In a move that was doubtless timed to take full advantage of the nationwide celebration of women kicking ass occasioned by the U.S. Women’s National Team’s inspiring World Cup victory, Disney released the first teaser for director Niki Caro’s upcoming live-action remake of the 1998 animated film Mulan on Sunday. So far, so typical for the studio behemoth, which rarely misses a marketing trick. But this time there’s a twist, because the live-action Mulan has a surprising advantage over the rest of Disney’s live-action remakes: It looks good.
First of all, this is a spectacularly well-made trailer. Taking footage someone else shot for a two-hour feature and cutting it into a one-and-a-half minute short film with its own structure and rhythms is so rarely done well, or even done adequately, that it’s worth looking closely when someone pulls it off. As with the trailer for Little Children, the audio is the key to tying the footage together into something coherent, but the visuals are doing a lot of work here, too. Look at the way the first four establishing shots get more cramped as Mulan approaches her home, until this Frank-Lloyd-Wright style entryway:
As in a Wright home, the space then opens up, but a little too much: we get a close-up-heavy domestic scene where cinematographer Mandy Walker’s ultra-wide aspect ratio makes the frame look positively sparse. Fritz Lang famously said Cinemascope was only suited for filming snakes and funerals, but this scene actually works better because the frame looks wrong for its subject. Meanwhile, the lighting is working overtime to let us know how Mulan feels about being trapped indoors:
The opening is not that different from most trailers, in that it seems to be an abridged version of a scene from the film in which the sounds and images are still working the same way they will in the feature. But after that first fade to black, we get something that probably won’t be in the theatrical version of Mulan: a montage in which audio of Hong Kong action legend Pei-Pei Cheng explaining the qualities of a good wife plays over images that toggle between tea ceremony versions of feminine virtues—quiet, composure, grace—and Liu Yifei embodying those same ideals in a different way, with swords. On the word “disciplined,” the tea ceremony is abandoned, and we get the “so that’s why this is in widescreen” montage: armies, archery, avalanches, and cavalry charges. I mean:
Okay: snakes, funerals, and rows of horsemen riding hell-for-leather right at the camera. The gradually-accelerating action sequence montage is a trailer cliché, but this is executed flawlessly, down to the little “It is my duty to fight” epilogue slowing the pace as efficiently as a brake run on Space Mountain to give the audience time to catch its breath before the title. It’s a spectacular trailer for what looks like it might be a good movie, and it’s worth asking why this looks so much more fun than Dumbo or The Lion King. I think it comes down to a tension between the style and content in the original Mulan. Classic Disney movies rely a great deal on expressionistic distortions of character’s faces and bodies: A cartoon lion can do things that would be impossible for creatures with skeletons, and so much the better. But there are two things the Disney house style of animation does badly that Mulan needs: scale and acrobatics. Look at the avalanche scene from Disney’s first version and it becomes immediately obvious that this was a strange story to animate in the first place:
The wide shots have no depth, even when the camera is swooping around in a self-consciously three-dimensional falcon’s eye view. Worse yet, Mulan doesn’t do anything that looks particularly strenuous, even when she’s outrunning an avalanche, because everyone on screen can stretch like Mister Fantastic whenever they need to. The shots that work best are the ones that don’t need a massive battle scene as a backdrop: a wrong-footed horse trying to keep his balance, the anatomically impossible silhouettes of Mulan’s friends charging, and whatever is going on here:
When Mulan was originally released, critics remarked on how smoothly Disney had integrated CGI animation with their traditional hand-drawn style, but looking at it now, it’s striking how jagged the edges are. Mulan is a story with set pieces that are better suited to live-action than animation, and a heroine whose feats are more impressive if we see an actual human body performing them, whatever wires or special effects are involved behind the scenes. This feels less like Disney’s other cash grabs and more like a story finally landing in the appropriate medium. If only there were some way to awkwardly shoehorn in Eddie Murphy!