'Mulan': A Beloved Disney Classic Reimagined As Martial Arts Epic : Pop Culture Happy Hour The biggest movie so far to be bumped from theaters to home viewing during the pandemic is Disney's Mulan. The live-action reimagining of the 1998 animated musical doesn't have songs or a cartoon dragon. But the story still finds young Mulan disguising herself as a man so she can fight in her father's place.
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'Mulan': A Beloved Disney Classic Reimagined As Martial Arts Epic

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'Mulan': A Beloved Disney Classic Reimagined As Martial Arts Epic

'Mulan': A Beloved Disney Classic Reimagined As Martial Arts Epic

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The biggest movie so far to be bumped from theaters to home viewing during the pandemic is Disney's "Mulan." The live-action reimagining of the 1998 animated musical doesn't have songs or a cartoon dragon.


But the story still finds young Mulan disguising herself as a man so she can fight in her father's place. I'm Stephen Thompson.

HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. We're talking about "Mulan" on this episode of POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. Here with me and Stephen is All Things Considered movie editor Mallory Yu. Hi, Mallory.


HOLMES: And also with us is Kathy Tu, former host of the Nancy podcast, who is now a supervising producer for The New York Times Opinion Audio Team. Welcome back, Kathy.

KATHY TU: I am so excited to be here.

HOLMES: We are so excited to have you here. So if you're not familiar with the basic outlines of "Mulan," as I said, she is a young woman who realizes that her father has to represent the family in the army. They're going to war. So she disguises herself as a man, and she becomes a warrior. This version is a little bit different. It introduces some different elements. It stars Liu Yifei as Mulan. Donnie Yen is in it. Jason Scott Lee is in it. Gong Li is in it. There are a lot of really terrific actors in this film.

Mallory, I want to start with you. Tell me a little bit about how you reacted to this.

YU: Just to start off, I had huge and high expectations. "Mulan" the animated movie was incredibly important to me as a kid. I can practically recite whole scenes from this movie because I watched it so much with my brother.

There's a lot to like in this remake. It's gorgeous and sumptuously filmed, and it's so beautiful that it made me want and wish that I could see it in a theater. You know, I felt - as I was watching it, I kept thinking, wow, this would have been so cool seeing it on a big screen.

There are sequences that I loved. One of my favorites is an early scene with child Mulan. It was a moment that reminded me of sort of the best wuxia movies that I watched with my father. And I'm a huge fan of Donnie Yen and Gong Li, so it's really fun to watch the two of them fighting. And, you know, of course, I'm going to be so excited by Donnie Yen, I can even forgive the gratuitousness of some of his fight montages because what's even the point of hiring the master Donnie Yen if you don't sort of let him showcase his skills?

But - and I hate to have a but, but sometimes, the callbacks to the animated movie are fun, and sometimes they're just self-conscious, and I find them personally distracting. It's one of the things that I dislike about the live-action movies. It's just this constant, like, wink-winking toward the animated or original movie that just makes me want to watch the original movie. Give me something new or something different on this take of this character. Ultimately, I think there's a lot to like about this movie, and it's just really fun. It's fun to watch.

HOLMES: Yeah. You know, it's interesting that you mentioned the - kind of the callbacks to the animated movie because the first thing that struck me about it was how very, very different in tone it is from the animated movie. I mean, if you're expecting - there is no cartoon dragon named, regrettably...

YU: Nope, not at all.

HOLMES: ...Mushu.

TU: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: Mushu, yeah.

HOLMES: And they've actually removed, essentially, not just the songs, but essentially all of the comedy beats that are in the...


HOLMES: ...Animated movie. They've reimagined this as kind of a martial arts epic of - a type that, you know, is a very popular genre. It's just very different in tone. And I would say for little kids, the war scenes are pretty rough, potentially for sensitive little kids, I think. Kathy, tell me how this struck you.

TU: Well, very similar to Mallory, I grew up watching "Mulan" - it feels like every weekend or maybe like every day during band when we didn't have practice or something. And the movie was also very, very important to me as an Asian American kid growing up. And I was so, so, so excited when they decided to put so much money behind a remake of this film.

And watching it, I totally agree. It was beautifully made. The fight scenes did remind me of the old kung fu movies I used to watch. They really, like, leaned into that, which I loved. And it's so nice to see all these people that I grew up watching in a huge, blockbuster Disney film. I felt the same way when I saw Donnie Yen in "Star Wars." Like, I never got to see him in his full glory on the big screen that way before. So seeing him again like this, I was basking in that.

