The Disney live-action remake train continues to mosey on down the track and like Casey Jr. it has quite a few destinations before its eventual ending point if there ever is one. Next stop, the live-action Mulan without Mushu, the most popular character from the animated version.
Disney has been routinely criticized for taking the live-action brush to their animated classics though the backlash hasn’t stopped them. True, there have been virtual shot-for-shot remakes (The Lion King), and box office numbers show that fans still go see the live-action movies. However its the changes to what fans fell in love with are what most people take issue with. For instance, why isn’t Mushu in the new Mulan?
THE ANIMATED VERSION
Disney’s animated Mulan opened the summer movie season in 1998 and was an immediate hit. It told the story of a young Chinese girl who, fearful her sick father will be drafted into the Chinese army, decides to take his place. But Mulan lives under a patriarchal regime, so as a female, she is unable to serve.
So Mulan is clever and impersonates a man so she can take her father’s place. She is then joined by her dragon Mushu (comically voiced by Eddie Murphy) as she trains and then helps defeat the invading Huns.
NO MUSHU? SAY WHAT?
One of the key elements to a truly successful Disney animated classic isn’t always the main characters. Disney has a way of bringing in supporting characters that are a big hit with audiences young and old. Mushu is one of those characters.
So, when word got out that Mulan was on deck for a live-action remake, one of the main questions was: Will Eddie Murphy be asked to reprise his role and voice Mushu? If not, who would Disney get? Disney was eerily silent on that front, leading people to speculate there would be a big announcement concerning the voice cast for the movie.
Low and behold, there was. In fact, the announcement was that there was no announcement concerning a voice cast because Mushu was not going to be involved in the live-action film. Huh? How could this be? Why isn’t Mushu in Mulan? What kind of joke is this? Turns out, not a joke. It’s all about money.
Both the animated Mulan with Mushu and it’s live-action counterpart are based on a popular fifth or sixth-century Chinese poem The Ballad of Mulan. Director Niki Caro took several trips to China as research to get a better understanding of the culture and of Mulan.
Caro explained to the Hollywood Reporter, “I certainly wasn’t aware of how deeply important it is to Mainland Chinese — all children were taught it,” Caro said. “She is so meaningful that many places I went, people would say, ‘Well, she comes from my village.’ It was wonderful to feel that profound connection — but also terrifying.”
With her research complete, it was clear that Caro needed to make changes from the animated classic. One of them was to make Mulan without Mushu.
USC Professor Stanley Rosen told THR, “Mushu was very popular in the U.S., but the Chinese hated it.” Rosen specializes in Chinese politics and society. “This kind of miniature dragon trivialized their culture.”
Producer Jason Reed confirmed what Rosen offered, “Obviously, Mushu is a beloved character and one of the most memorable of the animated film. It turns out that the traditional Chinese audience did not particularly think that was the best interpretation of the dragon in their culture. That the dragon is a sign of respect and of strength and power and sort of using it as a silly sidekick did not play well with a traditional Chinese audience.”
It comes down to the bottom line. 2020 looks to be the year that China passes the United States as the world’s largest cinema market. Movie studios are now having to take a much harder look at how movies play in China as that market can make or break Hollywood’s global numbers. Disney chairman Alan Horn may have been laughing during a roundtable interview with The Hollywood Reporter but his words couldn’t have been more serious when he said, “If Mulan doesn’t work in China, we have a problem.”
MORE CHANGES TO MULAN
Losing Mushu from Mulan is not the only thing producers decided to do in this live-action re-imagining. First off, this Mulan is not a musical. You will not see characters stop and sing about their upcoming experiences.
While Mulan basically remains the same as depicted in the animated movie, many of the other characters will change. In the animated movie, Mulan’s love interest was Li Shang. In the live-action feature, Li Shang is now two characters. One is Donnie Yen’s Commander Tung and the other Yoson An’s Chen Honghui. Reed explained, “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.”
The villain of the live-action Mulan is different from the animated movie. In fact, there are two villains now. “One of the things that — as we were talking to filmmakers in China about how we can best — going back to this, how do you service two audiences, how can we make a movie that bridges [the gap between Western storytelling and Chinese stories]?” says Reed.
With that in mind, Gong Li has been cast as a witch, Xian Lang and she will join forces with Jason Scott Lee as Bori Khan. Reed’s reasoning, “We wanted to have a female antagonist in the movie as well as just having a male antagonist so that we could explore female power in that society in different ways and have different perspectives on it. There are some other characters that we added or bifurcated that have helped us do the same thing in other places.”
Grandma Hua will not make an appearance in the movie but this new Mulan will have a sister.
Cri-Kee, Mulan’s good luck charm, will be seen in human form.
And while there is no Mushu in the new live-action Mulan, there are nods to Mushu in the wardrobe and weaponry. but there is a sidekick
CHANGING RELATIONSHIPS TO SUIT CHINA
One more omission that came at the request of the China office was a scene where Mulan and her love interest Chen Honghui kissed. According to Caro, it didn’t play well. “It was very beautiful, but the China office went, ‘No, you can’t, that doesn’t feel right to the Chinese people,'” the director said. “So we took it out.”
So why isn’t Mushu in Mulan? For the same reason a lot of other things aren’t. It seems Disney is trying to strike that balance while looking at their bottom line. It’ll be interesting to see if these changes will be enough to appease both the American and Chinese audiences alike.