‘Mulan’ 2020: Something Old, Something New

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As a ’90s baby, I grew up watching much of the pantheon of Disney‘s animated movies. I actually remember watching the trailer for the 1998 “Mulan.” The animation was unlike anything I had ever seen, the story full of elements I was semi-familiar with but still felt brand-new. Fa Mulan was also groundbreaking because she was actually inspired by Hua Mulan, a Chinese warrior and heroine. The whole thing rocked my world. Mulan quickly dethroned Belle and Cinderella as my favorite Disney princesses. It’s been 20 years, and the movie still holds a very dear place in my heart.

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In recent years, Disney has been doing live-action remakes of some of their older properties. This year alone has seen both Dumbo and Aladdin in theaters with various receptions. Disney recently announced Halle Bailey (half of Beyoncé protege duo Chloe x Halle) as Ariel for their live-action “Little Mermaid.” With the world reeling from the announcement of a black Ariel, Disney apparently decided to sucker punch us all by releasing the trailer for their 2020 live action Mulan.

Already, this movie feels like more of an outlier than their other remakes. Often, trailers for remakes/reboots will feature iconic quotes or items from the original movie. This is part of something called “Intertextuality.” It’s to connect itself to the past property (to reel in old fans) while displaying its newer elements (thus drawing in new fans).

Take the teaser for Aladdin. Most of the footage uses iconography of the original movie and the score for “Arabian Nights.”

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Mulan, on the other hand, doesn’t even feel like its predecessor until she says “I will bring honor to us all,” nearly 30 seconds into the teaser.

As the cast was confirmed, it soon seemed this wouldn’t be a close remake of the 1998 version. Changes such as the film not being a musical, replacing Mushu with a phoenix and a witch character being added. As the movie was assisted by a Chinese production company and official consultants, it’s hard to say exactly how much this affected some of these decisions.

It’s unfair to pass any judgement on the film solely based on the trailer, but it is definitely a different movie. It feels more akin to Wuxia dramas such as “Hero” than it does to a film that features a tiny dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy.

And this isn’t a bad thing.

You see, the 1998 “Mulan” flopped in China when it released. In Disney’s quest to make it universally enjoyable, it alienated Chinese audiences. The anachronistic changes, adding traits that clashed with both the Buddhist and Confucian elements of the cultures, just made Disney’s “Mulan” too foreign for her home country.

In the 20 years since, there have been numerous “Mulan” shows and movies but none by a foreign production company. However, Disney seems to have learned their lesson. Granted, I’m not sure if that lesson was people of color like it when their culture is respected, or just how much box office power the Chinese market holds. But hey, progress?

Many Disney movies are reimaginings of classic fairy tales or folklore. These stories have survived hundreds of years and dozens of retellings and translations. But only a few of these stories have escaped Disney branding it as solely theirs. It’s oddly fitting Mulan might be the first of the Disney remakes to truly stand on its own.

(IMDb, YouTube [1][2][3] [4], People, Newsweek, Screenrant, TheVerge, Baltimore Sun.)

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