The hard thing for me watching this movie was I couldn't figure out what world we were in throughout the movie. Like, did we make this movie so that we can make it a realer movie, or are we still kind of in, like, a cartoony phase? I had a hard time trying to, like, pin down exactly where we were. And I think because of that, I had a hard time not doing things like this isn't real. That's not a real thing that would happen. Why is she running around in the middle of battle without armor?


YU: Why is her hair down while she's fighting?

TU: Yes, exactly. But then I'm like, wait; no, hold on. This is a Disney movie. Pull it back (laughter). So I just - I had a hard time with that. But, God, it was still fun to watch, though, I have to say.

HOLMES: Yeah, I felt the same way. I think watching this cast is really fun. I think the fight scenes, particularly the ones toward the end, I think, are really fun. I think the climactic battle, which I don't think it's a spoiler to say climactic battle in a war movie...


HOLMES: But I think the climactic battle is really effective. And I was moved by it. Stephen, tell me what you thought first.

THOMPSON: So to prepare for this movie, I went back and rewatched the 1998 film, which I had seen in theaters, and then it just kind of vanished from my mind for 20-plus years. I rewatched it with my partner, Katie, who was reciting every bit of dialogue as it happened. So I think it's interesting. Like, if you have a really, really powerful relationship with the 1998 film, you're going to have, like, different reactions to it.

At the same time, because I had watched the 1998 film the day before, I found myself so distracted for the first 45 minutes or so with how different this film is. And I actually recommend - for people who are interested in this film but don't necessarily have a strong reaction to the earlier film, I would actually not watch the 1998 movie to prepare for this because, basically, the only relationship between these two films is just the basic bones of the plot. So you have this 90-minute animated movie, and then you subtract all the songs, all the humor and the cartoon dragon. So you've squashed it down to, like, maybe an hour, and then you've doubled that in length.

And so for the first 45 minutes or so, I found this movie agonizingly slow and really humorless. And I was just sitting here like, this is miserable. I was just thinking, I hate this. And then, about 45 minutes in, the memory of the 1998 film has started to dissipate from my mind. And then they kind of get to the fireworks factory, and now it's, like, an actual martial arts epic full of battles. It gets exciting for the last hour or so. And I would just be really curious to know, like, would I have enjoyed this entire film if I had not prepped for it by watching the earlier film? - because unlike all these other Disney live-action remakes, this really is only kind of tangentially related to the film that it's ostensibly remaking.

TU: I find this so fascinating because as somebody who knows the animated film so well, I really enjoyed the first half of the film. And once we got into the battle scenes, I think for me, I thought at the time, this is going to be battle scenes until the end of the movie. Like, I know what's going to happen now. It's just going to be battle, battle, battle - beautifully done, but just battle. And I think I was craving a little more character development or something, a little bit more of, like, the little things I wouldn't have gotten in the animated film. Yeah, so I just find that fascinating. We kind of had, like, a reverse reaction.

YU: Yeah. I just want to jump off what Kathy was saying 'cause I watched the original the night before we watched this remake, too. When you take out all the songs, those songs in the original animated movie do so much character development and team building. You see Mulan and her cohort, her battalion sort of change and not just become a team, but become in sync with each other, synchronized. And you see sort of the trust and relationships that are building in, you know, a fun song about, you know, "I'll Make A Man Out Of You."

Those sequences were the sequences that I was hungering to see. I wanted to see Mulan becoming part of a team, becoming part of a battalion with, you know, her fun sidekicks and her love interest. But we don't really get very much of that. So when there are sort of touching, emotional moments, I didn't feel a connection to sort of the emotion that was swelling in the music. I think I just really wish that the pacing had focused more on character development and moving the characters forward instead of a cool set piece, I guess.

HOLMES: Yeah, it's funny that Kathy liked the first part, and Stephen liked the second part because I have the only reaction left, which is I liked the first part, and I liked the last part. But the middle for me, really, really...


THOMPSON: I was like, what - you liked the credits?

HOLMES: No. The middle, to me, really dragged. I thought that the first part, the kind of table setting, was fun. We talked a little bit about the young Mulan scenes. I thought some of that was really fun. One of the few sections that has an element of humor in it that they retained is a sequence where she meets with a matchmaker. I thought all of that stuff was kind of fun, and I thought the end - by the time you get into the closing battle, I think that's really fun. And I think as it kind of comes together toward the end and she deals with kind of this deception that she's been carrying off, that's interesting. The "love interest," quote-unquote - they've kind of split the guy who was her leader and her love interest into two different guys.

THOMPSON: Which is wise.

HOLMES: Yeah, it is - probably is wise. But I think the love interest in particular is a nothingburger (ph), like, not because...

YU: Oh, yeah.

TU: (Laughter).

