Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of Mulan will reportedly not be a musical like the original, but it doesn’t have to be one to succeed. The Walt Disney Company recently dropped the first trailer for their new take on Mulan over the weekend. New Zealand director Niki Caro of Whale Rider fame helms what will be the 16th live-action remake the studio has released, and expectations are high. The 1998 film was the 7th highest grossing movie of its year, and 2020’s Mulan reportedly has the highest budget of any of Disney’s live-action remakes.
The Mulan trailer was received positively, and showed what looks to be a new take on the material that has more in common with the original ballad of Hua Mulan than Disney’s animated re-imagining of it. That, however, has left some fans disappointed. The absence of beloved fan favorite characters like Shang and Mushu proved to be major talking points, with “Mushu” trending worldwide on Twitter as a result. What has proven to be the main sticking point is the lack of songs.
There has been much reporting and rumor over whether or not this take on Mulan will actually feature the musical numbers from the original Disney movie. The most recent word has claimed the songs will only be featured in the film as instrumental versions. That means no moment of Mulan singing “Reflection”, no new version of "True To Your Heart", and no karaoke-ready sing-along of "I'll Make a Man Out of You." Given how popular to this day many of these songs are, it’s not a surprise that some fans are sad that they won’t be featured in an epic live-action production. However, it ultimately may be one of the smarter decisions made about this film. The new Mulan doesn’t have to or need to be a musical.
Mulan Doesn't Have Enough Great Songs to Justify Being A Musical
Disney has spent decades building up a highly impressive discography of iconic and widely beloved music. It’s one of the things that truly defines a Disney movie and has been since their feature film debut, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. These songs have made the studio a massive amount of money and been a key part of their branding, as well as one of the things that have made many of these movies such a success in the first place. What is Frozen without “Let It Go”?
Mulan has some good songs. “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” is perhaps one of the catchiest Disney songs ever written, while “Reflection” remains a top ballads. However, it’s not a movie full of hit after hit, especially when you compare it to other Disney hits from the same era. The Lion King, for example, has a soundtrack where every single song is beloved, memorable, and took on a life of its own after the film’s release. The same applies to Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. The entire Mulan soundtrack doesn’t hold the same level of nostalgic thrall for fans of that demographic than its Disney renaissance ilk. That’s not to say the songs are bad, but it’s not a slate of music sturdy enough to warrant an entire musical structure.
Mulan Might Be Better Without the Music
The 1998 version of Mulan as created by Disney is an odd beast. Like most films of the ‘90s Disney renaissance, it’s based on pre-existing material, but it wasn’t a story that would have been all that well-known to American and white audiences. The Ballad of Hua Mulan was first transcribed in a collection of Chinese ballads in the 6th century and, since then, it has endured as a cultural mainstay, with many film and television adaptations made over the decades. It made sense for Disney to want to have their own version of the story at a time when they were keen to get a foothold back in the burgeoning Chinese entertainment market after briefly being banned from the country. The final result is a popular film but one that is still very American and an awkward fit because of that.
As with all Disney-fied adaptations of classic stories and world cultures, the basic structure and themes of the Hua Mulan ballad were remolded to fit the company’s brand, and softened in a way that made the story more “universal”, which at the time mostly meant making it palatable for the presumed majority=white American audiences (see the depiction of Arab and Middle Eastern culture as a homogeneous mish-mash of various places and ideas in Aladdin, or how Belle’s France in Beauty and the Beast is a checklist of French stereotypes). For Mulan, that meant a cast of voice actors with American accents, the addition of a sassy talking animal sidekick (another of Disney’s favored tropes), and changes to the story that made it more like a Disney fairy-tale, such as the inclusion of an “I want something more” style song to give the protagonist new motivations. Sometimes it works, and other times it is a noticeably uncomfortable fit for this story. It’s also a questionable decision from a culturally appropriative standpoint, and one that Disney may be keen to avoid in the future.
The new Mulan movie has a chance to be something that Disney doesn’t do so much these days: A full-on action drama on a grand scale. Certainly, the trailer’s focus is far more on epic battles and martial arts than the tried-and-true Disney framework that’s served them so well in the past, and that’s a good thing. The original story may best be served by a stylistic and thematic approach more faithful to its intended themes than the ones Disney shoehorned into the animated adaptation.
Disney Fans Will Still Have the Original Movie
Whatever happens with the live-action remake, Mulan as a musical isn't going anywhere. A new film will not remove the other one from history. That seems like a condescending point to make, but given how upset some fans have been about the reimagining's new creative direction, it feels worth making. Many fans have wondered what the point of these remakes are when they are typically so close to the original. Sometimes, they feel like shot-for-shot rehashes of the animated movies, right down to camera angles, dialogue, and production design. Disney remakes these movies more for the strengthening of the original brand than the opportunity to take new creative directions. It’s a double-edged sword: the thing that gets them the most criticism with these live-action remakes is also the thing that has made them so much money over the past decade.
However, it’s still in Disney’s best interests to diversify their business model and deviate from the norm once in a while, if only because audiences will inevitably get sick of the same old formulas (it happened in the ‘90s with the animation renaissance, after all). A movie like the new Mulan remake will have a very specific audience and business intent in mind, and the chances are it’s not a perceived majority white American audience. If you’re going to adapt an iconic piece of Chinese culture for a blockbuster demographic, it only makes sense to adapt it for the biggest box office market on the planet who are also very familiar with said story. Ultimately, a movie like Mulan needs to be more than a rehashing of the Disney property, and if any of their most iconic properties has the foundations sturdy enough to survive the removal of its musical structure, it’s this one.
- Mulan (2020) release date: Mar 27, 2020