The duties of ‘Mulan’ (2020): Exploring the differences between the original and the remake

By

This is the first piece in a series on the 2020 remake of “Mulan.”

Without the iconic soundtrack or singing animals from the original, Disney’s live-action “Mulan” (2020) promises a subversive, fresh story, which will present new values for Disney princesses. It is slated for release on Sept. 4. 

According to director Niki Caro, “Mulan” (2020) has completely deviated from the 1998 film. Rewrites, including the replacement of iconic characters such as Grandma Fa and Mushu with new, more historically accurate and progressive ones, are sure to distinguish the story from its predecessor. 

The remake has no singing scenes, no dragons and Mulan doesn’t end up with Li Shang, a staggering reality to “Mulan” (1998) fans. While upsetting its returning viewership, Mulan’s new tone may also fail to cater to a majority of Disney’s audience, 4- to 12-year-olds possibly disinterested in a war epic. 

With a film budgeted at $200 million that doesn’t appeal to a majority audience and cannot bring in box-office profits amid the coronavirus pandemic, Disney has joined Mulan in gambling her fate. Even so, in taking such seemingly unjustifiable risks, Disney’s actions have far more deep-rooted intentions.

The birth of “Mulan” (1998)

Disney’s motivations for altering the film date back to the late 1930s and highlight pivotal lessons in America’s foriegn affairs. “Mulan,” as a Chinese tale, can greatly benefit from a large Chinese audience, and as the most populous country, China’s government and market are essential allies.

Although, having been an American pioneer in navigating the Chinese market in the 1940s, Disney also had issues with China in the film industry. Disney products were effectively banned following the release of Disney’s “Kundun” — a film about the fourteenth Dalai Lama — in 1997. “Kundun” promoted anti-communism, Tibet’s removal from Chinese rule and included a meeting between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In that scene, the CCP’s Chairman Mao tells the Dalai Lama that his religion is poison, which retards society and has made his people inferior, according to a case study of Disney and China.

A stern message issued by the Chinese government during production warned Disney that “Kundun” would jeopardize its business in the Chinese market — but “Kundun” persisted to stab Chinese governmental agenda. During its release, western art in numerous disciplines began showing opinionated and biased interest in the Dalai Lama’s story, including other films such as “Seven Years in Tibet” (1997), “Tale of the Sacred Mountain” (1997) and “Little Buddha” (1993).

With increasing western opinions of China and Disney’s timely anti-communist actions, “Kundun” presented a unique opportunity for the Chinese government to set ground rules in the west. “Killing the chicken to scare the monkey” is a Chinese strategy which uses one event to dramatically set a bar for future endeavors, according to a “Mulan” (1998) case study. With Disney as their chicken, the CCP banned Disney films to show western powers that China would not tolerate interference in their international affairs.

In a cultural tribute attempting to lighten the air with the Chinese government after “Kundun,” Disney took a fifth-century Chinese poem, the “Ballad of Mulan,” and created the 11th-highest grossing princess in Disney history.

Even so, Disney saw Chinese markets reopen in only February of 1999, a year and a half after the release of “Mulan.” Because of its delayed arrival to Chinese box offices, most viewers and enthusiastic Disney fans in China had already seen the film via pirated disks — making its success all the more impressive.

Budgeted at $90 million, “Mulan” (1998) achieved $120 million from domestic box offices and $304 million internationally, becoming the second-highest grossing family film of the year. In reality, Disney could not have anticipated how much an Asian princess would benefit them.

After Mulan’s release in China, the film’s popularity set grounds for the Hong Kong Disneyland project in late 1999, the first government-funded Disney park. Although a timely asset in damage control — having initiated a fruitful relationship with China and having been immensely financially successful — “Mulan” (1998) did not meet the standards of viewers, according to a “Mulan” (1998) and “Kundun” (1997) case study.

Criticisms of “Mulan” (1998)

Understandably, Disney viewers have continued to present a plethora of reasons “Mulan” (1998) was largely unacceptable.

As Disney princesses films frequently do, “Mulan” (1998) establishes gender roles that judge Mulan’s success on her ability to cater to men’s wants before her own — which seems possibly understandable for Mulan, given that her society, set in fifth-century China, valued a submissive woman. Mulan’s source text, however, doesn’t mention Mulan’s courtship. While the beginning of “Mulan” (1998) shows Mulan’s struggle to attract suitors, the source text of “Mulan” begins completely inversely:

“They 
ask 
Daughter
 who’s
 in
 her 
heart (. . .) They
 ask 
Daughter 
who’s 
on 
her
mind. (. . .) “No
 one 
is 
[in]
 Daughter’s 
heart,
(. . .) No 
one 
is 
on
 Daughter’s
 mind.”

Disney goes as far to say “Mulan” has brought dishonor to her family for remaining unmarried and requesting reconsideration for her father — because he is drafted, she had to save a country to adequately compensate. 

Even after she heroically saved China while hiding herself, Mulan’s grandmother dismissed her accomplishment upon her return, stating “she brings home a sword — if you ask me she should have brought home a man.”

Additionally, The Guardian Weekly magazine and Refinery 29 have also spoken to how Mulan was racist on multiple occasions throughout the film, making the Huns savage monsters and unironically adding a dragon. Considering a major goal of Mulan was to remorsefully appease Chinese audiences in the hopes of lifting their Chinese ban, Disney should have been more aware of inaccuracies throughout the movie. 

Other imprecisions were the obvious and deliberate homogenization of Asian cultures. For example, while Mulan is being treated after suffering wounds in a battle against the Hun army, her hospital tent and the doctor who treated her both sport Japanese flags. These flags are scattered around the movie, despite being set in China with all Chinese characters. 

Moreover, “Mulan” (1998) insults foreign culture and heritage with stereotypical depictions of other cultures, an issue historically typical of Disney. In “The Great Wall” (2016), China’s armies are shown as too primitive to defend themselves; Matt Damon’s character saves them from attackers almost single-handedly. “Aladdin” (1992) creates a single-minded tapestry of Arabic life, set in Agrabah or Arabland, a faraway place which is “barbaric, but hey, it’s home,” according to a merchant in “Aladdin,” a film directed and written exclusively by white men, with a cast using racist accents in lieu of employing any Arabian or Asian actors.

“Lady and the Tramp” (1955), “The Little Mermaid” (1989), “Peter Pan” (1953), “Song of the South” (1946), “Fantasia” (1940) and untold others are all Disney’s powerfully public depictions of minorities, all of which must be refined.

Considering this smorgasbord of offensive missteps in “Mulan” (1998) and throughout Disney’s history, viewers certainly should be fed up. It’s a success in itself that Liu Yeifei was cast as Mulan in the 2020 remake, as fans were worried whether Mulan’s actress would even be Asian. Considering films like “The Good Earth” (1937) and “Ghost in the Shell” (2017), which whitewashed Asian characters, fans took it upon themselves to ensure Mulan’s appropriate casting with a petition, receiving 112,546 signatures.

This article has been corrected to reflect accurate chronology. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Imogene Tomicic at imogene.tomici ‘at’ gmail.com.

While you're here...

We're a student-run organization committed to providing hands-on experience in journalism, digital media and business for the next generation of reporters. Your support makes a difference in helping give staff members from all backgrounds the opportunity to develop important professional skills and conduct meaningful reporting. All contributions are tax-deductible.


Get Our EmailsDigest

Imogene is a high school student writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop.