On Set: A Tale of Two New Releases

Do audiences want new films in a socially distanced theater or on their home screens? 'Tenet' and 'Mulan' each took different routes and movie critic Jeff Counts tells us what worked best.
John David Washington in 'Tenet' and Liu Yifei in 'Mulan.' (Warner Bros. and Disney Plus)

by | Sep 19, 2020 | Film & TV

Through no fault of their own, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and Disney’s remake of Mulan were doomed from the start. Not doomed to fail, necessarily, just cursed with COVID origin stories they’ll never shake. 

Mulan was originally scheduled to release in March, with Tenet slated to hit theaters in mid-July. Obviously, neither plan was possible and both projects had to be delayed. Looking back, March and July may seem decades apart. But Warner Bros. and Disney were actually trying to crack the same nut. How important is the big-screen experience? What exactly gets lost in the compromises of a digital release? How long can we be patient? In a Netflix world like the one we live in now, we ask ourselves the same basic question every time we see a new trailer. “Do I need to see this one in a theater or can I wait?” That was true even before COVID. And Nolan and Disney clearly differ on the answer.                                           

To the extent anything about the last several months can be viewed as a boon to one project or another, Tenet definitely benefited from its summer ambitions. Without the pressure of a spring release date, Christopher Nolan could afford to be insistent about a theatrical debut. His gamble is no longer theoretical. The grandiose comments about how Tenet would be the movie that reopened theaters might have deserved an eye-roll when he made them, but it’s actually happening. I saw Tenet in a theater and I cannot deny it was good to be back. 

Nolan’s latest brain-cramp blockbuster was the perfect film to welcome back moviegoers. Like every non-Batman movie by Nolan, Tenet features the concept of time as its plot, protagonist, and villain. It does so in a way that is too good to spoil (the trailers do that already) but don’t worry, there’s plenty of, “wow I didn’t realize how much I missed movies” stuff to geek out about without giving away any secrets. I’m talking about the pyrotechnic virtuosity of the cinematography and effects. The surgically precise editing and that signature Nolan sound design that occasionally overwhelms everything else. His ability to keep so many plates spinning at once without losing the viewer is on full display with Tenet. It might not be a masterpiece, but it is a masterclass. I don’t think any of it would have been as good on my TV.                                              

Disney’s answer to the COVID question was more novel, but ultimately riskier. After two unsupportable attempts at a new theatrical release date, they opted to make it part of their relatively fresh digital content platform Disney Plus. But here’s the catch. Not only do you have to subscribe to the channel, you have to pay the premium access price of $30 for Mulan. And you have to watch it at home, limited by whatever your system will allow. On the surface, it all seems like a pretty lackluster way to debut a tent-pole title. But hey, it might just be crazy enough to work. I certainly paid my $30 without hesitation and watched Mulan from my couch with a big smile. 

Leaving aside the political controversies related to the production for now, it’s a solid remake—much better than Aladdin and The Lion King and every bit as good as Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book. The fight choreography is kinetic and creative, despite some occasionally wonky computer-generated imagery, and the casting is excellent. Disney’s commitment against whitewashing in this film was well-placed. I was particularly thankful that this version of the story left out the sidekick dragon Mushu. Chinese audiences found him offensive back in 1998 and there is simply no good reason in 2020 to repeat the mistake. 

Liu Yifei’s title portrayal is better in the big set pieces than the small interpersonal moments, but she makes a very compelling hero throughout. That’s true of the movie in general. The larger the scale, the better it works. I often wonder how things might be different with stories like this if the actors were allowed to communicate in the language of the setting. But Disney plus subtitles? No way. All things considered, I never felt like I was missing anything by watching from my living room.                                   

Nolan and Disney were both right. Tenet needs to be seen in a theater and Mulan really doesn’t. In terms of investment return, the latter film’s success will depend on its strange but timely experiment. The former needs American people to be comfortable in public places again. I was one of three people in the theater when I saw Tenet, but the initial box office numbers have been good. The Mulan strategy will take a bit longer to assess. Wonder Woman 1984 is watching all of this with great interest, to be sure.     

Two summer movies released in September, from different venues, is a sign that the film business is still desperately trying to sort itself out. I, for one, was glad to be immersed in so much creative ambition again. I’ll take that any way, and anywhere, I can get it.        

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About Jeff Counts

Before moving to Jackson in 2019, Jeff spent five years reviewing movies as co-host of the public access television program "Big Movie Mouth-Off." When not focused on film, Jeff writes about opera and co-hosts the classical music interview podcast "Ghost Light."

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