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Blu-ray Review: Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula

November 24, 2020

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The 2016 South Korean zombie movie Train to Busan is an incredible exercise in genre cinema, a tight, suspenseful thrill ride that unfolds mostly on a train and almost entirely in real time. Seriously, it’s a great action film, and one that I would highly recommend.

Now, director Yeon Sang-ho has returned with a sequel, titled Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula. That title alone tells you something crucial about this followup to his 2016 film; this isn’t a direct sequel, as much as it is another film set in the same world. But like a lot of sequels, Peninsula struggles to fully live up to its predecessor, despite often being perfectly fine in its own right.

The film begins directly following the events of the first one, with South Korea in the midst of being decimated by the zombie apocalypse. Marine Captain Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) is driving his family to a ship that will take them to safety. He passes a young mother, Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun), begging for help. Jung-seok declines, but take note, as she will become a key character later on. A tense opening sequence follows in the cabin of the ship, and Peninsula then jumps ahead a full four years.

Jung-seok is now settled in Hong Kong with his brother-in-law Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon), still feeling guilt over what happened on that ship. Jung-seok and Chul-min are then hired by Chinese mafia to return to the Korean Peninsula and retrieve a truck filled with millions of dollars. It’s here that Jung-seok re-encounters the mother that he left on the side of the road, who has become a survivalist with her two daughters (Lee Re and Lee Ye-won), while Chul-min gets caught up with a militia group running an underground fight club pitting humans against zombies

None of this really connects back to the first film, and in terms of being a sequel, Peninsula is essentially just an action movie with a completely new cast of characters that happens to be set in the same universe as Train to Busan. Where as the first film felt very contained, this one expands the world, offering more exposition about the scale and nature of the zombie outbreak, with a slightly longer timeframe and more characters and subplots to keep track of.

Filmmaker Yeon Sang-ho does still stage some solid action set-pieces throughout Peninsula, including that aforementioned sequence on the ship, which is maybe the best scene in the movie. There are also some exciting car chases, including a wild one involving Min-jung’s daughters that strains credibility but sure is fun to watch. But the film also starts to feel somewhat derivative after a while, and never really establishes a strong enough emotional connection to its characters.

I actually watched Train to Busan for the first time last week, right before putting on this sequel for review, and I think I might have enjoyed this one more if I hadn’t literally just watched the original right before it, with barely an hour between them. One of the most noticeable aesthetic differences between the two is that the first took place mostly in broad daylight, where as this one unfolds predominantly at night, giving it a dark and grimy post-apocalyptic look.

The first film had better defined characters, a more focused story, a superior sense of suspense, and a much stronger emotional pull. This one feels more like a typical zombie action movie. It’s still a pretty good one, mind you, and I do think that Peninsula is worth a look for fans of Train to Busan, but it also lacks much of the spark that made the original stand out.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The Blu-ray set comes with a regular DVD of the film, along with a selection of brief featurettes (which combine clips from a junket-style interview with director Yeon and cast members Lee Jung-hyun and Lee Re playing over scenes from the film) and a pair of trailers. These are the same sort of bonuses that are found on most Well Go USA releases, and per usual are all set to play consecutively.

Making Of and Interviews (8 minutes, 47 seconds)

The Sequel (1 minute, 43 seconds)

The Action (2 minutes, 31 seconds)

The Director (1 minute, 29 seconds)

The Characters (3 minutes, 4 seconds)

Teaser (1 minute, 35 seconds)

Trailer (1 minute, 55 seconds)

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula is a Well Go USA release. It’s 116 minutes and not rated.

Street Date: November 24th, 2020

VOD Review: Fatman

November 24, 2020

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Written and directed by filmmaking brothers Eshom and Ian Nelms, the offbeat Christmas movie Fatman is one of those films that many will watch based on the absurdity of its premise alone, which was revealed in a pretty wild trailer.

