“Dishonour of you and on your cow!” At least that’s what everyone was screaming when they heard the new Disney Mulan remake wouldn’t feature the talking dragon Mushu.
It was yet another blow for fans of the original 1998 animated film following confirmation Li Shang had been cut. Director Niki Caro had also snuck out news the classic songs had been cut – so no I’ll Make A Man Out Of You. It was a perfect storm and Disney fans lost their minds pretty quick.
Thankfully, the reason behind all these Mulan 2020 changes has now been revealed. The walking, talking dragon sidekick was left out of the live-action remake because of China. Li Shang because of the Me Too movement. Stay with me here.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, director Niki Caro, star Liu Yifei, screenwriters Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa and producer Jason Reed covered everything from the Coronavirus’ impact on the film’s opening, the Hong Kong protests and the changes they made.
We already knew the studio – and the team on the movie – were keen to stay true to the origins of Mulan.
Mulan 2020 changes thanks to China
What becomes quite clear throughout the interview is the impact the Chinese market has had on the film sparking quite a few Mulan 2020 changes. Rightly so.
The first Mulan movie was heavily westernised, and, while it’s still one of my favourite Disney movies, even I can see a remake was the studio’s chance to make something more culturally aligned to the legend.
What’s even clearer is the desire, not just to appease Chinese censors or the market’s tastes (which are undoubtedly different to the US market), but to update a children’s animation into the epic war piece Mulan was always meant to be. Just take the shiny new PG-13 rating slapped on the film – a first for Disney, a brand notoriously gun shy of upping that kid-friendly rating. If that doesn’t show a commitment to bringing the battle scenes to life I don’t know what does.
This is all well and good of course, but some would argue the Mulan of 1998 didn’t really need improving. With a Golden Globe nomination as well as Oscar nomination and $300 million at the box office (without inflation) the film’s success isn’t to be scoffed at, apart from one thing, the Chinese market.
Over in China, the government dragged its heels pushing the premiere back a year thanks to the continuing anger over another of Disney’s releases, Kundun. The Martin Scorsese Dalai Lama film looked at China’s occupation of Tibet, so it wasn’t surprising the government wasn’t happy. When Mulan finally got its release in 1999 it’d been pirated widely and there was diminished interest.
But what has all of this got to do with Mushu and Li Shang? Why did they change so much?
Getting back to the original legend
For the answer, you have to take a step back. While the remake is just that, a remake, the Mulan story is actually inspired by the legend of Hua Mulan. The Chinese folk tale is about a woman who poses as a man to sign up to the army.
The team behind the remake were keen to prioritise the legend rather than paying tribute or even emulating the 1998 film. To do that, hard decisions had to be made which meant Mushu was left out in the cold along with the classic tracks we know and love. Li Shang her boss and love interest, gone too. Goodbye Mushu, goodbye music, goodbye Li Shang.
Producer Reed said: “We had a lot of conversations about it … [We wanted] to tell this story in a way that is more real, more relatable, where we don’t have the benefit of the joke to hide behind things that might be uncomfortable and we don’t break into song to tell us the subtext.”
That’s fair enough. Mushu, voiced by comedian Eddie Murphy, was created for the 1998 film – it wasn’t in the legend – but that doesn’t stop audiences stomping their feet.
Ditching Li Shang in the Me Too era
When it came to Li Shang apparently he was cut over MeToo concerns. In the original Li Shang is Mulan’s commanding officer in charge of training the new recruits. He’s not in the film that much, but it was enough, he captured everyone’s hearts. Producer Reed explained to Collider that he had to go given today’s climate.
“I think particularly in the time of the #MeToo movement, having a commanding officer that is also the sexual love interest was very uncomfortable, and we didn’t think it was appropriate,” he said.
The team’s answer was to split Li Shang into two characters and the Commander and love interest Honghui were born. The idea was the former acts as a mentor, the latter as an equal. Mulan doesn’t need anyone to save her.
The changes made to Mulan may have had reasons, but this wasn’t at all clear when the trailer dropped. It’s understandable the first cry from the children – now adults – who grew up with Mulan was “Where’s Mushu?!” It’s confusing for a western audience to experience so many changes with a remake.
