Mulan 2020: A Retelling, Not a Remake

Nothing can quite compare to the memories, the feelings, and unique space that exists when you see yourself reflected on the big screen as a child.

For me, that special spot, those memories and feelings belong to Disney’s 1998 animated Mulan. I’ve previously written about how much that movie and the character of Mulan meant and continue to mean to me to this day (LINK). For me, it’s a touchstone, it’s a movie that I can look back upon and evoke feelings of acceptance, of heroism, of discovery, of family, and reflection. It’s a movie that holds a very special and specific place in my heart.

When Disney announced that they were going to make a live-action remake of its 1998 animated version, I was hesitant and a bit terrified. I did not want Disney to desecrate the animated version for me. I did not want Disney to desecrate the memory of Mulan for me. And that may be a strong word, desecrate, but that’s how much the original animated version meant to me. I’m not saying that the original animated version didn’t have issues because it did, but for me, Mulan was one of the first times that I had felt seen as a child of Chinese/Vietnamese immigrants growing up in Canada.

Since the initial announcement, there have been numerous reports about the live-action movie, everything from the initial plot of the movie, to those who would be handling the movie behind the scenes, and who would be taking on the roles of its characters on screen. Some of those reports have made me raise some eyebrows, some have made me question where Disney was going with the remake, and some that just wanted to make me bury my head in the sand and not even think about the live-action remake of Mulan (aka. the rumour that there was going to be a white saviour in the original plot of the live action movie).

Disney released the first official trailer, poster, and plotline for the live action Mulan yesterday.


The plot:

When the Emperor of China issues a decree that one man per family must serve in the Imperial Army to defend the country from Northern invaders, Hua Mulan, the eldest daughter of an honored warrior, steps in to take the place of her ailing father. Masquerading as a man, Hua Jun, she is tested every step of the way and must harness her inner-strength and embrace her true potential. It is an epic journey that will transform her into an honored warrior and earn her the respect of a grateful nation…and a proud father.”

By all accounts, it is going to be a stunning movie, one that will give the viewer a glimpse of Ancient China and the world of Hua Mulan, one of China’s greatest warriors. The trailer also made very clear that the Mulan that we will be in theatres next year will be very different from the one I saw in 1998.

Unlike Disney’s recent live-action remakes of its animated movies – Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo, and Aladdin – Mulan will veer closer to the original corpus of the Ballad of Mulan first recorded in the 6th Century than the animated movie version. Several characters from the animated version didn’t make the cut – Li Shang, Mushu, and arguably the one that I’m upset about, Grandma. Alongside those changes, 2020’s Mulan will also largely not feature the musical numbers from the original but will contain instrumental versions of those songs throughout the movie. Whether the film will feature original music has yet to be seen.

This is arguably part of Disney’s plan for the live action to appeal to a wider audience globally than the original animated version and “reflect” and “represent” the original source material of Hua Mulan. It’s a pragmatic choice on Disney’s part, and one that I’ve questioned since details of the live-action were revealed. The original animated version was not well received in China and barely made it through Mainland China censors at the time. From what I’ve seen, Disney has worked hard to ensure that this movie passes those censors and ensure that it makes it into the second largest cinematic market in the world largely untouched. Disney was even granted the opportunity to shoot Mulan in China, as was as filming parts of the movie in New Zealand.

With yesterday’s trailer, Disney drew a proverbial line between its 1998 animated version of Mulan and the 2020 live action Mulan. For me, it is a line that places the upcoming movie in a different sphere compared to Disney’s animated original, in that I do not think that the two can be compared side by side like Disney’s previous live-action remakes. And maybe they shouldn’t, which may or may not be a bad thing. I’m still working out how I feel about the upcoming movie, hence this essay.

While many of the recent live-action remakes create an overwhelming sense of nostalgia for viewers, I didn’t feel that same connection while watching the new trailer for Mulan.  Maybe that’s because my expectations were too high or maybe that no comparison can ever be made with 1998’s version because of the spot that movie holds in my heart or maybe I’m being too overly critical of a freaking movie trailer. I don’t think that that draws away from the happiness and excitement that I’m seeing in so many people who have seen the trailer. Honestly, their excitement has made me more excited about the movie in general, which, I’m not going to lie, didn’t exactly make me shout out in joy on the first viewing of the trailer.

Do I still have reservations about next year’s movie? Yes. The fact that the trailer left out three of the biggest stars in the movie, and arguably three of the biggest draws for a Mainland Chinese audience – Gong Li who is set to play Xian Long (a powerful witch and Mulan’s antagonist), Donnie Yen who will take on the role of Commander Tung (a role that is supposed to encapsulate some of the role of Li Shang’s original character), and Jet Li who will play the Emperor of China – does make me wonder how much care Disney took in cutting this initial trailer and possibly what they’re not entirely revealing about the movie.

Do I have hopes that the movie will become its own entity and become what the 1998 animated version was for me to a whole new generation getting to opportunity to see themselves reflected on the big screen, possibly for the first time ever? I hope so. I hope this movie inspires a generation of children like the animated version did for me. I hope this movie gives the opportunity for individuals to see themselves as worthy of great things no matter their sex or socio-economic status or other adversities that stand in their way. I hope to see a badass, intersectional feminist Mulan, just like the one I saw in 1998. I hope it allows the world to see that stories like Mulan, diverse stories, deserve to be told and told on a grand $100+ million dollar movie budget scale.

The tale of Hua Mulan is one that has been retold and rewritten many times over in the last few centuries. This newest movie will actually be Disney’s fifth iteration of the Chinese heroine, the first two being the 1998 animated movie and its straight-to-video sequel, with the third showing up in the TV show Once Upon a Time, and the fourth iteration in the movie Wreck-It Ralph 2.

Jeannette Ng created a great thread documenting the adaptations of Hua Mulan’s story (LINK). It is a tale that I think is meant to be adapted, a story to be told to every generation, a tale of how one can overcome great adversity, discover one’s true potential, and still bring honour to ones’ family.

March 27, 2020, is the date that live-action Mulan is set to be released in North America theatres. Whether or not live-action Mulan will live up to its 1998 animated version is something that I think each individual viewer will have to decide for themselves. For me, the lines have been drawn and a full comparison can’t be made. These are going to be two very different movies and will have to be judged on their own merits. Granted, I don’t think this live-action will take the place of the original animated version in my heart. I don’t think any remake/retelling of Mulan can. It’s the Mulan that I grew up with, the one that lit a match in a five-year-old me. I hope this live-action will serve a similar purpose to all those who will be seeing that tale of Mulan possibly for the first time.

All I know for sure is that Disney will continue to take all my money.



2 thoughts on “Mulan 2020: A Retelling, Not a Remake

  1. I was waiting to see what you thought about this trailer. We talked about it offline and I am cautiously optimistic about it. Very cautious.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m the same (cautiously optimistic). I ADORED Mulan when I was younger – who could resist loving a strong, independent female hero? – but I’m not a fan of Live Action. The recent Lion King was not for me. I’m more excited to hear that it’s being filmed in China and NZ though! Hopefully it will be good! 🙂


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