What is the premise, you might ask? Well, to start, Fatman casts Mel Gibson as a grizzled, world-weary Chris Cringle who spends as much time honing his survivalist skills as he does making people merry. That should give you a pretty good idea of what to expect from this dark action comedy.

Losing money on the whole toy operation, with the declining behaviour of the world’s children putting more and more of them on the naughty list, Chris and his wife (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) are forced to enter into a contract with the United States military in order to keep themselves afloat.

The decision to repurpose their Elf workforce into weapons manufacturers comes after a particularly rough Christmas when more coal is delivered than ever. One of the recipients of a lump of coal is Billy Wenan (Chance Hurstfield), a spoiled rich kid who lashes out after receiving second place at the school science fair. Demanding Santa’s head, Billy hires a hitman credited as “Skinny Man” (Walton Goggins), a deranged adult who still holds a grudge against the big guy after receiving coal as a kid, to take him out.

Sounds bonkers, right? Well, it is, but Fatman is also one of those films that doesn’t quite live up to the absurdity of its premise. For starters, the film struggles at times to nail down the right tone. It’s never as overtly comedic as something like Bad Santa, nor is it as dark and twisted as Rare Exports. It’s more gritty than goofy, but also not serious enough to really work as a thriller, which can make it feel stuck in a strange sort of limbo.

While Fatman is never quite as much fun as you want it to be, it’s still mildly entertaining, and does deliver some enjoyable moments along the way. The film is at its best when embracing its campy, B-movie roots, building towards a decently staged shoot ’em up finale that allows Gibson and Goggins to go head to head. Gibson’s take on a disgruntled Santa Claus is amusing to watch, and Goggins chews up the scenery with his over the top performance. If any of this piques your interest, then give Fatman a watch, but temper expectations accordingly.

Fatman is being released today on a variety of digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by VVS Films.

VOD Review: Team Marco

November 20, 2020

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

A grandfather and grandson bond over bocce in Team Marco, a simple but charming family movie that is being released digitally this week and serves as a fine viewing option for families looking for something made outside the studio system.

The lead character is Marco (Owen Vaccaro), an adolescent kid who is glued to his iPad. When we first meet him in the opening scene, he is in the backseat of a limo being taken to his grandma’s funeral, and barely even looking up from the tablet, much to the annoyance of his Nonno (Anthony Patellis).

When Nonno, an Italian-American man in his mid-70s who is still as spirited as ever, accidentally sets fire to his kitchen and is left without a home, his daughter Anna (Anastasia Ganias) invites him to live with her and Marco. At first, Marco is horrified at having to share his room, and doesn’t welcome the distraction from his video games.

Nonno’s arrival upends Marco’s plans to spend the summer getting to the hundredth level of Atomic Rick, a game that his absentee father (Louis Cancelmi) created. Nonno’s passion lies in the centuries old game of bocce, which he spends his mornings playing with a group of older Italian men. Perturbed by Marco’s tech obsessions and lack of friends, Nonno makes him a deal; he will let the boy play with his electronics uninterrupted, if Marco agrees to come play bocce with him and his friends.

The film serves as the feature directorial debut of Julio Vincent Gambuto and his Boro Five production company. It was independently financed, which is a rarity for a live action family film, and shot entirely on location on Staten Island, where the story takes place. The film even features three real members of the Staten Island Bocce Club in background roles. It was clearly a labour of love, and the biggest thing that can be said about Team Marco is that this is a very sweet-natured film that I found thoroughly pleasant to watch.

Sure, it’s kind of corny at times and some of the jokes are a bit stale, with the generational clash stuff between Nonno and Marco not understanding any of each other’s references feeling like it’s been done before. But by the end, Team Marco is also genuinely charming and sweet, offering a pretty valuable if somewhat obvious message about not being too focused on screens and actually living life.

Team Marco is now available to rent and buy on a variety of digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by Vortex Media.

Disney+ Review: The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special

November 17, 2020

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Disney pays tribute to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special in the LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special, which is premiering on Disney Plus today.

