurch while she went off to plan her wedding? She angered Maleficent and caused her to leave the moors unguarded against human threats? She did basically nothing for the rest of the film? The film never adequately explains why a human should be allowed to rule fairy affairs, and the open hostility from the Dark Fae makes one wonder if everything will really be fine and dandy after Aurora’s marriage to Phillip firmly establishes that more, not less, human interference is on the horizon.
However, unlike some films, Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil successfully stands on its own, requiring no previous knowledge of the franchise to follow along with its plot and leaving no cliff-hangers or unresolved storylines to torment the viewer afterwards – all in all, this movie is not what I would call necessary viewing, but it is fun, beautiful and spectacular. And it has got Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer together onscreen, which is itself worth the price of admission.
Who expected Maleficent to be the year’s most epic family drama? Even Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, with its all-stars cast, pales in comparison to a film starring Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer as rivals vying to control – and mother – the rebellious young princess Aurora (Elle Fanning), in one epic custody battle involving magic, witchcraft, and giant bears ripping people limb-from-limb. We even get the pleasure of watching Jolie literally turn people into burning skeletons, while Pfeiffer takes aim at her with a hefty-looking crossbow, and – wait a moment: this is a Disney movie?
Indeed it is, proving that the Mouse House isn’t afraid to take some risks every now and again. After the first teaser for the film dropped, I was a little worried that the whole thing was just going to be a sparring match of witty one-liners between Jolie and Pfeiffer, and it might still boil down to that in the end: Jolie’s performance as the demonic sorceress Maleficent seems to be mostly about evoking a “mood” – with lines like “Don’t ruin my morning!” and “Love doesn’t always end well” dropped as if they’re mantras to live by, while her variety of outfits continue to stun and dazzle (though I still hate the wings: even worse, there’s more wings on the way, but we’ll get to that in a moment). Pfeiffer’s character, the Queen Ingrith, is quite clearly a villain: the smirk on her face as she embraces Aurora makes it kind of obvious that she’s not just concerned for the princess’ well-being – though it’s still a little unclear as to why she wants to risk open war with Maleficent’s forces of magic. As we go “beyond the fairytale”, a lot of things become unclear.
Granted, there’s still a lot of good stuff in the trailer: the darker elements are still very cool and surprising; Jolie and Pfeiffer are still good actresses, so their dynamic looks interesting and it does appear that we will indeed get some intense showdowns between them, such as I asked for after the first trailer; the production values look great (except for Jolie’s wings and horns: for some reason, Maleficent is the only character in the film whose costumes look completely bizarre and uncomfortable). The first film was criticized for relying too heavily on special effects, but honestly…the special effects look like they’ve only gotten better. There’s a real sense of danger from the trailer, something that Disney doesn’t often indulge in – I genuinely don’t know what will happen: will Maleficent conquer the forces that oppose her, and win back her adopted daughter? Will Aurora choose to leave the beguiling witch, and instead risk it all for true love? And what’s going on at the end of the trailer?
Near the end, we watch Jolie’s character get hit by crossbow arrows – fired by some of Ingrith’s own henchmen, or at least it appears that way. Anyway, she falls into the sea and is saved by a strange dark shape, that carries her away to some other mystical place of labyrinthine tunnels and glowing caverns where she encounters…Chiwetel Ejiofor? Sorry, that’s Chiwetel Ejiofor dressed up with horns and giant wings (wings that look just as ridiculous as Jolie’s). In fact, it turns out there’s a whole bunch of other demons like Maleficent (all of them winged and horned, to my dismay), and they want her to join them in their…war against Ingrith? Quest for world domination? Hunt for a better costume designer?
I don’t know what’s going on there, but it looks like both Maleficent and Aurora will be conflicted as their mother/daughter relationship is tested by the forces of evil – including Maleficent herself.
Typically, the Marvel Cinematic Universe dominates all the movie industry headlines, but these last few weeks it’s been all Disney live-action remakes, all the time. Probably no coincidence that this comes right after the huge success of Disney’s Aladdin, a film for which fans have already begun eagerly demanding a sequel. Now, after a whole bunch of “controversy” about black Ariel and Melissa McCarthy playing Ursula the sea-witch, Disney is back on track, releasing the first trailer for their upcoming remake of the animated classic, Mulan.
Let me warn you, I’m a big fan of Mulan: it’s my all-time favorite Disney movie. I was actually planning to watch the film before the trailer dropped. But it’s a little too late to do that now, so here we are: the trailer has arrived.
