The other day, sitting in a slightly-hip beer brewery within walking distance of my house, I heard “Accidentally in Love” by the Counting Crows. On some level, I was happy to hear the song if only because it seemed like the kind of selection made to appease someone of my specific demographic: Late thirties dude who still likes music from the late ’90s and early ’00s. But, really, what hearing this song did was make me remember that it only exists because of the movie Shrek 2 and that made me irrationally angry about kids movies, specifically, the brand of cloying humor that has pervaded most big children’s films (animated or live-action) since before the dawn of Shrek and its ilk. For far too long movies for kids have contained a brand of “clever” humor that has done no one any favors, and now that the new Mulan live-action remake looks tight as hell, I think it’s possible one era of annoying kids’ media could be supplanted by another. Here’s why.
In case you hadn’t heard, the forthcoming 2020 live-action version of Mulan will not do what other live-action Disney movies have done recently; specifically, faithfully recreate the cartoon as a movie with real people (or in the case of the upcoming Lion King, with realistic-looking lions.) Instead, Mulan will take the essential plot of the 1998 animated film (which is based on the much older Chinese legend, Hua Mulan) and tell the story in a straightforward, somewhat serious fashion. This means there is no talking dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy and exactly zero musical numbers. In other words, the new Mulan isn’t trying to be cute, or funny, or contain some element for every single member of the family. It’s just trying to be a movie for 7-to-15-year-olds that actually looks cool.
This matters. Right now, kids get tonally mixed-bags from the animated films and live-action movies marketed at them. Toy Story 4 is probably for younger kids, and yet, like its predecessors, it’s filled with pop-culture references and sentiments seemingly aimed at adults. Frozen, on some level is like this too: Kids obviously love it, but “goofy” characters like the snowman Olaf actually break the spell and make the movie feel like a family-friendly product, rather than a fully realized fantasy adventure. If you’re a savvy kid, you can tell when this happens. For me, as a small child, the patient-zero of this phenomenon was the fairie Merriwether in Sleeping Beauty. Now, I love Sleeping Beauty. It’s an artistic masterpiece paired with some of the best classical music ever written (Tchaikovsky) set against weird interpretations of medieval tapestries. But, the fairie Merriwether is a little much, insofar as she represents a contemporary viewpoint and sense of humor. This is fine in isolation, but as a kid, it ruined the illusion for me. If you look at nearly every big kids’ movie from Sleeping Beauty to the present, you’ll find this fourth-wall-breaking character. In The Little Mermaid it was that fucking seagull, in Aladdin it was Gilbert Gottfried as the parrot, and yeah, in the 1998 Mulan it was Eddie Murphy as the talking dragon Mushu. The Shrek franchise took this “comic relief” thing one step further and just made like all the characters into jokesters. And ever since, the world has been subjected to the likes of movies like Madagascar or the live-action Jumanji movies starring the Rock. (Sidenote: both Shrek and the original Aladdin were co-written by an apparent racist who is also an anti-vaxxer.)
Now, I’m not saying any of these movies are bad per se, and often this kind of thing is great. But how can you get away from it when it’s the norm and seemingly mandatory in every single kids’ movie? When it comes to mainstream kids’ entertainment — live action or animated — it’s actually very hard to find a family movie that doesn’t have some overt element of pre-fabricated “goofiness.” And the problem with that tendency is that contemporary jokes in a fantasy story — from Merrieweather to Shrek —simply break the magical spell of escapist art. To put it more simply: Kids don’t need to have everything be a goofy musical take on a fantasy story. And, finding more straight-up fantasy movies for kids, that aren’t hopelessly regressive is actually really hard.
Enter the new Mulan. Nowhere in this trailer is someone winking at the camera in the style of Kung Fu Panda. There are no hordes of talking magical rocks bursting into (forgettable) songs ala’ Frozen. And best of all, there are no talking animals. Instead, Mulan is sending a clear message: We are going to do an old legend, a kind of fairy tale-ish story, but we’re just going to do it straight-up. Not only is this refreshing, but I’d also argue, very wise. Kids like funny things. Kids are often very funny people, but placating children by injecting constant mainstream goofiness into their fantasy narratives isn’t doing anyone any favors. (There are exceptions to this, of course, A Series of Unfortunate Events is very jokey, but its brand of humor relies less on gags and more on jokes about words, which is a very, very different thing.)
The point is if Mulan sticks to its swords — as it seems to be doing — this could be the first big live-action Dinsey movie that doesn’t rely on nostalgia, singing or zaniness to be successful. Young kids — girls in particular — could stand to have a few more female role models out there in TV and movie land. And, it’s nice to think that in order for those stories to be successful, people don’t have to be yucking it up constantly. Right now, the triumph of Mulan is that it’s already saying the movies for our kids can be serious to be good. And in some ways, a simpler approach might be better.
Mulan is out everywhere on March 27, 2020.