Less singing, more fighting: How Disney’s live-action 'Mulan' differs from the classic animated film
By SONIA RAO | The Washington Post | Published: September 7, 2020
"The Ballad of Mulan," a poem about a woman who pretends to be a man to take her ailing father’s place in a military draft, dates back more than a thousand years. The Chinese folk story has also been adapted for the screen numerous times throughout the past century. But the retelling most familiar to Americans is just over two decades old, and therefore a staple of many millennials’ childhoods.
That version of "Mulan" has become the latest Disney classic to receive the live-action treatment, resulting in a film now available to stream via Disney Plus’s Premier Access. These adaptations can be a bit of a gamble, given how fondly audiences remember the originals. When the "Mulan" trailer premiered last year, cries about its lack of Mushu, the animated Mulan’s dragon sidekick, echoed through the internet.
Where the new "Mulan" deviates from its 1998 counterpart, it finds space to expand upon the war film elements connecting it to the original poem; Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday described the live-action version as "a movie that has grown up alongside its original audience."
Here’s a closer look at how the new film, starring Yifei Liu, differs from the Disney classic.
Mushu and Cri-Kee are no more
Like how Timon and Pumbaa bring comic relief to "The Lion King," Eddie Murphy’s Mushu adds levity to the animated Mulan’s mission of aiding the imperial army’s efforts to protecting the city from Hun invaders. But unlike Timon and Pumbaa, who made it into last year’s live-action "Lion King," Mushu got the boot.
Mushu doesn’t figure into Mulan’s folklore and, according to a Baltimore Sun story from 1999, contributed to a Disney-esque feel many Chinese viewers found "too American." One viewer said it was clear Mushu "is not a Chinese dragon. I can tell the people who designed the dragon are from America." Ahead of the live-action remake’s release, producer Jason Reed pointed to this response as a reason to omit Mushu (and replace him with a bright pink phoenix who flies overhead, representing Mulan’s ancestors).
"Obviously Mushu is a beloved character and one of the most memorable elements of the animated film. It turns out that the traditional Chinese audience did not particularly think that that was the best interpretation of the dragon in their culture, that the dragon is a sign of respect and it’s a sign of strength and power, and that sort of using it as a silly sidekick didn’t play very well with the traditional Chinese audience," Reed told reporters on set, adding that the team consulted with other "Ballad of Mulan" adaptations, as well.
Cri-Kee, the cricket Mulan’s grandmother gives to her as a good-luck charm in the 1998 film, does not appear in the new one, either. But he is honored by a fellow soldier named Cricket (Jun Yu).
The songs have been cut or rendered instrumental
Much of the animated "Mulan’s" popularity stems from its soundtrack, which features Lea Salonga (who sang on "Honor to Us All," "Reflection" and "A Girl Worth Fighting For") and Donny Osmond ("I’ll Make a Man Out of You"), among others. The end credits feature recordings from 98 Degrees, Stevie Wonder and Christina Aguilera, whose soulful rendition of "Reflection" became her debut single.
Director Niki Caro’s "Mulan" takes on a more somber tone and does not include any singing. But a slower, instrumental version of "Reflection" does sneak into the score and pops up throughout the film. Aguilera returned to record a new song for the end credits, called "Loyal Brave True."
Li Shang has been replaced
Similar to Mushu, commander Li Shang (voiced by BD Wong) does not appear in the new film. In the interview mentioned above, producer Reed explained that they made this change in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
"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. "And we thought that in a lot of ways that it was sort of justifying behavior of we’re doing everything we can to get out of our industry."
Shang is replaced with two characters: Chen Honghui (Yoson An), a warrior at Mulan’s level, and Commander Tung (Donnie Yen). Asked whether the team considered what Shang means to some members of the LGBTQ community -- fans have referred to him as a "bisexual icon" -- Reed clarified that the relationship between Mulan and Honghui was still based on the dynamic between Mulan and Shang.
The fight scenes take on a new form
Many favorable reviews of Caro’s "Mulan" commend her handling of the training and battle scenes. The original’s training sequences are more lighthearted -- the montage during "I’ll Make a Man Out of You," for instance -- while the live-action film introduces the idea of Mulan harnessing her chi, or life force.
Hornaday praised how Caro handled the film’s action elements: "’Mulan’ is indisputably impressive," she wrote in her review, "taking its young heroine from the busting village of her birth across a rugged countryside, to battlefields and imperial redoubts that director Niki Caro films with sweeping, swooping intensity (as well as the occasional awkward CGI moment and perfunctory edit)."
Other critics, however, wish Caro had further developed the emotional weight behind these new additions. Writing of Mulan’s chi, Vox’s Aja Romano asked "why hers is so much stronger than most people’s, or why she’s so inherently ashamed of it, since powerful chi is a highly desirable (and non-gendered) attribute in Chinese culture." The Hollywood Reporter’s Inkoo Kang wondered whether, in a movie theater setting, "the feature’s epic grandeur might have provided greater distraction from its anemic characterizations, uninvolving story line and stunted performances."
A new character adds to the theme of female empowerment
Both versions of "Mulan" frame the character’s journey as a tale of female empowerment, and the new one leans further into this by introducing a foil to Mulan. Xianning (Gong Li), a shape-shifting witch, tells Mulan she joined forces with the northern invaders after being shunned because of her powers. Despite fighting for opposite sides, she and Mulan share a strange bond formed by their efforts to defy the patriarchy.