Against the snow-capped mountains of New Zealand, a fierce battle breaks out between the Rourans and Emperor’s army on the set of Disney’s live-action Mulan. This movie may be a remake of the 1998 animated film, but it won’t be a beat-for-beat retelling of the story (The Lion King, anyone?). Filmmaker Niki Caro’s Mulan will stand on its own.
In October of 2018, I visited the set of Mulan along with a small group of journalists. I was captivated by the epic battle breaking out in front of me, weapons clashing, with actress Yifei Liu center stage facing off multiple opponents. This was the fantasy battle I was hoping to see (cue Mulan’s theme by Jerry Goldsmith).
From what we have seen in the trailers, there are several elements in this new retelling of Mulan that differ from the 1998 version. For example, the addition of the shape-shifting Witch played by Gong Li, and the removal of Mulan’s beloved sidekick Mushu.
Producer Jason Reed says the choice to leave Mushu on the sidelines was due in part to the traditional Chinese audience not thinking didn’t particularly think that was the best interpretation of the Dragon in their culture.
“The dragon is a sign of respect and it’s a sign of strength and power, and that sort of using it as a silly sidekick didn’t play very well with the traditional Chinese audience.” Even though Mushu won’t be in this film, Reed says there will be a mythological sidekick of sorts in the movie.
Aside from the animated movie, the team turned to the original text “The Ballad of Mulan” and its many variations, as well as modern film and TV adaptations that have been made in China as they got to work on this new live-action retelling of the story. Reed says they want to make this movie in a way that delivers for multiple audiences:
“The traditional Disney audience and the diaspora Asian audience viewed the movie in one way, and the traditional Chinese in China audience viewed a slightly different way. So we really dug in to try and make sure that we were addressing both of those audiences in a thoughtful way. And I think that we—I hope, knock on wood—I think we found a way to tie the way they look at the movie together.”
When asked about other similarities or divergences from the animated film, Reed says the major beats from the animated movie will still be intact. But one of the key areas where the two films diverged is opening the film with Mulan as a child:
“We see her spirit, we see that she isn’t like the other kids and we see the difficulty that causes her parents which then becomes a theme of the movie, in that she doesn’t fit in and she doesn’t know her place. And everyone’s very concerned for her. She has all these great qualities about her but she doesn’t do things the way that a young girl is supposed to. And it isn’t until she’s dressed as a boy that people encouraged those things in her.”
Another thought on my mind was the iconic songs and music from the animated film. Will they have a presence in this movie? Will the cast be singing? Unfortunately, it’s unlikely we’ll see Donnie Yen burst out in a rendition of “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You”. There will not be a traditional break-into-musical moment, but the unforgettable songs and music from the animated film will be used in a different way.
“There are a number of songs that are iconic for the movie and tell a great version of the story and they are very helpful to us in how we’re putting the movie together. It gets a little easier in animation to keep the tension and the reality in place and still have people break into song and sing to camera. We made the decision that we wanted to keep the world—even though it’s a fantasy—more grounded and more realistic, so those emotions really played and the threat is very real so we are using music in a slightly different way.”
The iconic scene where Mulan cuts her hair will also not be in the movie.
“Chinese warriors wore their hair long”, explained Reed “For her to cut her hair off, it would make her look more like a woman than less like a woman in reality. Since we’re doing the live-action version, because we’re looking at the worldwide market, we thought we had to bring that level of cultural accuracy to it.”. Taking the global audience into consideration, while the hair cutting scene was popular with the American audience, this was not the case with the Chinese audience “we immediately get, like, mocked for that in meetings China. Like, ‘Oh you’re gonna have her cut her hair off again?’ So we’ve had to make those choices because now we have another audience to take into account. It’s finding a balance”. We also may not see Mulan climbing up the pole to retrieve the arrow with weights strapped to her wrists. In the animated film, throughout “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You”, we see Mulan and fellow soldiers attempting to reach the top of the pole to retrieve an arrow. It was a triumphant moment for Mulan when she finally figured out how to get to the top, proving her worth and determination in front of the other men. However, the pole was not spotted at the training camp set. Does this mean this won’t be in the live-action version? Executive Producer Barrie Osborne says “There are lots of moments where she proves [herself]. There are a couple of standout moments.” He adds, “Some things would work well in an animated film that wouldn’t work well in a live-action film.”
Many fans were disappointed to find out Li Shang will not be in the movie, who became a LGBTQ icon. Instead, Li Shang’s role will be split into two characters, between Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) and Chen Honghui (Yoson An).
“So there was a little backlash online when we weren’t casting a character named Li Shang. I was actually a little surprised but it made sense without full understanding of what we were doing in the story. I think particularly in the time of the #MeToo movement, having a commanding officer that is also the sexual love interest was very uncomfortable and we didn’t think it was appropriate. And we thought that in a lot of ways that it was sort of justifying behavior of we’re doing everything we can to get out of our industry. So we split Li Shang into two characters. One became Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) who serves as her surrogate father and mentor in the course movie. The other is Honghui, who is her equal in the squad. There’s no power dynamic between them but there is the same dynamic in the original movie that was with Li Shang.”
New Zealand actor Yoson An discussed feeling the pressure of taking on such a beloved Disney love interest, as the animated movie was one of his favorite films as a kid. Speaking of how he’ll approach the role, An said, “I think to me, that is all in the writing. How I plan to approach it is to approach it like every other scene. One thing that Niki [Caro] has come up to me during every take or a lot of takes is just to remind me that Mulan, to me, is a guy. So, I have to make sure I don’t play it in a way where I treat this character, Hua Jun, as a woman. So, it’s kind of like a buddy relationship where I don’t know he’s a girl, really. The audience knows and I think from an audience perspective that’s how it is going to play out.” When asked if he was ready to become a bisexual icon, An replied, “Yes, I am.”
Below you’ll find more examples of the biggest changes from the animated version as well as other things I learned during the set visit. Disney’s Mulan hits theaters on March 27th, 2020 and tickets are on sale right now.
- The iconic haircutting scene is not in the live-action version.
- No Mushu or Cri-Kee as sidekicks, but there will be a mythological sidekick of sorts.
- The cast will not be singing songs from the animated film.
- Various songs from the animated film will be represented in the live-action film in “a different way.”
- Mulan’s grandmother from the animated film will not be in the live-action version.
- Mulan has a sister in this version, played by actress Xana Tang. Traditionally, Mulan was an only child, but in later versions of “The Ballad of Mulan” she had a younger sister. The team felt this added a broader emotional context and added more motivation for her character.
- We’ll get to see a young Mulan, who is described to have a special Chi inside her.
- Jason Scott Lee’s Bori Khan won’t be the only villain. There’ll be a female antagonist, a shape-shifting Witch named Xian Lang played by Gong Li.
The Northern invaders will not be called Huns or Mongols, but will instead be referred to as Rourans.
- The beloved Li Shangi character is not in this movie. Instead, his role is split into two different characters: Donnie Yen’s Commander Tung and Yoson An’s Chen Honghui
- The iconic scene where Mulan climbs up the tall pole to retrieve the arrow may not be in the movie. There was no pole seen at the training camp set. Instead, we may see several moments where Mulan proves her worth.
- It’s unclear whether we’ll see Mulan’s ancestors come to life in this film, though producer Jason Reed says there’s an illusion that relates to her ancestry.
- Mulan’s matchmaker dress has hand embroidery and took 21 hours and 3 people to make.
- There are 65 stunt riders from Mongolia and another 45 from Kazakhstan.
- During a weapons showcase, we saw many weapons that’ll be used in the movie, including a quiver made for a character named Cricket.