The original TV special, which aired in 1978 between the releases of the first Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back, was so widely panned that George Lucas never wanted it to see the light of day again. But it’s safe to say that the Star Wars Holiday Special has still achieved cult status over the years with hardcore fans of the series.

While never officially released, bootleg copies of it have long been floating around amongst fans, and have made their way to the internet. The special found Chewbacca returning to his home planet to celebrate Life Day with his family, and the fictional Wookie holiday provides the basis for this new animated special as well.

The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special opens with Poe (Jake Green) making preparations for Life Day, as Rey (Helen Sadler) tries unsuccessfully to train Finn (Omar Miller) in the ways of the Jedi. Determined to become a better teacher, Rey stumbles upon a magical crystal that opens up portals and lets her visit different points in time. Rey’s time-hopping adventures make up the brunt of the special’s slapdash plot, with the crystal serving as a plot device that allows her to drop in on various characters and moments from throughout the series.

This includes everything from going back and watching Master Yoda (Tom Kane) train a young Luke Skywalker (Eric Bauza), to getting caught up with comedic versions of Darth Vader (Matt Sloan), Emperor Palpatine (Trevor Devall) and Kylo Ren (Matthew Wood), who all jostle for attention. This results in a steady stream of callbacks to all three trilogies (Original, Prequel and Sequel), as classic scenes get reimagined in brick form.

The special plays out with a jokey tone that lampoons various moments from the franchise and never takes itself too seriously. The animation itself is decent but unremarkable, and aside from returning cast members Anthony Daniels, Billy Dee Williams and Kelly Marie Tran (who reprise their roles as C-3PO, Lando Calrissian and Rose Tico), the voice cast is made up of impersonators who never quite sound like the characters they are playing. The 45 minute special is also somewhat poorly paced, with a madcap tone that offers no real breathing room.

While it’s too scattered and inconsistent to leave much of a mark, the LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special still offers a handful of amusing moments and references sprinkled throughout. There are also some cute antics with the Porgs, and even a Baby Yoda cameo. It’s fine enough for what it is, especially for younger viewers, but it won’t go down as a classic or gain the cult following of its predecessor.

The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special is now available to stream exclusively on Disney+.

4K Ultra HD Review: It’s a Wonderful Life (Steelbook)

November 17, 2020

By John Corrado

One of my favourite movies of all time, and a perennial favourite that gets revisited every holiday season, is It’s a Wonderful Life. Frank Capra’s 1946 classic, about a suicidal man named George Bailey (James Stewart) who gets visited by an angel (Henry Travers) on Christmas Eve, is a film that always manages to captivate me whenever I watch it. Beautifully written, beautifully acted, and very moving, this is one of those films that has truly stood the test of time.

Now Paramount is releasing yet another edition of the film this week, with a brand new 4K Ultra HD combo pack that comes in a collectible Steelbook package. In terms of actual content, this is exactly the same as the 4K edition that was put out last year, including the original black and white version of the film in 4K, the colourized version on Blu-ray, and a code for a digital copy. What’s new and special about this edition is obviously the Steelbook packaging, which is quite appealing if you are a collector of unique physical media like I am.

I find the cover art itself on this release to be very attractive, from the blue background and classic illustration on the front panel, to the shiny red back panel which includes a quote (“Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings”) over an image of Christmas bells. A full colour image from the film adorns the inside of the package when you open it up. The set also includes a foldout mini poster tucked into the tabs on the inside of the case, which is a fine little collector’s item as well. It’s altogether a very nice edition, and one that would make a great gift or display item.

Bonus Features (4K Ultra HD):

Restoring a Beloved Classic (13 minutes, 3 seconds)

Secrets from the Vault (22 minutes, 11 seconds)

It’s a Wonderful Wrap Party (8 minutes, 4 seconds)

It’s a Wonderful Life (Steelbook) is a Paramount Home Entertainment release. It’s 130 minutes and rated G.

