Reel Matt

This blog started as my movie marathon — watching a movie a day for a whole year — and has continued as a place for me to write reviews about movies, TV, and various other items.

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Addendum: Mulan

Welcome to a new segment I’d like to call Addendum - where I rethink a bunch of what I wrote by writing a whole lot more. In this first installment, I’m revisiting my review of Mulan.

Ok, all fun and game aside, you might be wondering, “Why, after more than eight months of watching movies and writing reviews is he revisiting Mulan?” That’s a good question. The answer: because out of all the reviews I’ve written, never have I received this much feedback; positive or negative. My decision to revisit my thoughts of Mulan is not because people disagreed with what I wrote (that happens all the time). The reason I’m revisiting Mulan is because my initial thoughts have been accused of being unfair and when one of my closing lines is, “Kind of a stupid reason for knocking off a star but that’s my justification and I’m sticking with it…” I can’t help but feel that at least some explanation is due. And that’s all I’m trying to do here. I’m not changing my opinion. I’m simply trying to either find a concrete reason to back up my initial claims (rather than “I say so”) or examine why it may indeed be worthy of full marks.

Let me begin by summarizing my initial review. My positives can be broken up into three main categories: characters, style, and story. For characters I wrote,

The characters, or rather their personalities, are what stands out the most. While Mulan (Ming-Na Wen) and Captain Shang (BD Wong), the main characters, are strong, it’s the supporting characters that stick out the most.

In terms of style I said,

My complaint about Aladdin and the difference in style at the end (read: dramatically and suddenly darker) doesn’t carry over to Mulan… it [is more] consistent throughout so I wasn’t taken by surprise.

And finally for story,

I think it did a very good job at honing in on the ideas of family and honor with the twist of being from a female’s point of view… with [a] legendary tale [that’s] familiar yet still it’s own.

My criticisms of the film boil down into two key sentences which are as follows:

Nostalgia can work both for and against and in this case it’s against. Put in other words, because Mulan isn’t as good as I remember it 10+ years ago, it doesn’t receive full marks.

and…

For me Mulan lacks that defining characteristic to set it apart from all others, one to make it the cream of the crop.

The main reason I included this summary here is to highlight the main argument against my review: it seems overly positive with praises for characters, style, and story and then you get to my criticism where I basically say, “I give it four stars because I feel like it, I can, and here are some vague reasons to justify it.” Clearly I need a better reason than that. And to help me analyze my own review, I called in the assistance of my good friend who always has insightful things of his own to say. And as per usual, he went above and beyond the call of duty writing me a 2000+ word tome, of which I will be quoting.

Two areas he told me to focus on, and which I will be doing, are: (1) nostalgia and the bias it may have in my judgement; and (2) comparing it to other animated films and the problems that may present. So lets look at them one by one, shall we.

Nostalgia was a big component to how I was reviewing the animated films in the chain that I had seen before. With these films more than most others, there are fond childhood memories of watching these films for the first time. They are some of the first films you ever watch and, for me at least, it’s as if these films were the epitome of filmmaking because as a kid, if you laugh, chances are you’ll like the film. When I rewatched Mulan the feeling I was left with, and failed to accurately convey, was one of dissatisfaction. Of all the animated films I was rewatching I knew Mulan the best and thus placed it on this high pedestal and held it up to the most scrutiny. It’s as if I was setting it up to fail because of these memories I had. My friend wrote, and I agree, that I was, “aware of [a nostalgic bias] and then decided to compensate for that bias by giving Mulan a 4/5.” So the first conclusion that I’ve come to: my childhood fondness of the film will undoubtedly affect my decision but I can’t let that be the primary factor.

Onto comparisons. At the end of my initial review I compared Mulan to both The Lion King and Up. I described these two films as being “on the next level” in terms of quality and entertainment value. Comparison is a great tool, one I use constantly in my reviews and one which I plan to continue using. The problem here is that I’m comparing on such a broad level (the entire film) rather than with specifics (ie. an introductory voice over to set the scene, use of flashbacks to develop the character’s origins, etc.). I basically say that in order to be the best of the animation genre, a film needs to be exactly like The Lion King and/or Up. But that’s not how film criticism works. Each film needs to stand for itself on it’s own merit. So while comparing things like style (as I did between Aladdin and Mulan) is acceptable, I can’t say that because Mulan is not exactly like The Lion King, Mulan isn’t as good. And that leads me to a second conclusion: what are Mulan’s merits and demerits and how do they rank against my criteria for a five star film, not other five star films.

So, what does all this mean? Well the short answer is that I was too harsh in my initial review and it was without justification. I didn’t have one solid example of something that was wrong with the film. The characters, the story, the style, the animation, the music - all of it was beautifully done. Despite my stubbornness and feeling of dissatisfaction, I still enjoyed the film (I gave it four stars after all). It doesn’t really matter if I can’t go back fifteen years and experience the glory for the first time all over again. Mulan was good then and it is still good now.

My decision is to alter the original four-star rating and give it the full five-stars it deserves. After careful consideration that, hopefully, is well explained and reasoned above, it should be clear that this is the right choice. As my friend noted, “Whether it’s a 4 or a 5 doesn’t really matter - it’s having at least one solid reason for giving it a 4 that makes the difference.” The fact of the matter is I didn’t have that one solid reason two weeks ago and I can’t think of one solid reason now.

As this addendum comes to a close, I would like to make one final note. I put a lot of time, effort, and thought into watching all these movies and try to accurately convey my thoughts through a bunch of words. Sometimes I’m wrong. Please, tweet at or email me. I always appreciate comments and feedback on any/all of my reviews.