Why Change a Classic? – Mulan (2020) live-action

Currently scheduled for release in 2020, Disney’s upcoming live-action release of Mulan has left many fans scratching their heads as casting and narrative decisions have been released to the public. Perhaps one decision which left many fans of the original animated movie stunned was the decision not to follow in the footsteps of Beauty and the Beast (2016) by using the original songs. Instead it is likely that Mulan will not be musically based at all – yes, that means no “I’ll make a man out of you”, which is arguably the most popular song from the 1998 classic.

Origins of Mulan

Mulan: British Museum
It should be remembered that Mulan was based on The Ballad of Mulan which was first transcribed in China in the 6thCentury. I briefly discuss the ballad and Chu Renhuo’s Romance of the Sui and Tang (alternatively, the Sui Tang Romance) in a previous post which looked at the origins of Disney’s portrayal of Mulan.  Additionally to these, Xu Wei wrote The Female Mulan (alternatively, The Heroine Mulan Goes to War in Her Father’s Place) during the latter end of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) which adds to the original ballads 31 couplets.

A translation of ballad can be read here and as you can read, there just isn’t much depth to Mulan’s story. This has led to various re-imaginations of the story throughout the years, whether it be by Chu Renhou or Xu Wei or Americanised by Disney.

Mulan and Disney

It is the adaption by Disney where the focus now shifts. Mulan (1998) was well received in the US, Canada and Europe with audiences enchanted by the narrative; songs; and talking a dragon. However, in China the film was not well received, with complaints ranging from; the romantic sub-plot; confusion between China and Japan; and Mulan herself not looking Chinese.

At the time of writing this, four other animated films have received their live action remakes with four more alongside Mulan currently being produced. Maleficent (2014) and Cinderella (2015) deviated from the original animations whereas Beauty and the Beast (2017) could not have been any more similar. Personally, I felt that The Jungle Book (2016) built on the first movie, tightening the narrative and immersing the audience into the jungle. All the above were well received by both critics and the audience although Cinderellawas perhaps the under performer of through group by collecting $543 million at the worldwide box office. Beauty and the Beast more than doubled this at $1.264 billion. This would leave the executives at Disney a dilemma, do they follow the original story scene-by-scene or take a route like that of Cinderella?

Liu Yifei
Perhaps, when considering these complaints generated in China, it is of no surprise that the live-action remake is going to be considerably different from its animated predecessor. Rather than doing what Disney does best, drawing on the nostalgia of the audience, they are taking a calculated risk with the direction of Mulan. Liu Yifei (Crystal Liu) has been cast as Mulan, and is notable because of her delicate appearance which earned her the nickname “Fairy Sister”. It is also of note that much of the cast is of Chinese descent, moving away from the criticism of the characters not looking of the correct origin.


It appears that the story will draw on more elements from the original ballad, Mulan will have a sister and there will be no romance with her commanding officer. Although, there will still be a romantic sub-plot with another character. It appears that the iconic songs from the original animation will not be returning and instead of the Huns, the villain will be an evil witch portrayed by Gong Li (ah a witch, how Disney). This casting of a witch as a villain is of interest to me. Why would they pick a witch over the invading Shan Yu and his Huns? I’m just going to lean towards Disney being Disney and wanting some witch-craftiness to add an intensity to the movie while bringing in another well-known name in China and globally.

Overall, I am pleased with how this film is shaping up. By drawing more from the original legend and using a wealth of Chinese talent, Mulan can showcase these actors on a truly global – and Disney backed – scale. Under representation is still a hot topic within Hollywood with past social media campaigns such as #OscarsSoWhite showcasing the divide between talent of various ethnic groups. Hopefully Disney will continue to follow on from the success of Black Panther and continue to use diverse casts in their movies.

Now I hand it over to you, how do you think a witch will fit in? Will you miss the songs and Eddie Murphy’s fabulous Mushu? Are you looking forward to this films release?

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