Street Date: November 17th, 2020

Disney+ Review: Inside Pixar (Episodes 3, 4 & 5)

November 15, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

The other day, I had a chance to review the first two episodes of Inside Pixar, the very good new docuseries on Disney Plus that introduces us to some of the individuals who help tell the stories we all know and love at Pixar Animation Studios.

The show is being presented in four collections grouped by theme, with five short episodes in each. Now that the complete first collection, Inspired, is available to stream, here are my thoughts on the next three episodes, which weren’t made available for me to review in advance.

The third episode in the series, (Inspired: Steven Hunter, For That Kid), focuses on Steven Hunter, the Canadian filmmaker behind the wonderful Pixar SparkShort Out, which is the studio’s first (and hopefully not the last) film to openly explore LGBTQ themes.

Born and raised in the small town of Chatham, Ontario, Hunter speaks candidly about growing up as a “gay nerd” in the 1980s, and how important it was for him to tell a coming out story in animated form, using a fantasy scenario to make it accessible. He talks about the process of developing the film as part of the studio’s SparkShorts program, a space for artists to experiment with different styles and telling new stories, as well as the ways that the story intersects with his own life. It’s a touching and nicely done companion piece to Out, which is also available to stream on Disney+.

The fourth episode, (Inspired: Jessica Heidt, Who Gets All the Lines?), introduces us to Jessica Heidt, a script supervisor at Pixar who noticed a pattern across the industry where the majority of films had more speaking roles for men than women. Striving for more gender balance in the studio’s films, Heidt helped develop software to map the speaking roles in scripts by gender, with the goal being something close to a fifty-fifty split like we have in real life.

One of the most interesting parts of the episode is seeing how she was able to implement these changes during the production Cars 3, working with the filmmakers to add more female supporting characters to the film. Heidt also admits though that this isn’t a hard and fast rule, and artists should still be free to tell stories in their own ways, with the software serving as a useful tool to get them thinking during the writing process about who gets lines. Notably, we are told that the upcoming Soul is about fifty-fifty in terms of speaking roles for male and female characters.

The fifth and final episode in this collection, (Inspired: Dan Scanlon, Where Ideas Come From), is all about the studio’s recent film Onward. Director Dan Scanlon talks openly about drawing upon his own experience of losing his father as baby, and how this shaped his relationship with his older brother, to tell the fantastical but grounded story of two elf brothers on a quest to see their deceased father one last time using magic.

Scanlon touches upon growing up as a very artsy kid who gained local fame in his hometown of Clawson, Michigan for his caricatures, as well as the lucky break that he received at Pixar when he was brought on to direct Monsters University. The episode serves as a heartfelt testament to the importance of opening yourself up and tapping into a very real and vulnerable place to find the story that matters most to you, and it really gives us a deeper appreciation of how personal a film Onward was for its director.

As I noted in my review of the first two episodes, Inside Pixar is a beautifully shot and beautifully edited series. This remains true of these three episodes as well. The entire Inspired collection is just under an hour long, and it offers a compelling introduction to five different individuals who are all doing great work at the studio, both in terms of telling stories and moving the needle in terms of representation.

Inside Pixar Collection 1: Inspired is now available to stream exclusively on Disney+.

Review: Ammonite

November 13, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The greatest challenge facing writer/director Francis Lee’s Ammonite, which serves as a companion piece of sorts to his acclaimed romantic drama God’s Own Country, has nothing to do with the film itself, but rather has to do with unfair comparisons to the recent Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

No, Ammonite isn’t as good as Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and yes, to be fair, there are a fair number of similarities between the two films. Both are period pieces that take place by the sea, and both are love stories between two women who at first are forced to be together, but find close companionship with each other.

But if you can look beyond these comparisons, you will find that Ammonite is a worthwhile film in its own right. In fact, it’s very good, carried by a pair of excellent performances from the Oscar-winning actress Kate Winslet and the Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan, who are both captivating to watch.

