On a perfectly clear day in a remote basin surrounded by a dramatic mountainscape, a massive battle is taking place. Dozens of armored soldiers are clashing with Chinese imperial forces, some on horseback, in a pivotal face off that will decide the fate of an empire.
In the center of it all is a warrior in vivid red, hair swirling around her shoulders as she wields a deadly katana against the imposing Rouran forces. This is Disney’s Mulan for a new decade, and a new generation.
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Most Disney-loving audiences who grew up in the ‘90s likely remember the epic imagery of the 1998 animated adaptation of the Ballad of Mulan: hundreds of mounted warriors, then referred to as the Huns in the movie, charging down a snowy field with only Mulan waiting to stop them. On her shoulder, the wiry red-and-orange wise-cracking dragon sidekick Mushu.
On the New Zealand set of Disney’s reimagining of Mulan, several hours outside of Queenstown with no sign of civilization — or cell service — in sight, that scene comes to life in a very different way. There’s no impending avalanche this time; instead, director Niki Caro pulled from influences like David Lean and Akira Kurosawa for the scope and scale of her action.
While the pivotal sequence serves the same purpose as Mulan blossoms into her “warrior princess” mode, the execution will be unfamiliar to those expecting the 2020 release to be a shot-for-shot remake in the same vein as Disney’s Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King adaptations. Instead, this is closer to how Disney transformed its animated classic The Jungle Book into 2016’s Jon Favreau-directed live-action/CGI adaptation; a remix featuring many of the same iconic moments but in the new packaging of a sweeping war epic. That means no avalanche, no musical numbers, and no Mushu.
“When we started working on this, we didn’t just go to the animated movie, we went all the way back to the Ballad of Mulan and to the many, many variations of that ballad that have been told in China since it was originally created,” producer Jason Reed said during a group set visit IGN attended. “Then we also looked at a couple of modern film and television adaptations that had been done in China, and then we looked at the animated movie, and then we really sat back and thought about how [we] make this movie in a way that delivers for multiple audiences.”
The biggest thing preventing a shot-for-shot remake of Disney’s take on the iconic Chinese story? China itself.
How Disney Changed Mulan to Win Over China
When the animated Mulan movie came out in 1998, Disney films didn’t have distribution in China. Disney was locked out of that market in 1996, and only was granted access back into Chinese theaters in 1999. When those audiences did eventually see the movie — the animated Mulan was the first Disney movie screened in China after the ban was lifted, almost a year after its initial release — Reed’s research found that they weren’t especially thrilled about the animated movie’s depiction of some of the most important symbols in their culture; specifically, a dragon, which is a “sign of respect … and strength and power” being a silly sidekick, voiced in the American version by Eddie Murphy.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Disney%20chairman%20Alan%20Horn%3A%20%22If%20Mulan%20doesn%E2%80%99t%20work%20in%20China%2C%20we%20have%20a%20problem.%22″]In the modern moviemaking age, China can’t be an afterthought for major movie studios. As the second-largest film market in the world, second only to the United States, a success at the Chinese box office — or lack thereof — can make or break a Hollywood movie’s global take. In 2020, China is expected to pass the United States as the world’s largest cinema market.
As a result, studio executives are thinking of their films with their presentation and collaboration with China in mind (see: Disney’s Chinese strategy around Iron Man 3). In the case of Mulan — a retelling of an iconic 6th century Chinese poem — it, in theory, should have a built-in Chinese audience, especially since its $200 million price tag makes it Disney’s most expensive live-action remake. As Disney chairman Alan Horn recently laughed during a roundtable interview with The Hollywood Reporter, “If Mulan doesn’t work in China, we have a problem.”
But there’s also the Disney audience to consider. For as much as some Chinese filmgoers might have been put off by the likes of Mushu, the core Disney fan who will be going to see this movie in the United States very likely grew up with that version of the story, Christina Aguilera ballads and all. As a result, the creative team behind the movie had to find a way to cater to both ends of the spectrum — and two additional demographics that fall in between them — that seemingly are in direct opposition to each other.
Reed explained that the team behind the new Mulan movie identified four core audiences for the movie: the audience in China, the worldwide Asian diaspora community, women, and Disney movie fans: “You’d think there was a Venn diagram where all those meet, but it turns out it was actually more like the Olympic rings.” Working with Chinese consultants, they found their balance.
“One of the things that was made clear to us from the very beginning was: make a Disney movie,” he explained. “Don’t try to make a Chinese version of Mulan, because they’ve already made it several times, and they’ve already seen it. If you want to make something that plays to the Chinese audience and is interesting to them, make the Disney version. … They weren’t meant to think of this as a kids movie or an animated [film] remake.”
“I would not really compare [the two movies] because I think each creation of art has its own form and I really respect that,” said star Liu Yifei, the Chinese-American actress who plays Mulan. “Of course you see a movie when you are 10 or you’ve seen a movie when you’re 20 or 30 is totally different. … It really opens up a positive side for younger generations that everything is possible and just think big and go for it.”
No Mushu, No Haircuts
So, yes, there are going to be key changes to the animated movie, but always in ways that remix the omitted familiar elements of the original ballad back into the new Disney telling of the story. No, there isn’t a Mushu in this Mulan — but, Reed promised, there will be a “mythological sidekick of sorts” in the movie. The animated movie’s Li Shang, Mulan’s commanding officer-turned-love-interest, has been split into two characters: Donnie Yen’s Commander Tung and Yoson An’s Chen Honghui, a move intended to make it less problematic and uncomfortable that Mulan’s boss would be her romantic interest in a post-Me Too age.
Another tweak that might surprise Disney fans: Mulan won’t chop off her hair in a dramatic gesture to rid herself of her womanhood. Historically, Chinese male warriors wore their hair long, in a top knot, so having short hair in the live-action telling would actually make Mulan look more like a woman, if we’re discussing era-specific accuracy. Instead, that “warrior princess” look we saw play out in real life on set — a moment which has been featured heavily in the movie’s trailers — is the thematic payoff of her embracing that she can be true to herself and her own identity and still help her comrades and fulfill her duty — all while being totally badass.
And as for the music Disney fans love? That’s a great example of the type of balance 2020’s Mulan is looking to strike. While Liu isn’t going to be breaking out into “Reflection” and Yen won’t be talking about how he’ll make a man out of you, An explained on set that the producers will “embody [the] classic musical soundtracks throughout the film” while still balancing that with creating a more realistic telling of the story. Recent Mulan trailers have showcased how this strategy will seemingly play out in the finished film.
“I can guarantee you there will be songs you recognize and remember will be in the movie. It will not be a traditional break-into-song musical,” confirmed Reed. “I think it’s a little easier in animation to keep the tension and the reality in place and still have people break into song and sing to camera. We made the decision that we wanted to keep the world — even though it’s a fantasy — to keep it more grounded, more realistic, so those emotions really played and the threat was very real. So we’re using the music in a slightly different way.”
Directed by Niki Caro, Mulan stars Liu Yifei, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Gong Li and Jason Scott Lee. In theaters on March 26 in Australia and March 27 in the US and UK, tickets for the movie are available starting on February 27. For more on Mulan, be sure to read why this is the first Disney live-action remake to earn a PG-13 rating from the MPAA, as well as check out a side-by-side comparison of the first Mulan trailer next to the Disney animated movie.