HOLMES: ...Of the performance, but just because of the writing. I think...

TU: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...It's barely relevant. I think they could've skipped it, to be honest.

TU: Yeah.

HOLMES: And I agree that the loss of the songs - like, in a musical, if you're going to take out the I Wish or I Want song, you have to replace it with something else that gives you more guts of the character.

YU: Yeah, motivation.

HOLMES: Yeah. So to me, it was like that middle kind of hour or so - it really kind of dragged for me, and it's because that's where that character development should be.

THOMPSON: I do think the nothingburger of the love interest is kind of part of the point. I think there's clearly a conscious effort to undercut a lot of Disney tropes and provide this counterweight to, like, she finds love and there's a big kiss. And there are, like, Disney princess-y (ph) qualities to the original "Mulan" that are clearly being undercut here. Like, she is ferocious. She is not clumsy. She's much more of a warrior in this and much less of, like, somebody who's kind of just plucky and resourceful. And I think that's very conscious. There's also an undercurrent of witchiness (ph) that I thought was really welcome.

I really felt like there was a very conscious and concerted effort with this movie to provide a little bit of a corrective to the original. And I think for me, that's part of why, like, once this movie gets humming along, I really came to appreciate it more instead of, like, that really wobbly first part where it felt like they're trying to set the tone, establish that this is a different kind of "Mulan." But all you really feel is just the subtraction of humor.

TU: I definitely feel like they undermined a lot of the Disney tropes. But one thing that I feel like they hammered me over the head with is honor. Just everything is about honor and loyalty and being true. Like, I don't think I actually fully bought why she decided to reveal herself. Like, it's different from what was in the animated movie. And I don't want to give it away, but I don't think I bought it (laughter).

YU: Yeah.

TU: And that leads to her going into battle with no armor on. And I'm still sort of like, what is happening?

YU: Yeah. And I understand the thematic significance in the context of the movie, but the only thing I could think was, girl, why is your hair down? You're in the middle of a battle. Like, your hair is in your face. You can't have that blind spot in the middle of a sword fight.


YU: And, you know, maybe some of that is just - Kathy, you know, like you, I had to kind of step back. OK, this is a Disney movie.

TU: Right.

YU: It's fine. You know, these are stylistic choices. But, man, I just needed a little more sort of inner motivation from her. It is really nice to see actors like, you know, Tzi Ma and Gong Li because, like, these are people that I grew up watching. You know, Tzi Ma is basically like Hollywood's Asian American dad. So it was just really...

TU: It's true.

YU: ...Fitting to see him as Mulan's, like, beloved Papa. And I think he brought a lot of three-dimensionality to a character that was written very flat. You know, I think it was just in his face and his body language. I understood his relationship with Mulan, but that was all sort of him and not really supported in the script.

HOLMES: Yeah. And I will say, you know, for all of my kind of frustrations with kind of the middle section, I did think as this movie was closing - I thought, there are definitely girls - maybe more of, like, a Y.A. age than, like, a little kid age - but there are definitely girls for whom this is going to be really, really powerful and meaningful, I think, to see these fight scenes in a Disney movie and that kind of stuff. So I don't want to underplay that. I just think - I'll be interested to hear what people think about it. It costs $30 to see.

THOMPSON: Thirty dollars.

HOLMES: OK, but if you're taking more than one person - if you were going to take your kids, then, you know, $30 is before concessions. Some of them are going to break even just fine. So it does cost $30 to watch through Disney+ right now. I think eventually, it's going to be on just regular Disney+. But it's going to be interesting to see what people think. Tell us what you think if you choose to watch it. Find us on Facebook at Facebook.com/pchh or tweet us @PCHH. When we come back, it's going to be time for our favorite segment - What Is Making Us Happy This Week. So come right back.

Welcome back to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR. It's time for our favorite segment of this week and every week, What's Making Us Happy This Week. Stephen Thompson, what is making you happy this week?

THOMPSON: Well, there is a new documentary called "Vinyl Nation," directed by Christopher Boone and friend of POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR Kevin Smokler. As the title suggests, it is a documentary about the kind of recurrence, resurgence and fetishization of vinyl records. They talk to a number of different talking heads, including this guy right here, shot in my living room.

It's a lovely documentary. It's kind of a celebration of the medium. But it's not just a mash note. It asks questions about fandom, about the cost of vinyl records and the kind of the barrier that that can put up for music fans. It talks a little bit about who benefits from the resurgence of vinyl in terms of artists that are tougher for new artists to take advantage of that particular way of listening to music. It opened last week kind of in quote-unquote "virtual cinemas." You can find it at a vinylnationfilm.com and get more information on how you can track it down. But it's a lovely film. I'm delighted to be in it. That's the new documentary "Vinyl Nation."

