Some people—not me, but some people—argue that Mulan is the last truly great hand-drawn animated Disney movie before the studio had a renaissance of sorts with CG films like Tangled, Frozen, and Moana. Whether that's true or not is debatable, but what isn’t debatable is that live-action adaptations of animated Disney properties usually make beaucoup bucks at the box office. The live-action adaptations of Alice in Wonderland, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King all grossed over a billion dollars worldwide. And while flops like Dumbo prove that the formula isn't fool-proof, a popular animated classic like Mulan should have no problem crossing the billion dollar mark. The question is, should it?
And by should it, I don’t mean should it make a billion dollars or not. I’m asking, should it even be made? Out of all the classic animated Disney films from the 90s, Mulan is a lot of people’s favorite, and for good reason. The music is stellar, the title character is probably the first truly progressive Disney heroine, and the setting and story are amazing. While the live-action version of The Jungle Book is proof that these new movies can be just as good or even surpass the original, Disney’s track record with these films is spotty at best. Will a live-action Mulan put Disney back on the right track? Well … Here are six possible reasons we should be nervous about this movie.
There Will Be Music, But It Won't Be A Musical
The latest trailer, which looks stunning by the way, is all the better because of that phenomenal rendition of “Reflection” that plays throughout its action sequences. But that may be the only kind of musical cues from the original that we get, since this live-action version of Mulan is not going to be a musical. And while I understand the reasoning--director, Niki Caro, wants more of the focus to be on the story rather than the music--it's a hard pill to swallow since many of the greatest moments from the original were its musical numbers.
But while there's no doubt in my mind that instrumental versions of "I'll Make a Man Out of You" and "Honor to Us All" will be sprinkled somewhere throughout the movie, it begs the question why Mulan couldn't also have been a musical like the live-action versions of Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast before it. Unless the story is vastly different from the original, the lack of musical numbers may make this movie seem a little bland in comparison.
A Phoenix Will Be Replacing Mushu
A lot of the criticism for the live-action Mulan began when news broke that Mushu wouldn't appear in this live-action adaptation. Not really, anyway. Details have since surfaced that claim that Mushu will in fact be in this movie, but not as the lovable red dragon from the original voiced by Eddie Murphy. If anything, he might just appear as an Easter egg. Instead, we’re now getting a phoenix that watches over the family. But this is a little troubling.
Mushu was a Chinese dragon, and a dragon is a symbol often found in Chinese culture. A phoenix is also part of Chinese mythology, (It even symbolizes the duality of masculine and feminine tendencies that exists within us all). But with all that subtext behind the phoenix, it might make people wonder why Disney didn't just stick with the dragon. Most people associate the phoenix with Greek mythology and rebirth anyway.
So why Mushu was replaced by a phoenix is anybody’s guess, but given the tone of the trailer, I can only ascertain that it’s because Disney didn’t want to make this version of Mulan as humorous as the original, since Mushu was often seen as the comic relief. It appears that Cricket is also absent from this version. In a way, it almost feels like Disney is trying to distance themselves as far away as possible from the original. But I'm not entirely sure why. The original is a good movie, and the comic relief didn't take away from its charm. If anything, it added to it. But perhaps they are only going this route because of the next reason...
The Beauty And The Beast Effect
Even though the live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast was a mega hit, one of the film's greatest complaints was that it was a bit too much like the original, making it inferior. The songs were mostly the same, and the new ones didn't add much at all. The costumes and designs were also very similar, and the general story remained almost entirely unchanged. In an attempt to not mix up the formula, the film instead decided to play things way too safe, creating an almost boring adaptation that will likely be forgotten in the next few years. Its closest cousin would likely be Disney's first live-action adaptation, Cinderella, which was almost a beat for beat recreation of the original movie.
But this live-action adaptation of Mulan looks like it might be taking The Jungle Book approach, altering the tone from something fun and whimsical to something a bit more serious. The thing is, while The Jungle Book benefited from the changes since the original hadn't aged all that well, Mulan might not need such a radical reinterpretation. The story of Mulan lends itself even better today with the push for female equality, and it didn't necessarily need to be changed, since it was already fairly progressive. Unlike with the live-action version of Aladdin, which decided to revamp Princess Jasmine's character to give her more agency, Mulan already had that quality to her character, so changing up the story might not be so necessary. And it might even take away from the message when all those cool new action sequences are thrown into the mix.