Nostalgia v innovation
The remake formula has pretty much been established by now, and it’s not something I particularly agree with. Beauty and the Beast added it didn’t take away in terms of character and plot and The Lion King was, well, pretty much the same film minus Be Prepared (still not over that), but with life-like animals.
Cinema audiences in the USA have got used to remakes playing on nostalgia. Until now there’s not really been an overhaul and new approach to one of the Disney classics. At first, I threw my toys out the pram too. Anyone who loves Disney films did too. I get it. We’re attached.
Then something changed.
Mulan was originally set for release in November 2018, but was pushed back as they hunted for their lead. The delay changed how I felt about the film. Mainly because I had time to watch Dumbo and the other remakes that filled the gap…
The very fact we all love the original films should mean we should expect something different. Who really wants a poorer version of some of the best films in history? No one. Who wants the music they know and love tinkered with? No one. These remakes make billions, that’s b-illions, with a B not an M. Why? Because we drag our nostalgic selves to the cinema in the hope it makes it feel like the original did. Adults take their kids along and the cycle continues.
These remakes so far respect the structure and tone of the originals adding a new song here and there – there’s a formula. Mulan shakes that off. That’s exciting.
China’s reaction and the PG-13 war
Then you also have to think of the Chinese audience and how they reacted the first time around. USC Professor Stanley Rosen told Hollywood Reporter that Mushu was seen as trivialising Chinese culture. “Mushu was very popular in the U.S., but the Chinese hated it,” they said. “This kind of miniature dragon trivialised their culture.”
A mini dragon wasn’t the only issue of course, there’s the little matter of the legend mainly being about an intense war. Caro has always spoken about going back to the legend itself and capturing the war aspect to the story.
“You have to deliver on the war of it,” she said. “How do you do that under the Disney brand where you can’t show any violence, gratuitous or otherwise? Those sequences, I’m proud of them. They’re really beautiful and epic — but you can still take kids. No blood is shed. It’s not Game of Thrones.”
Caro perhaps used the wrong wording for this before calling it a “girly martial arts epic”. This sounds more like it. In the 1998 film, we see the battle but not the war. In the latest trailers, there’s plenty of epic martial arts, there’s a war, but the term “girly” isn’t one I’d use.
That doesn’t mean the new Mulan isn’t about celebrating the same feminist message the original film did. If anything it’s about giving a woman’s story to a woman.
Screenwriter Amanda Silver said: “It’s a woman’s story that has been told for centuries but never by women, and we felt like it was really time to tell that story,”
Mulan is still badass as our the women behind the camera. There’s a female director as well as a mostly female crew.
The problem with rumours
Then there’s the all Asian cast. The film suffered allegations of whitewashing very early on. Rumours circulated Jennifer Lawrence had read for Mulan, another rumour claimed a script had been written with a white protagonist, and even worse a white male. Hands up, I reported on those rumours too. The ‘news’ sparked petitions and anger on social media.
Producer Reed has now said these rumours were just that, rumours. There may have been two non-Chinese characters in the first drafts but they weren’t the leads as suggested.
There’s no denying it’s been a hard journey for Mulan – from the rumours to the long casting process, the risk of changing so much from the 1998 film and the higher PG-13 rating. That’s even before you look at Disney’s luck with remakes in China.
Are the Mulan 2020 changes worth it?
The Lion King made $120.5 million, while Jungle Book took $148 million – pretty strong, but Aladdin slumped at $53 million, Cinderella at $72 million, Beauty and the Beat at $84 million and Dumbo even lower at $22 million. Mulan was meant to turn around the box office trend.
After all the work the team has put in let’s hope the film’s theatrical release goes ahead as planned. With coronavirus fears increasing – and James Bond moving its own release date back to November – it’s plausible that Mulan could move too.
If Mulan doesn’t move it’s 27th March release date then it’s box office will inevitably take a hit in China where many cinemas have closed since the outbreak. 70,000 cinemas in mainland China shut for business during the Disney remake’s peak box office period. Apparently Disney is taking things “day by day”.
Whether it’s March, or later on in the year, it’ll be good to finally see how the changes made to Mulan come across on screen – and whether the loss of Mushu, Li Shang and nostalgia was for the greater good. Were the Mulan 2020 changes worth it? My gut says yes.