It’s beautiful: it opens with a shot of Mulan riding a horse through the grasslands of central China, and goes wild from there, with spectacular scenes of our heroine preparing for her ill-fated meeting with the matchmaker, leaping across rooftops in the Imperial City, and wielding a sword in the heat of battle. It doesn’t look like any of the remakes Disney has been turning out recently: there are none of the original film’s songs (though there are nods to them, such as when Mulan says “I will bring honor to us all”, and the instrumental music takes the shape of that classic tune); it has action, rather than dreamy romance, such as we saw in the trailers for Beauty & The Beast or Aladdin; it’s intimate, and dramatic, and the focus is largely on the characters and their story, presented as if it’s brand new, rather than filtered through the “nostalgia-factor” that Disney has traditionally indulged in when marketing their remakes.
In large part, it is brand new – we already know that this movie will be very different from the animated film, but this trailer highlights some of these changes. We see Mulan fighting as a woman, even though in the original film she never fought on the battlefield unless disguised as a man. There’s a lot more martial arts prowess on display here. There’s no sign of the new character said to be taking over the role of Mulan’s former love-interest, Shang. There’s absolutely no hint whatsoever of Mushu, or the phoenix which will apparently replace him. What we have here is something almost like an entirely original movie, one that looks much more epic: there’s no jokes either – though that’s something Disney seems to do, where they hide all the humor until you actually get to the film and realize that it’s a hilarious comedy. They did that with Aladdin too.
Oh, I’m nervous: I don’t know what to say. Mulan has such a special place in my heart, and I really want this movie to live up to that. And it looks really good, but it looks so…so new. I don’t know how to judge it when everything is so subtly different from what I’m expecting. Mulan herself seems very tough, very determined, and incredibly skilled: I’m not sure exactly how she’s able to do all these amazing backflips and twirls and whatnot – in the original film, she was resourceful and quick-thinking rather than being invincible. There I go again, comparing the two: but I have to. This trailer is confusing me. At least it has the avalanche.
You understand, don’t you? What do you think of the trailer? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
And no, that’s not Halle Berry, it’s Halle Bailey. Go get your eyes checked.
Halle Bailey is the nineteen year-old singer and actress best known for her R&B singing duo, Chloe x Halle, and her role on the hit TV show Grown-ish, is officially joining Disney for their live-action The Little Mermaid. And she’s not just playing a bit part – she’s actually going to be the Little Mermaid, as in, she is playing Ariel. That’s right: for the first time in forever, Disney is race-bending one of their princesses! And it’s perfect.
First of all, Halle Bailey can sing, and she has an amazing voice: in fact, while listening to her cover of “Unforgettable” – go check it out, you’ll thank me – I was struck by how much she sounded like she had just strolled out of the 1920s: she would have made a fantastic Tiana in a live-action Princess And The Frog. But as Ariel – oh, I’m so excited! Her voice is so just so perfect. I don’t even know exactly why, but it just…well, it just is. It’s not the kind of teeny-bopper vocal range I was expecting Disney to go for with their live-action Ariel: that was my fear, in fact, after I started hearing rumors that Harry Styles had been cast as Prince Eric, alongside Zendaya as Ariel.
Now, I know there are going to be people complaining that Zendaya didn’t get the role, after people have been basically begging her to join the cast. But I’ve got to say, having seen Spider-man: Far From Home just yesterday, I’m not too unhappy about that. Don’t get me wrong – Zendaya is a good actress, and I know that, but I’m not on her hype-train right now, and that’s why this news comes at such a perfect moment. I’m open to suggestions – and this suggestion, so unexpected, so fresh, so unique…is a miracle.
And then there are going to be people complaining that Ariel isn’t black, and that Disney shouldn’t race-bend a Caucasian princess: their reasoning will be that the original fairytale off of which The Little Mermaid is based is a Danish story, and the majority of Danish people are white. Well, guess what – Disney’s version of The Little Mermaid doesn’t take place in Denmark: it’s set in the Caribbean, where the majority of the population is black or Hispanic. By making her white in the original movie, Disney was race-bending, just like they race-bent Aladdin and Jasmine, making them Arabic instead of Chinese. Having a black woman play Ariel is the perfect way to show that Disney actually cares about making their films accurate, at least a little. Granted, the film will still include mermaids, so we can probably throw accuracy to the winds.
This news is especially advantageous since it comes right after Melissa McCarthy was cast as Ursula, in a shocking move that upset almost everybody. One of the biggest complaints was that Ursula should have been portrayed by a woman of color – now, through this genius casting decision, Disney has partially made up for that. It would be even better if they would recast Ursula too, but I’ll settle for Ariel – as long as she’s not the only black mermaid under the sea. We know that Asian-American comedian Awkwafina has been cast as Ariel’s seagull companion, Scuttle, so maybe it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that there are lots of different types of merpeople?
So what do you think? Are you happy with the casting choice? Do you think that Ursula should be recast? Leave your thoughts in the comments and stay tuned for more updates!