The film is set in the 1840s, and is loosely based on the true story of self-taught paleontologist Mary Anning (Winslet). Mary lives in the small English town of Lyme Regis, and spends her days alone on the beach searching for fossils, which she sells to tourists at the small seaside shop that she operates with her elderly mother (Gemma Jones). But Mary’s routine is upended when a man named Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) comes into the shop.

Roderick is a fellow paleontologist who is curious to know more about her work, and he brings with him a wife, Charlotte (Ronan), whose quiet obedience around her husband suggests deep unhappiness in her marriage. Charlotte is said to be suffering from “melancholia,” and it’s been recommended that she take in the sea air in order to recover. When Roderick must leave town, he has a proposition for Mary; he will pay her to keep Charlotte in her care until she feels well enough to return home.

Mary is used to solitude, and at first she is bothered by having someone else tag along on her fossil-hunting expeditions, especially a society woman such as Charlotte, whose initial unease with spending the day in the mud and sand is palpable. But caring for Charlotte gives Mary a new sense of purpose, and the two gradually start to form a deeper, more physical relationship. Watching Winslet’s Mary soften up, as Ronan’s Charlotte starts to open up, is what gives the film much of its emotional pull.

Winslet’s performance is a quietly effective one. With minimal dialogue, she reveals much of Mary’s guarded nature through body language, and her subtle, understated work is rich with nuance. Ronan also shows a much quieter side of herself here, barely saying a word during her first few scenes. It’s a stark difference from the spirited performances she gave in films like Lady Bird and Little Women, and another compelling testament to her remarkable range as an actor. The two actors reveal a great, almost unspoken sense of chemistry together that becomes the film’s defining feature.

One of the most welcome aspects of Ammonite is that the film doesn’t devolve into melodrama. Lee instead opts to fashion the story into a naturalistic and patiently observed character drama, that feels like a female-led mirror image of his countryside gay romance God’s Own Country. The film is more focused on capturing quiet moments across its relaxed two hour running time than it is on delivering major plot developments, and it’s all the better for it. By the end, Ammonite reveals itself to be something quite lovely, closing on a tender and touching note.

Ammonite is opening in select theatres across Canada today, please check local listings. It’s being distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures.

Review: The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel

November 13, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

In 2003, co-directors Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar released The Corporation, a documentary based upon a book by Canadian professor Joel Bakan that sought to psychoanalyze corporations as if they were people, and came to the conclusion that they would be diagnosed as psychopaths.

Now, seventeen years later, Abbott has returned with The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel, this time co-directing with Bakan himself. The themes explored in Bakan’s latest book, The New Corporation: How “Good” Corporations Are Bad for Democracy, provide the basis for this cinematic sequel.

This film explores how, in the nearly two decades since the first one, corporations have tried to rebrand themselves as the “good guys” through virtue-signalling, and are pretending to care about issues to continue turning a profit. The film hits on a number of billionaire targets, including Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon and BP Oil’s John Browne, who have all tried to sell themselves as agents of positive social change, even if it runs counter to what their company’s are actually doing.

While paying lip service to social issues like climate change and racial justice, these corporations are gaining increasing power and exerting more control over our lives through monopolies on education, technology, and natural resources. A few compelling examples given in the film include the investments Bill Gates is making in education through his controversial Bridge Schools program in Africa, Amazon’s cornering of the market on smart home devices, and the privatization of drinking water.

This is allowing corporations to serve more and more as the de facto government. The film theorizes a vicious cycle in which corporations accept massive tax cuts to increase their profits and keep money out of government coffers, and then step up to fund the social programs that the government can no longer afford to. For example, the government bailed out the banks after the 2008 economic crash, and when Detroit filed for bankruptcy several years later, becoming the largest municipality to do so, JPMorgan stepped in to invest in rebuilding the city.

