A film worth fighting for: Disney struggles with remake of “Mulan”

 Graphic by Carrie Clowers '18

Graphic by Carrie Clowers '18

BY SARAH OLSEN '18

“Dishonor on your whole family! Dishonor on you, dishonor on your cow!” The famous line comes from Disney’s 1998 animated film, “Mulan.” At the time of its release, “Mulan” was well-received, earning a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song and an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Music Score. Since then, the film has continued to grow in popularity, with fans praising the film in articles such as “Why ‘Mulan’ is the Greatest Movie Disney Ever Made” on the website The Popcorn Scoop and Buzzfeed’s “Let’s Be Honest, Mulan is the Only Disney Princess Who Matters.”

Based on the 12th century Chinese poem, “The Ballad of Mulan,” the film begins with the invasion of China by the Huns, led by the fierce Shan Yu (Miguel Ferrer, “Iron Man 3”). In order to defeat the Huns, the emperor of China (Pat Morita, “Happy Days”) orders one man from every family to serve in the army. As her father — the only man in the Fa family — is too weak to fight, Mulan (Ming-Na Wen, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”) disguises herself as a male soldier and takes her father’s place in the army. With the help of her snazzy sidekicks, the red dragon Mushu (Eddie Murphy, “Shrek”) and the lucky cricket Cri-Kee (Frank Welker, “Scooby-Doo”), as well as her army buddies — including the hunky Captain Li Shang (B.D. Wong, “Jurassic Park”) — Mulan brings honor to her family and saves China.     

With Disney’s recent fetish for remaking films, it’s not surprising that the company decided to give “Mulan” the live-action treatment. A remake was supposed to begin filming in October 2010, but failed to materialize. In 2015, after the successes of the live-action adaptations of “Alice in Wonderland” and “Maleficent,” Disney announced another attempt. After all the box office triumphs, it seemed the live-action “Mulan” had a promising future, but then troubling reports began to surface.

The first happened on Oct. 10, 2016 when an anonymous user wrote a post titled “An Open Letter to the Creators of Disney’s Live-Action Feature Film ‘The Legend of Mulan’” on the blog Angry Asian Man. The user — who used the name “ConcernedForMulan” and described themself as “An Asian American person in the industry” — claimed the film’s plot had been altered to include a white trader who would serve as Mulan’s love interest and “gets the honor of defeating the primary enemy of China, not Mulan.”  The post sparked backlash against the film, an online petition and the hashtag #MakeMulanRight. One person tweeted, “If Mulan 2018 isn’t a 99 percent Chinese cast then DISHONOR ON YOUR COW #MakeMulanRight.” Another wrote “Mulan doesn’t need a European man, or any man, for that matter. She saves China on her own accord. That’s the whole point. #MakeMulanRight.” 

ConcernedForMulan later pointed out that the altered script was only the original speculative script — meaning it was a non-commissioned and unsolicited screenplay — and possibly did not reflect Disney’s current script for the film. Within a day of the post’s publication, a source close to the project told Vulture magazine that the speculative script was merely a “jumping-off point” and that an Asian love interest would be cast.

It seemed the live action feature had been saved. In 2017, it was announced that Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”) would direct the film, making her the third woman to helm a film with a budget of over $100 million, and later that year, Chinese actress Liu Yifei (“Chinese Paladin”) was cast in the title role. But when Disney released more troubling details about the adaptation, it became clear that the problems surrounding the transitions were not over. Now, the villain of the story will no longer be Shan Yu, but a witch. Mulan will have a younger sister — a change from both the 1998 film and the Chinese ballad. Memorable songs from the animated film such as “Make a Man Out of You” and “Reflection” will not make an appearance. The latest blow for fans was the decision to eliminate the character of Shang, the captain of the army and Mulan’s love interest. Replacing Shang will be a character called Chen Honghui, who will be Mulan’s “chief rival,” but upon learning that she’s actually a woman, falls in love with her. The backlash to this new development was quick and fierce, with many people criticizing Disney for removing a character that has become seen as a bisexual icon. One Twitter reaction read: “I’m disgusted. Disney is obviously still mad they accidentally made Li Shang bisexual, so they’re REMOVING ANY POSSIBILITY that “Chen” is seen as bisexual. They make it clear he HATES Mulan the whole time she’s presenting male. He bullies her up until he finds out she’s a woman.”

When comparing the development of the live-action “Mulan” to that of its Disney predecessors, the apparent disregard for preserving the animated story is puzzling. Disney’s previous live-action adaptations saw minimal to no changes of the animated stories. Many changes that were made, such as the added storyline of Belle’s mother in the live-action remake of “Beauty and the Beast,” filled plot holes that had become apparent since the original film’s release. These small tweaks strengthened the live-action films without disrupting a story that is well-known and loved by audiences. Time and time again, this approach has proven successful (according to Box Office Mojo, “Beauty and the Beast” earned $1,263,521,126 worldwide). Disney has discovered a winning formula for remaking its works, but now seems to be disregarding this approach.

Disney also appears to be disregarding the importance of portraying Mulan herself faithfully. Out of the 11 Disney princesses, there are only four who are people of color and Mulan is the only one who is Chinese. What does it say that Disney can create live-action films that feature their white princesses with minimal changes, but doesn’t do the same for their princess of color? As diversity is something Disney has historically struggled with, one would think the company would work hard to ensure minimal blunders. A live-action “Mulan” could be an opportunity for Disney to correct its past, but it seems that they aren’t interested in taking advantage.

Unlike the tales of “Cinderella” or “Beauty and the Beast,” “Mulan” is not a story that has had countless remakes in television and film. As a result, any change made to the story will be noticed and carry more weight. At the moment, things look suspicious for “Mulan,” but fans will have to wait until March 2020 to find out if the adaption is a true disappointment or if the film brings honor to the original.   

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