After more than 50 years of making animated features, Disney have now turned their attention to live-action adaptations of their famous films. After releases such as 101 Dalmatians (1996), Maleficent (2014) and Cinderella (2015), the studio’s new creative direction has earned critical acclaim and financial success. It is also making its mark on the global box office, as the recently released Beauty And The Beast remake has earned small change in the region of $1.2bn and counting.
Among the upcoming remakes planned is Mulan, which already has fans of the 1998 Disney film debating about its faithfulness to the animated feature. That’s especially so given reports about director Niki Caro’s indecisiveness regarding the inclusion of songs such as Honour To Us All and I’ll Make A Man Out Of You, as well as the role of love interest Li Shang being replaced with the character of Chen Honghui, Mulan’s rival recruit.
With her creative inspiration revolving around the ballad that Mulan is originally based on to create ‘a martial arts extravaganza’ with a ‘badass’ heroine, Caro’s vision sounds grittier, more adult and provocative, but the big question is simple: can it work?
Regarded as more of a legend than a historical person, Hua Mulan was a female warrior from the Northern and Southern Dynasties (between 420 and 589 AD) of Chinese history, whose story was first immortalised in The Ballad Of Mulan in the 6th century. Her popularity grew after appearances in works by playwright Xu Wei and novelist Chu Renhuo, and she was soon featured in plays and poems before the first cinematic adaptation of her story in 1927 by Li Pingqian. Unlike the depiction in the Disney film, she was a proficient martial artist before her enlistment, which was supported by her family.
Since the late 1920s, her story has been adapted into multiple live-action and animated features, the most recent being a 2009 live-action film by Jingle Ma and starring Red Cliff actress Zhao Wei, but none of them have reached the same commercial success as the Disney film.
However, it was considered a flop at the Chinese box office. Its 1999 release was affected by strained relations between Disney and the Chinese Government over the former’s 1997 film Kundun, Martin Scorsese’s biography of the Dalai Lama that the government thought was ‘politically provocative’. After a year of negotiations, Mulan only received a limited release after Chinese New Year so children – the film’s target audience – had by then returned to school. The overall reception from Chinese audiences was negative, with viewers complaining about the ‘foreign-looking’ heroine and her unfamiliar mannerisms that did not resonate with the original ballad.
As a Disney character, Mulan breaks the mould. Rather than be remembered for her singing and dancing capabilities, she is quite physical and doesn’t dream of being rescued or finding a romantic significant other. However, her attitude is very similar to Belle in Beauty And The Beast in that her choices are influenced by family loyalty. She undergoes a matchmaking service to appease her ancestors, she chooses to protect her elderly father by taking his place, and rejects a place in the Emperor’s council (making her an equal among high-ranking male officials) to return home, knowing her family’s honour is preserved.
While this doesn’t make her a feminist, her decisions grant her something else – a role of equality, which contradicts the consistent digs by government official Chi Fu (James Hong) about women being ‘inferior’. Her masquerading as a soldier ironically allows her to become an equal among her fellow recruits, and gain the respect she does not get as a woman.
Despite the phenomenal musical success of Frozen, Mulan‘s non-musical angle can work in the adaptation’s favour and boost it past its ‘Disney remake’ label. There is no denying that part of the power behind many a Disney film is its memorable songs, but as demonstrated by the recent La La Land, modern musicals are making a comeback. Incorporating the music can restrict the remake to the look and concept of the animated Disney film, as well as lessen its flexibility in its narrative.
The idea of taking music out of the equation also means that potential cast members will not be under pressure to live up to fans’ expectations, so Caro can concentrate on Hua Mulan as a legend and heroine. The promise of it being a martial arts film gives it a chance to highlight Asian female martial artist characters such as Jen (Zhang Ziyi) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Zen (Yanin Vismitananda) in Chocolate; and Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle) in The Raid 2, as well as broadening its appeal to audiences who may not want to sit through another Disney sing-a-long, or fans who enjoyed the animated film but doesn’t want to watch a direct remake.
A key player in this artistic change of direction is Caro herself. She is the latest female director to direct a live-action film priced over $100m following Ava Duvernay (A Wrinkle Of Time), Kathryn Bigelow (K-19: The Widowmaker) and Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman). Her filmography mainly comprises female-centric films; her most notable works include the Oscar-nominated Whale Rider, which features a story about a girl who defies tradition to become the leader of her local tribe, a role typically held by a man; and North Country, a tense courtroom drama that was loosely based on a 1988 sexual harassment lawsuit in Minnesota, US.
Caro has stated that while musical numbers are undecided, she has reiterated the importance of retaining the cultural aspects behind Mulan. These range from details in the original Chinese ballad to bilingual English and Mandarin cast, which would appease the scores of film fans with strong opinions about the whitewashing scandals of Scarlett Johansson in Ghost In The Shell, and Matt Damon in The Great Wall. Even though Caro’s decision to possibly not include music has increased pressure for fans, it can allow her to create a film that defies expectations by not falling into the fairy tale footprints left by more recent Disney adaptations.
So, given the potential of Caro’s vision, is Disney taking a chance? Looking at recent successes of the Jungle Book and Beauty And The Beast remakes, it doesn’t seem like a gamble – there is an endearing heroine, a compelling story with socially relevant themes, it is sure to attract a wide audience. However, this is more than a gamble for Disney. It is a chance for the studio to learn from its past mistakes, as well as present a culturally significant remake to a country who censors content that can be seen as controversial or offensive.
At the moment, Caro is on the right direction but only time will tell to see whether her Mulan will win over the hearts of Disney fans around the world.