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Review: Live-action ‘Mulan’ is gorgeous but short on magic

Out of all of Disney’s animated films, “Mulan” was the one that made the most sense as a live-action remake. Not that there haven’t been good and charming live-action remakes over the past decade – Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella” being at the top of the pack – but with most of them no matter how expensive or carefully executed or reverent to the source material, I usually walk out wishing I’d just watched the animated version instead.

Part of that might be age. I was in the generation who got to experience Disney’s animated renaissance in real time in the theaters – unaware of course that it was a renaissance, but simply that the films I got to see in the theater and then on home video were something special. Perhaps it didn’t crystallize just how special they were and are until the live-action remakes became a regular part of the release calendar. Many just weren’t as enchanting or effective as their predecessors. That is mostly a compliment to the gold standard that is the animation. It would be shocking for a live-action version to somehow be better or even equal. Just look at the animated Hakuna Matata next to the “real” one. There is a reason most of these stories were animated in the first place.

“Mulan” was different, though. The animated tale is wonderful and full of fantastic songs, but it’s a war epic. The story, about a young Chinese woman who steps in to serve the army in her aging and ailing father’s place, is naturally and fundamentally suited for the format.

And make no mistake, director Niki Caro’s “Mulan” is without a doubt one of the best of the remakes. It is stunning to look at from beginning to end. The crisp landscapes (shot by cinematographer Mandy Walker), the brightly colored and divinely intricate costumes (from Bina Daigeler), the elaborate fight sequences and the actors faces – especially Liu Yifei, who plays Mulan – are so beautiful that it will take your breath away. It’s abundantly evident that Caro (“Whale Rider”) had a grand and sweeping vision for “Mulan” and for the most part she pulls it off.

“Mulan” falters on the story level, however, feeling both rushed, overlong and oddly light on character development. We barely even get to know Mulan. She’s introduced as a child, wild and carefree running through her village. But she’s not just free-spirited in this version: She actually has magical powers that make her a natural acrobat and, later, warrior. The film cuts abruptly from this revelation to our heroine, who is now older and messing up in front of the matchmaker. It’s still a charming scene, even without Eddie Murphy’s Mushu.

But there’s the problem: Why am I even thinking about Eddie Murphy? Because “Mulan” doesn’t ever let you forget that it is in conversation with the animated film, devoted to hitting the familiar beats of its predecessor instead of telling its own story. Every time you hear the notes from “Reflection,” which is only sung in the credits, you are torn out of Caro’s sumptuous spectacle and once again thinking about the 1998 version and its songs.

“Mulan” has so much going for it, including a roster of amazing Chinese and Chinese-American actors including Jet Li, as the Emperor, Tzi Ma, as Mulan’s father, Rosalind Chao as Li, Donnie Yen as Commander Tung and Jason Scott Lee as the big bad villain Bori Khan. It also decides to introduce a female witch villain played by Li Gong, which doesn’t quite work and distracts from Mulan’s own journey.

There is more good than bad in “Mulan,” and we should be so lucky to get a gorgeous and inspiring war epic that is suitable for children to watch. “Mulan” might even inspire some kids to dip their toes into all that Asian cinema has to offer, which would be the best possible outcome. But something has to give in this blind fealty to the animated films, because it’s getting in the way of greatness.

“Mulan,” a Disney+ release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sequences of violence.” Running time: 115 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

Review: Dirk Powell shines exploring Cajun and Celtic roots

Dirk Powell, ‘When I Wait for You’ (Compass)

Because Dirk Powell loves traditional music, and honors it on this fine album, his pledge to banish one category of front-porch favorites from his repertoire is especially powerful.

On the ballad “I Ain’t Playing Pretty Polly,” Powell swears off performing tunes about violence against women. The men in such oldies as “Knoxville Girl” and “Rosalie McFall” “don’t deserve their stories told,” Powell sings, pairing a timely #MeToo sentiment with his timeless sound.

Powell is a Louisiana-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, and his new album, “When I Wait for You,” draws on Cajun and Celtic roots, and more. There are rustic echoes of The Band, whose eponymous album came out the year Powell was born, and his singing recalls both Levon Helm and Richard Manuel. Other cuts sound like bonus material from Harry Smith’s 1950s folk anthology, but remarkably, 12 of the 13 songs are original compositions.

