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Disney is fully intent on remaking its entire library of classic animated movies. The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast were huge smash hits, and while Cinderella didn't hit similar box office numbers, it had solid reviews. Over a billion dollars in tickets sold is enough to convince the Mouse House to keep this strategy going until it remakes everything all over again. One of the next films up to bat is Mulan, which has taken early steps to get us hopeful about the live-action movie because it directly addresses one of the chief criticisms of these remakes.
While these Disney remakes are fun, gorgeous, and full of the spirit that made the original films classics, you wouldn't be over the line for complaining that these movies are basically the same as the animated ones. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? Yes, but Disney might be taking this too literally.
Let's take Beauty and the Beast for example. The animated movie is one of the best, if not THE best, movie Disney has ever made. This movie was nominated for an Oscar before there was even a category for animation. There's very little that can to improve this movie... but that's not to say it couldn't have been done. When the Bill Condon-directed version hit theaters last year, it was incredibly loyal to the original; same costumes, same songs, same shots, same dialogue, same plot. If you've seen the 1991 version, then you've pretty much seen this one, too.
True, the live action Beauty and the Beast has new things. It has a few new songs and characters, while fleshing out the backstories of the main players. That's what these movies should be doing, but I'm not convinced that Beauty and the Beast took this far enough. Okay, yeah, Belle's mom died of the plague, but maybe the movie could have devoted that screentime to convincing us on the hard-to-believe romance at the center of the whole movie (something the original doesn't sell super well).
It's admittedly a tough thing to ask. How do you give people something new while delivering on the nostalgia that people want? It's not easy to do, but Mulan seems determined to try.
Recently, a bunch of casting information about the live-action Mulan dropped, illuminating some of the first details about the remake. Of the characters cast for the pending movie, three of them are entirely new to the story. One is a general/mentor played by Donnie Yen and another is Mulan's sister. Guess what? Mulan doesn't have a sister in the animated movie, putting an extra spin on the material.
In addition, and perhaps most importantly, the villain of the movie has been given a huge change. Gong Li is playing a powerful witch, notable for several reasons. The villain of the animated Mulan was Shan Yu, who led a Hun army to conquer China, and it looks like he's been ditched. Secondly, the appearance of a witch means magic, an entirely new element to Mulan. Yeah, the first one had ghosts, but nobody was going around casting spells or curses. This is a relatively major departure, which seems to indicate that this movie is willing to deviate away from the formula in the way that past remakes weren't.
Of course, just because something is being changed doesn't mean it's for the better. There's a rumor that Li Shang, the love interest from the movie, isn't in the live-action version, or that's he's been turned into a different character. This has upset fans that saw Shang as bisexual, and view it as Disney potentially cutting an LGBT character to simplify the story. (In Disney's defense, the romance between Mulan and Shang is in a super moral gray area; she lies to him through 95% of the movie, and he's just cool with that?) Shang's sexuality is never addressed in the movie, so it's technically head-canon, but that doesn't change the fact that the character means something to a lot of people.
Not every remake thus far has just been a simple retread of what's come before. While Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella are mostly the same, The Jungle Book avoids some of these issues. While the movie follows many of the beats of the original, it does so with enough new energy to make it feel fresh. Maybe this is because The Jungle Book is older than, say, Beauty and the Beast, so Disney can get away with bending it a little. It's much harder to do that with a movie from the 90s that is still fresh in a lot of people's minds.
I'm not saying that these movies can't have the same songs, or scenes that people love. I'm pretty sure I'd have burned the theater down if Bill Condon cut "Be Our Guest." Plus, it's difficult to argue for making changes when Disney is just giving people what they want. There were some who got pretty vocal when the director of Mulan mulled over leaving out the songs (they aren't). The trouble is, these movies need to be more imaginative to justify their existence other than "this will make a lot of money." Basically, Disney has to make it so that people will be torn about which version is their favorite. It's arguably much easier to do this with Mulan than a bonafide classic.