This leads to distrust in the entire governmental system, causing people to want to burn the whole thing down in response. These are all things that led to Donald Trump being elected in 2016, and the film is correct in its assessment that he is a symptom of a larger issue, and not the disease itself. The main issue is that corporations have become more powerful and profitable than ever, while many real people have found themselves worse off, leading to social unrest and resentment amongst the working class.

This has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has cost many people their jobs while CEOs such as Amazon’s Bezos, now the richest man in history, continue to rake in massive profits. The film was already in production before the pandemic hit, and it’s interesting to watch how it shifts, with the subjects starting to appear remotely rather than for sit-down interviews.

The film’s panel of academics, journalists and activists touch upon a recurrent theme of consumerism, including how corporate values have successfully been redefined as American values. Michael Sandel, a political philosopher at Harvard, sums it up quite nicely partway through the film when he draws the distinction that we have drifted from “having a market economy, to being a market society.” He goes on to explain that a market economy is “a valuable and effective tool for organizing productive activity, but a market society is a place where almost everything is up for sale.”

In the last act, Abbott and Bakan start to focus on the various social movements that have sprung up in response to all of this, drawing direct lines from the Occupy movement to the rise of Bernie Sanders and other progressive politicians around the world. Finally, the film touches upon the Black Lives Matter protests that broke out this summer after the horrific police murder of George Floyd. It’s here that the film starts to feel a little rushed, but seeing as these demonstrations were literally taking place while the film was finishing up production, it’s understandable why they weren’t given more focus.

This is one of those documentaries that offers a lot of information and different ideas, and the directors do a good job of keeping it fast-paced and engaging. While a lot of these themes have been covered in other films, The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel is still a thought provoking documentary that does a good job of exploring the increasing role that corporations play in our lives.

The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel is opening in select theatres across Canada today, please check local listings. It’s being distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures.

Disney+ Review: Inside Pixar (Episodes 1 & 2)

November 12, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Pixar Animation Studios is one of those places that I have always been fascinated by and have long dreamed of visiting. Not only am I a huge fan of their movies and characters, but as a studio, the place seems to be a bastion of creativity.

The new Disney Plus series Inside Pixar, which is premiering on the streaming platform tomorrow, gives us an inside look at the animation house, more specifically introducing us to some of the individual people who help make the magic happen.

I had a chance to preview the first two episodes of the series for review, and Pixar fans are in for a treat. The docuseries is made up of four collections grouped by theme, with five ten minute episodes in each, all showcasing a different person working at the studio. The first collection is titled Inspired, and focuses on the theme of inspiration.

The first episode, (Inspired: Kemp Powers, Writing Something Real), focuses on Kemp Powers, who co-wrote and co-directed the upcoming Soul with Pete Docter. Powers talks about bringing his perspective as a Black man to the film, which is Pixar’s first with an African-American protagonist. The second half of the episode explores a scene that he wrote where the film’s main character, Joe Gardner, gets his hair cut at a barbershop, with Powers touching on the importance of representation and showing a Black space onscreen. It’s a nice little taste of Soul, which premieres on Disney+ next month.

The second episode, (Inspired: Deanna Marsigliese, The Art of the Pivot), introduces us to character designer Deanna Marsigliese. She talks about drawing inspiration from walking the streets of San Francisco, and how her creative process includes doing paper collages and even wire sculptures, which helped inform the look of the guardian characters in Soul. Marsigliese also has a penchant for vintage clothing, and the episode does a good job of showcasing her amazing sense of style and how this helps inspire her character designs. Many of the outfits in her own wardrobe provided inspiration for the costumes in Incredibles II.

Marsigliese also talks about being able to draw upon her Italian heritage to work on Pixar’s upcoming film Luca, which takes plus in Italy. As an added bonus, the episode gives us our first glimpse at the character design of the film’s lead character, a cute little sea monster. Between Marsigliese’s work on Luca, and Powers being brought on to help craft Soul, one of the most gratifying aspects of these two episodes is seeing how Pixar is striving for cultural authenticity in their storytelling.