“I Ain’t Playing Pretty Polly” ain’t the only topical tune. “Say Old Playmate,” a lament about experiencing bigotry in childhood, expertly pairs a sweet melody and sad tale. Powell also sings about the luck of the draw, tug of the road and stages of love.

Guests include Rhiannon Giddens and Sara and Sean Watkins, but this is Powell’s show. He has spent much of his career as a versatile sideman, and here he displays his chops on acoustic and electric guitar, fiddle, banjo, bass, mandolin, accordion and keyboards, always with his roots showing.

15 years after Katrina, does New Orleans sound different?

NEW ORLEANS — 31 billion gallons of water.

Approximately 134,000 homes damaged.

More than 250,000 people displaced.

These statistics only begin to describe the scope of the damage Hurricane Katrina wrought on New Orleans’ infrastructure and culture, an impact still seen in blighted houses, shuttered hospitals and a city population that hasn’t yet caught up to pre-Katrina levels. But 15 years after flood waters forced people out of the city or onto rooftops, some believe the city doesn’t just look different. It sounds different, too.

“With people, you know they’re from New Orleans just by the way they talk,” said 7th Ward resident Terry Baquet, who grew up in the city’s historic Treme neighborhood. “There’s a level of comfort when you meet someone from New Orleans and they sound just like you.

“Since Katrina, that’s changed a lot.”

‘Where y’at?’

Mapping New Orleans dialects and how they’ve changed since Katrina is the goal for sociolinguists Katie Carmichael of Virginia Tech and Nathalie Dajko of Tulane University, who received a grant in 2018 to study the shift.

New Orleans’ traditional dialects are as distinctive and colorful as the city’s architecture, drawing from French, Creole, African American, Irish, Italian and Jewish influences. But Carmichael and Dajko said there’s no definitive list of the city’s linguistic flavors.

A 1985 documentary exploring local accents called “Yeah, You Rite!” separated dialects into uptown white, downtown white (known as the Yat accent) and downtown Black. While Dajko and Carmichael have seen dialects change more along racial lines in recent years, the two linguists said that’s an overly simplified view of dialects that locals say vary from neighborhood to neighborhood.

“Part of this is documenting what’s here in the first place and then finding out how it’s changing,” Dajko said.

Most famous is the city’s Yat dialect, derived from the phrase “Where y’at?” (meaning “How are you?’ and pronounced without the “R”). A working class accent that would sound at home in the Bronx, the Yat accent is as much an icon of New Orleans as the Superdome. Coincidentally, that may be one of the few places to hear it in the city, as legions of fans chant “Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?” on football Sundays.

“The great irony is if you walk around in the famous historic neighborhoods, you’re less likely to hear traditional New Orleans accents,” said Richard Campanella, a Tulane University geographer who has studied the post-Katrina shift in demographics. “And if you go out to the working class suburbs, those places are actually treasure troves of local culture, which includes those accents and dialects.”

In the historically Black neighborhood of Treme where Baquet grew up, native residents might spend Sunday “making groceries” and “saving groceries” before spending the evening “door poppin’”. Now, they simply go to the store, put their food in the fridge and sit on the porch, though Baquet said even that is seen less often.

“I didn’t think we’re going to lose those things as people who aren’t from here started taking over these neighborhoods. And it’s definitely happening,” Baquet said.

Locals interviewed often fault post-Katrina gentrification for diluting the traditional dialects in the once insular corners of the city.

Prior to the storm, the city had the highest nativity rate – meaning the percentage of residents born in the state – of any major American city.

But Katrina reduced the New Orleans population by 250,000 (53 percent). That included 190,000 Black residents, 59 percent of the Black population.

Author Maurice Carlos Ruffin said his block in New Orleans’ Central City used to be 100 percent Black. After properties were bought and flipped by investors, it’s closer to 50 percent.