There Are Two Antagonists
While I kind of love that Ip Man's own Donnie Yen will be a new character and will be replacing Mulan's original love interest, Captain Li Shang, I'm not so thrilled that the main antagonist has been changed. It's not that the first big bad, Shan Yu, was all that interesting. He was a stock bad guy who did bad things and had no remorse. It's that there are now two antagonists, and one of them is a witch.
Now, I understand that magic definitely played a role in the original Mulan with the whole backstory of Mulan's ancestors reaching out from beyond the grave to give her help. But that felt a lot more cultural and fit in with the overall story of supporting one's family. A witch just seems to come totally out of left field, and from the scenes in the trailer, it appears that magic will play a large role in this version as the witch can transform into an eagle. I'm interested to see how this can play out in the overall story, and how it will be a totally different interpretation. But I'm a bit concerned that some of these elements are going to take away from Mulan's story rather than add to them. Sometimes, a stock bad guy just makes the protagonist stand out all the more so, and a character like Mulan definitely deserves to stand out.
It Kind Of Looks Like Movies We've Already Seen Before
Does the live-action Mulan look really different compared to its animated origin? Oh, yeah. It’s night and day. But does it look dramatically different from other epics set in Asia? Well, not entirely. In fact, I kind of see traces of The Forbidden Kingdom and Hero interwoven in this latest trailer. What may end up happening is that in trying to look drastically different from the animated movie, it might wind up looking like films we’ve already seen in the past.
The main conceit of a woman pretending to be a man to fill in for her ailing father will always be a unique story. But when it comes to the actual battle sequences and running on rooftops, it has a somewhat been-there-seen-that quality to it. This may be intriguing when juxtaposed with the animated classic, but it might feel a little stale when juxtaposed with other films in the medium. If it were a musical, then that may make it extremely unique. But with all that stripped away in favor of a straight-faced retelling, it might just feel like a watered-down version of something we’ve already seen.
The #BoycottMulan Hashtag Might Overshadow The Actual Movie
Lastly, this may not be an issue that affects the quality of the movie as a whole, but it might definitely steer the discussion away from the movie itself. Back in August, the actress who plays Mulan, Liu Yifei, defended the Hong Kong police in a tweet. This all circles back to the protests that have been going on in Hong Kong for months now, and many felt that the actress was being unsympathetic to the protesters. And thus a #BoycottMulan hashtag was posted and trending for a while. This is pretty important given that the movie takes place in China, and China is a big market for Disney movies. Will Disney have to kowtow to China when the movie's released in order to make it sell overseas now that it's been embroiled in the controversy?
A possible effect from all this is that the movie might be overshadowed by the controversy. And as much as I would love to live in a world where people on the internet don't make a big stink about Laura Dern’s purple hair, or Princess Leia flying in space in The Last Jedi, the truth is, I don’t live in that world. And people love to spin narratives on the internet around movies rather than focusing on the movie itself. I just worry that Mulan, as good as it might be, may fall into that trap as well. Instead of people commenting on how good the movie eventually ended up being, we’ll be talking about how this is just another indication that it's better to keep your head down and your fingers away from your twitter account when you're out promoting a movie.
In the end, I know this may have sounded negative, but I’m actually really hopeful for this new live-action Mulan. Disney took a gamble with The Jungle Book, and that ended up great. So perhaps a newer take on Mulan will make this the greatest live-action Disney movie yet. Or maybe it will just end up falling on its face.
Either way, I’m still keeping my fingers crossed for a live-action version of Lilo and Stitch. Now that’s what I would call the last truly great hand-drawn Disney movie before they went fully CG. Because Ohana means family.
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Rich is a Jersey boy, through and through. He graduated from Rutgers University (Go, R.U.!), and thinks the Garden State is the best state in the country. That said, he’ll take Chicago Deep Dish pizza over a New York slice any day of the week. Don’t hate. When he’s not watching his two kids, he’s usually working on a novel, watching vintage movies, or reading some obscure book.