The next three episodes in the Inspired collection introduce us to the Canadian filmmaker behind the Pixar SparkShort Out (Inspired: Steven Hunter, For That Kid), a script supervisor striving for more gender balance in the studio’s films (Inspired: Jessica Heidt, Who Gets All the Lines?), as well as the director of the recent film Onward (Inspired: Dan Scanlon, Where Ideas Come From).

The series is credited to directors Tony Kaplan and Erica Milsom, who alternate between episodes, and I can safely say that it is off to a great start. The first two episodes that I saw are both beautifully shot and beautifully edited vignettes, that do an informative and engaging job of introducing us to the people behind these films. I’m looking forward to watching the rest of the series as it rolls out.

Inside Pixar Collection 1: Inspired premieres exclusively on Disney+ on November 13th.

Review: Mulan (Digital Release)

November 11, 2020

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Disney’s Mulan, the studio’s big budget live action remake of their 1998 animated classic, has had a pretty rough time getting in front of audiences. The film became one of the first major cinematic casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic when its theatrical release got cancelled back in March, forcing it to spend several months in limbo as the studio tried to secure a new date.

When plans for a theatrical release over the summer fell through, the studio decided to release the film directly on Disney Plus for a premium price instead, in a major shakeup to the theatrical distribution model. Now the film is being released across digital platforms and on Blu-ray this week, before being made available for all Disney+ subscribers in December.

I say all of this because it feels like we have been waiting ages for Mulan, (I had been invited to a press screening back in March that got cancelled when theatres were forced to close), and to tell you the honest truth, the wait for this blockbuster that could have been hasn’t entirely been worth it. This is not to say that Mulan is a bad film, because it’s not, and from a visual standpoint at least, it can be quite an attractive one. But it also feels mostly unnecessary and somewhat hollow, especially compared to the superior animated film.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t really a direct remake of the animated film, but rather a new adaptation of The Ballad of Mulan, the Chinese folktale upon which both movies are based. The basic story remains the same, following a free-spirited young woman named Mulan (Yifei Liu) in Imperial China. Her family feels ashamed by her “un-ladylike” behaviour, and is trying desperately to transform her into the perfect bride so that she can be married off

Facing an invasion by Rouran warriors (updated from Huns in the animated film) led by Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), the Imperial Army orders every household to give one man for battle. With her father (Tzi Ma) too frail to fight, Mulan disguises herself as a man and decides to take his place, stealing his sword and armour and sneaking off at night on horseback to join the fight.

Despite having to keep her identity a closely guarded secret, including not being able to shower with the male soldiers lest she give herself away, Mulan is sent on a journey to protect the Emperor (Jet Li) and restore honour to her family. The film also features an added adversary in the form of a shapeshifting witch named Xianniang (Li Gong), who takes the form of a bird. She is a new addition to the story, but the character feels underdeveloped, like an idea that worked better in theory than in practise.

Directed by New Zealand filmmaker Niki Caro, whose breakout film Whale Rider seems like somewhat of a blueprint for this one, this live action version of Mulan aims to be a more grounded retelling of the classic story. For example, Caro has omitted the animated film’s musical numbers, along with much of that film’s humour, and the dragon sidekick Mushu. While these elements wouldn’t have necessarily translated well to live action anyways, they are also some of the things that gave the animated version a lot of its character, and without them this film feels somewhat bland.

Caro’s film tries to strike a more serious tone, which makes the more cartoony moments of humour seem somewhat out of place. Several of the changes that she makes also feel like needless updates, including the removal of Captain Li Shang, Mulan’s love interest from the animated film and a fan favourite character who has been claimed by many as a bisexual icon. Producer Jason T. Reed raised eyebrows with fans when he explained that, in the age of #MeToo, it wouldn’t be appropriate to have a love interest who is also a commanding officer.