“If I went to the grocery store and the woman behind the counter had a classic African American New Orleans accent, I’d just smile. It’d make me feel good,” Ruffin said. “It’s been something I look out for, and I get depressed when I can’t find it as often as I used to.”

Retired 9-1-1 operator Paula Massey spent 23 years listening to her city and said she could tell which area callers were from based on how they spoke. In the decade after the storm, her last years on the job, Massey noticed the voices becoming less familiar, the accents more neutral.

“A lot of out-of-towners came in. A lot of people came here because property values were at a good price to restore,” Massey said. “Once Katrina came, that’s when gentrification really started.”

Was change already coming?

Locals and researchers say New Orleans dialects had already been in flux prior to 2005.

Mo Brennan, a dialect coach who helps actors hone an authentic New Orleans accent, is the daughter of a mother who spoke Cajun French and a Yat father with Italian roots.

But Brennan doesn’t have an accent. She grew up trying to emulate Walter Cronkite broadcasts and intentionally shunning the traditional voice of her family – though she admits she might slip into it after a few cocktails and a plate of crawfish.

“‘Dawlin’ I don’t know abaht you but I don’t wanna sound like that when I grow up,’” Brennan said, imitating her Aunt Tootie. “I was like, ‘I’ll be damned if I talk like that.’’

The uptick in national media could be one factor in the gradual change from a Yat accent now more at home in a Vic and Nat’ly comic.

And Campanella said New Orleans’ historic neighborhoods were already seeing a decline in nativity rate in the final decades of the 20th century.

“Transplants are probably disinclined to move to a suburban environment. They will more likely live in the iconic, historic urban core, and they’re not going to bring a New Orleans accent with them,” Campanella said.

Still, the post-Katrina swap of locals for transplants most likely accelerated a dialect shift that was already in motion.

The magnitude of the shift is not yet known, Dajko and Carmichael said.

Prior to COVID-19, Carmichael and Dajko had spent two years interviewing New Orleans residents, learning how they speak, what dialects they attach to certain parts of the city, how they spot “fake” New Orleanians, and what phrases they’re clinging to now to define themselves.

That last question is key for a city that takes pride in being unique, in being New Orleans.

“For instance, if I want to make sure you know that I’m a Black New Orleanian who was here before the storm, there are certain linguistic things you can do to emphasize that identity,” Carmichael said. “That’s what we’re interested in finding out: What are people trying to stress post-Katrina?”

‘A precious thing’: How preserving language preserves culture

New Orleans has shown signs of defending its authenticity and by extension, its way of speaking.

“We’ve gotten to the point where we look on it with affection,” said Brennan, who said she now feels like something of a preservationist. “We look at it as this precious thing that has to be protected and we don’t want it to go away.”

At a comedy show in the Bywater neighborhood last year, comedian Lane Lonion began his set by asking the audience how many were from New Orleans. They were greatly out-clapped by the transplants in the room.

“Y’all shouldn’t be louder than the other people,” said Lonion, a Louisiana native.

At apparel shops, more merchandise is targeting pre-Katrina nostalgia with logos from K&B and Schwegman’s, local chains that closed long before Katrina. Some T-shirts demonstrate how to pronounce street names (it’s Cal-ee-ope not Calliope). The commercialization of the city’s culture doesn’t address current speaking patterns, but Carmichael said the popularity does show locals’ desire to distinguish themselves.

“It’s a way of saying I have this cultural linguistic heritage and this knowledge passed down through generations,” Carmichael said.

Carmichael and Dajko are confident that New Orleans dialects will continue to evolve more than disappear. So far, they’ve found that those who once identified as Creole are dropping their R’s more and aligning their speech patterns with traditionally Black New Orleans accents.

At the same time, white suburban residents who have preserved something closer to a Yat accent have started picking up their R’s and pronouncing “about” with a somewhat Canadian rounded vowel sound.

“That’s an internal change that’s happening (naturally). The R-lessness, ‘dawlin’,’ all these ‘New Yawk’ sounds are going away with the younger generation. But other things are replacing them,” Carmichael said.

“It is not the case that New Orleans is starting to sound like network news anchors.

“There will always be linguistic ways of signifying, ‘I’m from New Orleans.’”