If you told me that Mulan was not a Disney production, I’d say the film was OK and then question whether the director and writers were Asian or not. I’m not going to use the phrase “cultural appropriation” because I believe Disney and the filmmakers intended to bring honor to Mulan’s story. But fans of Asian cinema will know the difference. I think it was misguided not to tell a story in a truer Asian cinematic tradition, but instead chose to “Disney-fy” it—notice I didn’t say “whitewash.” I will say, though, I’m glad Disney decided to go for a hard PG-13 with Mulan. It’s really not for small children.
The most controversial thing I can say is the new Mulan is to Chinese cinema what P.F. Chang’s is to Chinese food.
On the positive side, the acting was superb. Yifei Liu is the perfect choice as the strong, independent Mulan. I loved seeing Tzi Ma and Rosalind Chao as her parents. Of course, Donnie Yen and Jet Li were also great—you won’t recognize Li until the end. I found it funny that Mulan’s parents had better English accents than their daughter.
So, let’s get to my real issues with this version of Mulan, which mostly has to do with the fact that the original animated feature exists, and comparisons must be made. I was a young adult when the original came out in 1998. Me, my friends, and my family were looking forward to the release of Mulan. It was the first time Disney (or any studio) made any film that represented me and my culture as an Asian-American. It was a moment of pride. The voice cast was a who’s who of Asian-American stars at the time—Ming-Na Wen, B.D. Wong, James Hong, George Takei, Lea Salonga, and Pat Morita. It didn’t matter that the rest of the cast was diverse with Donny Osmond, Harvey Fierstein, and Eddie’ Freakin’ Murphy. As an Asian-American, this was our movie made at a time when Hollywood outright refused to tell Asian stories (or imported it from overseas) or hire Asian actors, even after the success of The Joy Luck Club five years prior.
“…the new Mulan is to Chinese cinema what P.F. Chang’s is to Chinese food.“
Let me get political for a moment. The new Mulan did what Asian-Americans in the arts have complained about for a very long time. Hollywood will make an Asian movie and go overseas to cast native-born Asian stars leaving hundreds of Asian-American actors and filmmakers out to dry. I’ll admit, I’m on a soapbox right now, but the cultural pride I felt with the original Mulan does not exist here (yes, I know there’s a small handful of Americans in this version). This issue is pretty much my personal hang-up, and ironically, I now know how Star Wars fans felt after seeing The Last Jedi.
The other way the animated Mulan is better is the underlying theme of the story. In the original, Mulan and her fellow soldiers were considered the worst regimen of the army. They were the underdogs sent to be slaughtered, and it would be Mulan’s cunning and quick thinking that turned this troop of sadsacks into national heroes. They were underestimated, even more so when Mulan is revealed as female. She proved that she was just as capable of saving China as any man.
In the new Mulan, she’s joining the elite force under Commander Tung (Yen), so that removes the important underdog aspect. So now what makes Mulan a great warrior? In the original, hard work, courage, and training. In the live-action version? Mulan has magic. So, am I just supposed to say to my daughter, if you want to be better than a man, all you need is a little magic? Although very Disney in nature, not very practical. The making and storytelling behind Mulan were just misguided in many ways, and I almost wish that they hadn’t made it.
In the end, I’m going back to the original animated feature as the one to watch. I applaud Disney for the attempt, but it begs the question: just because you can make a live-action version of every animated classic, should you?
"…if you want to be better than a man, all you need is a little magic?"