After years of patient waiting, Disney’s highly anticipated live-action MULAN (2020) has finally been released through their streaming service for an additional fee. Directed by Niki Caro, the film has premiered to largely rave reviews, but has experienced much controversy from its initial stages to its unique release.
While many critics argue the film is less of a reboot of the 1998 animated feature, and more of an imagining of the ancient ballad, all would agree that significant changes have been made from the original. The premise remains the same and centers on Mulan (Yifei Liu), a young woman struggling with her identity, who secretly takes her father’s (Tzi Ma) place as a soldier during wartime under the guise of a man. Caro’s vision of MULAN was to be as realistic as she could make it, while still keeping some of the enchanting qualities the original film is known for. The product is a panoramic epic that is beautifully shot and choreographed, and has uniquely established itself outside its predecessor and Disney’s other live-action reboots, as well.
The first significant change the audience will notice is the new MULAN is a dramatic action film as opposed to a comedy and musical, but the score does boast instrumental versions of the classic songs. Perhaps one of the most notable changes is the absence of the fire-spitting dragon, Mushu, originally voiced by Eddie Murphy, and is now replaced by a silent and majestic phoenix. Other missing and beloved characters are that of Li Shang and Mulan’s cricket sidekick; in their place, Mulan befriends her peers and fellow soldiers, one of which is named Cricket. While some deviations have resulted in the absence of original elements, one significant change has resulted in the addition of an element- a female antagonist. Li Gong ruthlessly plays Xianniang, a witch whose strength and tenacity (and “qi”) matches that of Mulan, adding conflict and some major thematic influences to the overall film.
While for the most part the changes have been lauded, there has also always been an air of controversy surrounding the film. During MULAN’s casting period, an online petition circulated, advocating for a Chinese actress to play the titular role, and so a yearlong global search commenced, and thousands of actresses were auditioned. Liu has proven herself to be the ultimate choice for the role due to her depth and additional vocal and martial arts talents. Alongside Liu are fellow highly acclaimed actors, Donnie Yen, Li Gong, and Jet Li.
Disney’s method of release has also gone under fire, as Disney+ customers can view the film for an additional fee on top of the usual subscription rate; it becomes available to all customers on December 4th. In areas without Disney+, viewers can go see it at the theatres. While Disney has stated that this is a one-off, and won’t be shifting its release model for future films, it’s hard to imagine this method will discontinue if sales are high. Despite many complaints over the extra fee, many families, especially large ones, are benefitting as paying for individual tickets and snacks at the movies can become quite pricey.
Aside from the release model eliciting complaints, #BoycottMulan seems to be trending across social media. Lead actress Yifei Liu’s support of Hong Kong police have upset people across the globe, resulting in an attempted boycott. Pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong especially, are urging fans and film lovers not to see MULAN; how this will affect the film’s release is yet to be determined, but it certainly has caused additional public awareness about the events unfolding between Hong Kong and Mainland China.
Despite many of the disputes around the film, most fans and critics agree that it has been one of the better live-action reboots Disney has put out. Caro and her team have strived to be as loyal to the different interpretations of the Hua Mulan ballad as possible, and to acknowledge the many different reactions to the original animated film across the world. The original did not actually do particularly well in China, and according to The Washington Post, “with nearly $9 billion in box-office revenue [in 2019], China has swollen to the second-largest film market in the world… and is closing in on the United States (nearly $12 billion).” With that in mind, there was certainly a lot of pressure to execute, and most have agreed that Caro and her team have done that.
The film boasts breathtaking panoramic views of China and New Zealand. Performances given Liu and Gong are especially captivating, but there’s not a single disappointing actor. The sheer size and scope of the battle scenes and the choreography within them is legitimately mesmerizing. While the story of this adaptation has changed significantly, it has served to uplift the film from a cute and quirky comedy to a serious cinematic achievement, and most definitelyshould get some nods come awards season.
With a $20 million dollar budget, this makes MULAN the most expensive film ever made by a female director. Caro also noted in an interview during the D23 Expo that “[her] crew was led by women and that’s something [she’s] really proud of.” For the most part, Caro has produced a film to be proud of. MULAN has certainly had one of the most complicated and exhaustive productions and releases in recent history, and will probably be studied in future film classes not only for its cinematic feats, but also for its interesting social and cultural position. While it is still early in release, it should be interesting to see how social events unfold around the film, as well as future release models for other films.