Back in March the coronavirus pandemic swept the nation and closed theater doors. This forced Disney’s hand in postponing the release of their live action adaptation of Mulan which was merely weeks away. Thus, began the battle within Disney about how to handle the highly anticipated film.
Prior to release, it seemed Mulan was already destined for failure. Decisions were made that the film would not feature beloved characters such as Mulan’s dragon guide, Mushu and her love interest and commanding officer, Li Shang. These fan favorites were considered potentially insensitive to Chinese culture and were scrapped in hopes of telling a more realistic version of the legend. Another consequence was the removal of all original songs, so you will need to return to the 1988 version or hit up YouTube if you want to bust out the vocals to “Reflection” or “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.”
Directorial decisions aside, many wanted the film boycotted back in August of 2019 when Liu Yifei, Mulan herself, publicly posted her support for Hong Kong police against the pro-democracy protests. Production on location also proved problematic as some of the film was shot in the Xinjiang province, the site of an ongoing cultural genocide of Uyghur Muslims. No doubt Mulan had its fair share of struggles even during the pre-COVID days.
Fast forward a few months and Disney finally stopped postponing a theatrical release and pulled the trigger by offering up the film as premier access on Disney+. On top of that monthly subscription, it would come with a price tag of $30. Only to be followed by a statement from Disney that the film would be made available for free come December, just 3 months’ time. It is hard to say how many have purchased this content or how the financial returns at the international box office have made it seem as though Disney has struggled to navigate the waters.
Before the continued onslaught of negativity for this film I will give credit to director Niki Caro in trying to change the pace in hopes of something new. Along with bringing on board a properly cultured cast to do so. Divergence for such films is never easy because so many come to see a revitalized film in hopes of having that essence of nostalgia restored. I am aware of the argument, well, just revisit the old film if that be the case. And we have seen the same movie shot scene for scene with the remake of The Lion King. But when a classic film like Mulan, and so many other Disney animations, make you feel a certain way, why would you want to lose that? And it only becomes that much harder when you strip the film bare and rebuild it with an entirely new tone.
This blank slate by Disney led to an overly ambitious reinvention of the film. You revamp the characters in their entirety but lose all the charm and flare in the process. Subtle changes like replacing Grandmother Fa with a sister, or big changes, like Mushu for a CGI phoenix, all seem to weigh heavy on the fact Disney feared backlash over being culturally insensitive. I can argue that Mushu is nothing short of a symbol for strength and power. He was the character in Mulan’s ear, literally, that gave a voice to all of Mulan’s doubts and insecurities. A majority of Mulan’s character development came from those interactions alone. And last time I checked; is this not a Disney princess movie? Why does removing Li Shang, who comes to see Mulan as an equal, serve so problematic for the Disney formula? Instead we are introduced to a shapeshifting witch who brings about Mulan’s understanding that she has natural born Chi that can be harnessed to save China. Further driven home by replacing the training montage of “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” by just showcasing her carrying two heavy water buckets up a seemingly never-ending flight of stairs that without said Chi wouldn’t have been possible. Forgetting that the iconic medallion scene was implemented to showcase her bravery and wits. None of it adds up.
After having watched, and falling into the trap of paying the $30 to do so, I was left pondering for whom Disney tailored this film. It brought back no nostalgia whatsoever. And the introduction of an absurd overuse of magic undermines the initial attempts of creating a depiction of a more realistic tale. Plus, catering to today’s kids seems all but nonexistent when the MPAA rating goes from ‘G’ in 1998, to ‘PG-13’ today. For years now I have fallen captive to the Disney nostalgia, but with lack of creativity and money driven moves , I am not sure I will ever feel the same over any of these classic animated remakes.
I always will give hope, being the Disney Boy I am, that these animated classic remakes can and will work. It seems however Disney has yet to find the formula to make this a reality. Mulan is no exception, if not, the worst adaption to date. 2/10