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One of the big points of contention about Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of Mulan has been the film’s lack of Mushu and musical numbers. The 1998 animated classic from which it draws some of its inspiration is beloved in part for Eddie Murphy’s diminutive dragon guardian and the film’s iconic songs. While those elements will not be present in the March film, Mulan director Niki Caro has specific reasons for not including them. She explained:
I mean, back to the realism question – we don't tend to break into song when we go to war. Not that I'm saying anything against the animation. The songs are brilliant, and if I could squeeze them in there, I would have. But we do honor the music from the animation in a very significant way.
Niki Caro’s argument against making Mulan a musical like the animated Disney film is about achieving a certain level of realism. As she explained during a footage presentation for the film, reported by Digital Spy, people don’t usually break out in song when they go to war. Mulan is going to war and pressing pause on that very serious reality to sing a song is simply not realistic.
It’s not that Niki Caro has anything against the animated film or the songs themselves, it’s just that they would not fit with the tone of the war story she was going for with Mulan. Therefore, Niki Caro chose not to include musical numbers. However, according to Niki Caro this new Mulan will still pay tribute in a way to the iconic songs from the original film.
We’ve actually got a sample of this in the trailers for the film where we hear a slowed down, instrumental version of the song “Reflection.” So the music will be in Mulan at least to a degree, but it won’t come in the form of characters breaking into song with musical numbers and that’s due to the level of realism the director is going for.
While I’m sure many will take umbrage with the realism defense with a film that includes witches and phoenixes, Niki Caro’s argument makes sense. You can have stuff like that as long as it comports with everything else. It’s about achieving realism and internal logic within the world of the film.
Animation affords a certain level of suspension of disbelief that live-action does not. We can buy that Mulan would break into song in the animated realm in the 1998 film and I’m sure there’s a version of a live-action Mulan that would also work with musical numbers, but it wouldn’t be the version Niki Caro wants to make.
Although there are fantastical elements, this is a very serious war story and it sounds like that’s what the director wants to convey. The director also said that she wanted to tell a real story of a girl going to war. Musical numbers would inevitably detracted from that tone, which would lessen the overall impact.
Then there’s the Mushu element. There will be a creature that is a spiritual representation of the ancestors in Mulan, but it will not be Mushu. Addressing the dragon that’s not in the room, Niki Caro said:
I think we can all appreciate that Mushu is irreplaceable.
It’s a great point. They could have brought back Eddie Murphy, but his Mushu wouldn’t have really fit with the tone the new Mulan is going for. And if he voiced a less comedic Mushu, well then it wouldn’t really be the same character. So what’s the point? You could also rightly argue that Robin Williams’ Genie was also irreplaceable, but last year’s Aladdin didn't try to and found a workaround and Will Smith’s interpretation turned out great.
The difference is that both Aladdin films were kind of similar in tone. Niki Caro is remaking Mulan, but doesn’t seem to be hewing as close to the prior film as other Disney live-action remakes have.
While I know that many Mulan fans will still have issues with the lack of Mushu and musical numbers, I’m pretty excited about this film. I have nostalgia for the original but if I’m desperate to see those musical numbers, I’ll just watch the original film. The Lion King "live-action" had all the characters and the musical numbers of the animated movie and they were all infinitely lesser than their predecessors, giving me no reason to ever watch it again.
The beauty of these remakes is that they have the opportunity to take something beloved and add to it, put a new spin on it and do something different. Cinderella did that and it looks like Mulan is poised to as well.