Warning: Spoilers ahead! The following reveals how the new Mulan makes some changes from the original animated movie.
It’s a tale as old as time… or at least as old as 2015. That’s when Walt Disney started actively remaking its library of animated classics as live-action blockbusters with Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella. New versions of The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King quickly followed, and topped the box office charts even amidst mounting complaints that these “new” movies were essentially cut-and-paste versions of the original cartoons with only minor differences.
That’s decidedly not the case with Mulan, which arrives on Disney+ today as a premium release after its theatrical premiere was repeatedly postponed and eventually canceled outright due to the coronavirus pandemic. While it shares the name as Disney’s 1998 animated favorite, Niki Caro’s big-budget reimagining is very much its own movie, departing from its predecessor in a number of notable ways as it tells the tale of the medieval Chinese heroine (played by Liu Yifei) who challenges tradition by joining her nation’s army disguised as a male soldier. Here’s a guide to some of the biggest changes — as well as a few of the subtle similarities — between the two movies.
Somehow they didn’t make a musical out of Mulan
Both Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin and Jon Favreau’s The Lion King made a point of keeping all of the songs that launched a thousand Disney mixtapes in the ‘90s. But Caro and the film’s creative team decided early on in Mulan’s production process that they wouldn’t be asking Yifei or the rest of the cast to sing new versions of Matthew Wilder-penned tunes like “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” “A Girl Worth Fighting For” and “Reflection.”
“We knew that there’d be music, but the idea fundamentally was… to pay homage to the animated classic and the audience that loves it, but also to really look at the whole breadth of how these Mulan stories have been presented over the past 1,500 years,” producer Jason Reed told Collider in a recent interview. “We thought that in order to accomplish that, and get the kind of emotional grounding we wanted, it should not be a ‘break into song’ musical.” It’s perhaps worth noting that — as per Disney tradition — the animated film’s Asian vocal cast, including Ming-Na Wen, B.D. Wong and Gedde Watanabe, didn’t perform their musical numbers. Lea Salonga stood in for Wen when the singing started, while Donny Osmond and Wilder himself belted Wong and Watanabe’s songs.
Despite the absence of splashy song-and-dance numbers like Will Smith’s version of “Prince Ali,” several of Mulan’s tunes do find their way into the new film at key moments. In one scene, a disguised Mulan — who joins the army under the name of Hua Jun rather than Ping, as her animated counterpart was known — listens as her fellow soldiers compare notes about the women they left behind. “I don’t care what she looks like; I care what she cooks like,” says one, directly quoting a lyric from the song “A Girl Worth Fighting For.” Later on, a pivotal scene where Mulan sheds her male disguise once and for all is scored to an instrumental version of “Reflection,” the breakout anthem that Christina Aguilera made a chart-topping hit in 1998. (Appropriately, Aguilera recorded a new take on “Reflection” that’s been winning raves.) It just goes to show you that the song can remain the same even without any actual singing.
Mushu is missing
Before he became Shrek’s wisecracking donkey sidekick, Eddie Murphy first got animated as the voice of Mulan’s chatty dragon spirit guide, Mushu. The role capped a successful mid-‘90s comeback for the comedy icon, coming on the heels of The Nutty Professor and preceding Dr. Dolittle and Bowfinger. And Mushu was embraced by audiences at the time, so much so that “Where’s Mushu?” was the main question when the dragon-free first trailer for the live-action Mulan arrived online last summer.
“We were very inspired by what Mushu brought to [the animated film], which was the humor and levity,” Caro told USA Today about the decision to send Mulan off to war without a dragon sidekick. “As beloved as that character is… [Mushu] was Mulan’s confidante, and part of bringing it into the live-action is to commit to the realism of her journey, and she had to make those relationships with her fellow soldiers.” It’s worth noting that one of those soldiers happens to be a new version of the heroine’s other cartoon sidekick, a silent cricket named Cri-Kee. In Caro’s telling, Mulan befriends an accident-prone recruit named Cricket, played by Jun Ya.
Left unsaid about Mushu — but certainly not passing unnoticed — is that not all of Murphy’s material has aged well on rewatch. During the course of the movie, Mushu jokes about Mongolian barbecue and egg rolls, and refers to his pal as “Miss Man” who chooses to take her “little drag show on the road.” It doesn’t help that the character’s name is a knowing reference to a Chinese pork dish that has since become a staple at Chinese restaurants in America. As some has argued, Mushu is one of the elements that speaks to the animated film’s uneasy legacy of propagating Asian stereotypes. “Mushu was very popular in the U.S., but the Chinese hated it,” USC professor, Stanley Rosen, told The Hollywood Reporter in February. “This kind of miniature dragon trivialized their culture.”
To her credit, Caro finds a culturally-appropriate way to integrate Mulan’s sidekick into the story: A traditional dragon dance is performed at her climactic victory celebration. That grand finale also features another important cameo: Ming-Na Wen is the “esteemed guest” who officially presents Yifei’s Mulan to the court of the Emperor (played by Jet Li). As Reed revealed in an interview with Insider, the original Mulan’s appearance involved a top-secret flight from L.A. to New Zealand… and a second surprise cameo. “After Ming-Na does her introduction, Mulan says something slightly unexpected a few shots later and it cuts to the reaction of someone who gives a 'oh my' reaction,” the producer said. “That is Ming-Na Wen's daughter.”