But this reasoning is quite puzzling, because there was literally nothing remotely predatory about their relationship in the animated film, and it was actually one of the more intriguing aspects of the original for the way that he appeared to start falling in love with Mulan as a man. Li Shang has been replaced by two new characters; Commander Tung (Donnie Yen), who takes on a sort of paternal role to Mulan, and Honghui (Yoson An), a soldier who tries to befriend her. Though I would add that the interest Honghui shows in Mulan while she is disguised as a man still allows for the character to be read as bisexual, so at least this aspect hasn’t been entirely erased.

In other regards though, this version does remove some of the original film’s queer subtext. While you could argue that it wasn’t intended as such, many fans have taken on the animated film as a transgender allegory, interpreting Mulan not as someone disguising themselves as male, but rather someone who wishes they had been born male. While you could still read these themes into the live action version, much of this subtext has been written out in favour of a more straight-forward “girl power” narrative that leans into the idea of Mulan simply dressing up as a guy out of necessity.

For example, in the animated film, Mulan actually cut her hair before joining the army, where in this film she keeps her long hair and lets it down as she rides into battle. The key to understanding the deeper transgender allegory in the animated film actually lies in the song “Reflection.” The song has been taken up as an unofficial trans anthem, with lyrics including “who is that girl I see, staring straight back at me, why is my reflection someone I don’t know?” and “when will my reflection show, who I am inside?” suggesting something deeper going on than just dress up.

Christina Aguilera still sings an updated pop version of “Reflection” over the end credits, as she did in the animated version as well. But, while an instrumental version of the tune becomes a recurring motif in the orchestral score by composer Harry Gregson-Williams, who does a decent job of building upon the late Jerry Goldsmith’s music in the first one, the song itself isn’t featured within this film’s narrative. The stirring production number of “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” is also greatly missed.

I must give credit where credit is due though, and as I mentioned earlier, Mulan is often appealing on a visual level. The film does feature some impressive widescreen cinematography by Mandy Walker, with her camera even turning sideways to follow warriors up the side of a wall in one striking moment. The film’s colours are incredibly vibrant, including rich reds and golds that pop off the screen. There is also some well choreographed martial arts action, including a few moments in the finale that recall the “wire fu” in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

That said, I would be remiss not to mention the many troubling behind the scenes aspects of Mulan, which do colour our judgement of the film. The film was subject to controversy long before its scheduled release, when lead actress Yifei Liu came out as pro-Beijing during the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, voicing her support for the Hong Kong police who were cracking down on protestors. This was followed by more recent revelations that parts of the film were shot in Xinjiang, close to the site of concentration camps where Uyghur Muslims are being held by the Chinese Communist Party.

Several Chinese government agencies that have been accused of human rights violations even receive “special thanks” in the end credits. While much of the film was shot in New Zealand, the fact that the producers seem to have willfully overlooked the Uyghur genocide in order to shoot some scenes on location in Xinjiang is an egregious example of putting profit over human rights. These things all give credence to the feeling that Mulan was produced merely to capitalize on China’s massive box office market, having been made under the watchful eye of Chinese censors so as not to offend the CCP.

Ironically, the film has also received criticism from some Chinese audiences for making changes to the original story, and for having a white director and key crew. Who, then, is Mulan really for? Like an increasing number of these live action remakes, including last year’s Aladdin and the Disney+ original film Lady and the Tramp, Mulan mostly feels like a needless retread. The film also plays into the unfortunate idea that animation is somehow an incomplete blueprint for a story that is in need of an upgrade.

Right after watching Mulan, I went back and rewatched the original film, and there is little in this live action version that is as stirring as the best moments in the animated one. Alas, even many of the battle scenes were more awe-inspiring in their animated form. This isn’t a bad film, and it is kept watchable thanks to good cinematography and decent action sequences. But it lacks the spark of the animated version, and is clouded in enough controversy to drown out the positive elements, making it one that is hard to really get excited about.

Mulan is now available on Blu-ray, 4K Ultra HD, and a variety of digital platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by Walt Disney Studios Canada.

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