HOLMES: Yeah, a lot of good folks in that one. Ashley Ford (ph) is in that. Oliver Wang is in that.


HOLMES: So lots of really good stuff in that movie. I agree. All right. Thank you, Stephen Thompson. Mallory Yu, what is making you happy this week?

YU: All right. So what's making me happy - I've been using quarantine to binge shows that I should have watched years ago. The one that I'm currently stuck on is "Hannibal." I'd seen enough of it years ago to know that I loved it but hadn't seen the whole series. If you don't know what "Hannibal" is, it's based on the Hannibal Lecter books by Thomas Harris - "Red Dragon," "Hannibal" and "Hannibal Rising." It depicts Hannibal Lecter, basically, as a psychologist to an FBI consultant named Will Graham, who is an FBI consultant helping the FBI track down serial killers in the greater D.C. area. And there are a lot of serial killers, apparently, in the greater D.C. area.


YU: It's sumptuous and beautiful. It's gory and wry. And I love sort of art house horror. And I think this show does that really well. It makes me hungry every time I watch it because Hannibal prepares these amazing meals.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

YU: And you know that they're - like, the beef liver or whatever, the liver pate is human liver. But I don't know. There's something about the care with which he prepares food that has made me want to up my game.


THOMPSON: That is not where I was expecting you to go with this.

HOLMES: Right.

YU: In terms of, you know, presentation and sort of care. I'm not taking inspiration from Hannibal Lecter.


YU: But I have been really enjoying the show. And maybe it's just because I want to live in a dark pop culture space. Since the world feels so dark, I've just been kind of getting a lot of weird joy from this show. Also, Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal is just a delight to watch. That man has control over every single tiny muscle in his face. So every facial expression he is making is just a chef-kiss show for me.

HOLMES: All right. Thank you very much, Mallory Yu. "Hannibal" and quarantine cooking together.


HOLMES: You can catch "Hannibal" on Netflix, actually. That is where it is streaming. Thank you very much, Mallory. Kathy Tu, what is making you happy this week?

TU: OK. So like a lot of other people, right before quarantine started, I got myself a Nintendo Switch. And ever since then I've just been basically following Linda's Twitter recommendations on games.


TU: So start with "Animal Crossing," and then we got "Good Job!" And now we just became obsessed with "Paper Mario: Origami King." And I just finally spent eight hours this weekend beating the thing and now going back to collect everything. It's a take on Mario that I'd never played before. I'd never played any of the "Paper Mario" games before. So this is the first time I ever done it. And it was just as fun as any of the "Super Mario" games I've played before and just has different elements to it. But it's all - really tickles my, like, complete a collection - beat a boss - very intricate boss battles. But it's still fun. I still liked it, yeah. So that is the thing making me happy this week.

HOLMES: "Paper Mario: Origami King." Thank you very much, Kathy Tu. What is making me happy this week - I want to call out a new-ish podcast called Back Issue, which is out of Pineapple Street Studios. The hosts are Tracy Clayton, who you know from Another Round and Strong Black Legends and things like that, and also Josh Gwynn, who's a producer there at Pineapple Street. And what they're basically doing is they're going back and looking at pop culture moments through this lens of kind of - can you believe that happened? But they also have guests.

So, for example, the first episode is about Tyra Banks and "America's Next Top Model," and they have Jay Manuel as a guest. So they go back, and they talk about not just, like, "Top Model" generally and how messy it was but also specific photo shoots. Like, why did you make the one girl when she was obsessing about her weight be an elephant in the photo shoot? Like, was that on purpose? They ask those kinds of questions.

It's one of those podcasts that really runs on fantastic chemistry between the hosts. It will just give you kind of a boost of joy just to kind of listen to them talking and having fun. I think it's really wonderful. Again, it's called Back Issue. It's out of Pineapple Street Studios, and you can find it wherever you get your podcasts. And that is what is making me happy this week.

That brings us to the end of our show. You can find all of us on Twitter. You can find me at @lindaholmes. You can find Stephen at @idislikestephen. You can find Kathy at @_kathytu. You can find Mallory at @mallory_yu. You guys are tricking me with these underscores.


HOLMES: You can find our producer Jessica Reedy at @jessica_reedy and our producer Mike Katzif at @mikekatzif, K-A-T-Z-I-F. Mike's band, Hello Come In, provides the music you are bobbing your head to right now. So thanks to all of you for being here.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

TU: Thank you.

YU: Thanks.

HOLMES: And thanks for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second, subscribe to our newsletter. It's over at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. We will see you all right back here next week.

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