Family is central to both versions of Mulan, but the live action film gives Mulan a smaller extended clan. In place of the busybody grandmother and lively collection of spirit relatives that swirl around her in the cartoon, the film zeroes in on the two most important people in her immediate circle: her younger sister, Hua Xiu (Xana Tang), and her beloved father, Huo Zhou (Tzi Ma). It’s Zhou who initially encourages his daughter to live up to her full potential, having witnessed her extraordinary levels of chi — which the movie treats as the equivalent of Star Wars’s Force. But Mulan’s mother and the rest of their community frowns upon her freedom, and he’s browbeaten into defending the family honor and pushing her into a more conventional role as a wife-in-training.
One disastrous matchmaker session later, though, and that road seems an unlikely one for Mulan to travel down. Fate intervenes when the Emperor’s recruiters come calling and Zhou is clearly too old to suit up in his armor once more. Mulan puts her chi to the test by grabbing her dad’s sword and tying her hair in a bun instead of slicing it off as her cartoon counterpart did. “While she's disguised as a man, she can't be strong. She's hiding that essence of herself. Which in our movie is her chi,” Caro remarked in her USA Today interview. “And it isn't until she commits to the idea of who she really is that she'll truly be strong. That idea of, ‘Why don't I recognize myself?’ is inverted in this film.”
As the falcon flies
Mushu and Cri-Kee might have had their screentime reduced, but another one of the original Mulan’s cartoon critters got a substantial upgrade. In the earlier film, the villainous Hun warlord, Shan Yu, receives aerial accompaniment in the form of Hayabusa the Falcon. For the live-action version, that bird frequently takes on human form as the witch Xianniang, played by Chinese acting icon, Gong Li. Introduced as the accomplice of the film’s main villain, Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), we soon come to learn that Xianniang is a — wait for it — reflection of Mulan herself. Driven out of her village as a young girl for daring to demonstrate her shape-shifting powers, she’s found in the desert by Khan and joins his mission of vengeance. (In another departure from the original movie, Khan hails from the Rouran tribe rather than the Huns, and has targeted the Emperor for killing his father.) When Xianniang first sets her sharp eyes on Mulan, she believes she sees a kindred spirit: a woman who is being held back by a male-dominated culture.
“At first, she was more of a blatant über-villain,” Mulan co-writer, Amada Silver, told Vanity Fair of the character’s origins. “The truth is that women with power have been vilified for a very long time. The more powerful they are, the more threatening they can be.” It’s Xianniang who ultimately “kills” Mulan’s male alter ego, Hua Jun, after which the young woman asserts herself as the army’s last best hope. Mulan’s example encourages the shape-shifter to change sides, saving the heroine from certain death at the pointy end of one of Khan’s well-aimed arrows in the film’s thrilling climax. “She appears to be very bad, very powerful,” Li said in a recent interview with the South China Morning Post. “But in the end… she’s not bad.”
Not for nothing, but that final battle between Mulan and Khan also owes more to the gravity-defying martial arts action seen in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon than the 1998 cartoon. And while Li’s Emperor doesn’t join in the fisticuffs, he does provide Mulan with plenty of encouragement and one pivotal assist as she unleashes her chi and overcomes her foe. He also wastes little time offering her a place in his army... an offer that she can’t — and doesn’t — refuse.
One becomes two
Since almost every Disney cartoon comes with a side-helping of romance, the animated Mulan strikes sparks with her commanding officer, Captain Li Shang. The live-action producers were keenly aware that kind of power dynamic seemed less romantic in the #MeToo era. So Li Shang became two characters instead of one: Upon arriving at the army camp, Mulan-as-Hua Jun is sculpted into fighting shape by Commander Tung, played by martial arts superstar Donnie Yen. Impressed by the young man’s mettle, Tung comes to view Hua Jun as the perfect life partner... for his daughter.
Hua Jun also catches the eye of novice soldier, Chen Honghui (Yoson An), who is eager for a comrade-in-arms. Fearful that he might see through her disguise, though, Mulan keeps Chen at arm’s length for much of the movie, putting a strain on their relationship. But when she reveals her true identity, he’s the first to fall in step behind her as they race to save the Emperor from Bori Khan. “There’s no power dynamic between them but there is the same dynamic in the original movie that was with Li Shang which is, ‘Hey, I really respect you and why do I like this dude so much? And what does this say about me?’” Reed told a group of journalists that visited the Mulan set in 2019. “We have that same dynamic and in this movie, I actually think it plays in a more sophisticated way.” And while there’s a hint that the soldiers’ friendship might blossom into love, the live-action version refrains from giving the duo a shared happily ever after. Instead, Mulan ends the movie as she begins it: as her own hero.
Mulan is currently available on Disney+ Premier Access.
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