'Mulan' and the New Type of Disney Remake

While films like Jon Favreau’s 'The Lion King' have been criticized as shot-by-shot rehashes of older projects, the upcoming movie appears to be doing something different.

Disney is looking to once again bring honor to the story of Mulan. The second trailer for the film, directed by Niki Caro, was released this morning and further teased a significant reimaging of the classic 1998 animated film directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook. Disney has been re-exploring its animated properties with increased fervor of late. This year alone saw remakes of Dumbo, Aladdin, The Lion King, The Lady and the Tramp, and the sequel, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, which works in context of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. These remakes have by and large proven to be box office hits, but critically they’ve been a mixed bag with many citing a failure to do anything new with the material. It’s clear from the latest trailer for Mulan, starring Crystal Liu as the titular character, that the film will be departing from animated film, and offer a new take on the Chinese legend, The Ballad of Mulan. But will this fresh vision be embraced by audiences looking for nostalgia, and critics waiting to see if Disney can do more than follow in the footsteps of their greatest hits?

With the exception of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Disney’s 2019 remakes have largely followed similar beats as the original films, plus or minus a few new songs or characters. The only one of them to earn a positive reception on Rotten Tomatoes was Lady and the Tramp, which was released on Disney+, forgoing a theatrical release. Yet, all of theatrical released films have earned an “A” CinemaScore from audiences, except for Dumbo, which earned an “A-,“  and was the lowest grossing of the lot at $353 million worldwide. Ironically, Tim Burton’s Dumbo did the most in terms of bringing something new to the story, making significant changes to the cast of characters and structure of the 1941 animated film. Jon Favreau’s The Lion King earned $1.655 billion worldwide, yet it stuck so closely to the original film that it felt more like a VFX experiment than a movie. Nevertheless, the global box office takes of both films make pointed statements about audiences' interests in seeing familiar stories, especially if they’re wrapped in catchy cover versions of classic songs. This makes the case of Mulan all the more interesting.

While the trailer incorporates the familiar melody of “Reflection,” which launched Christina Aguilera’s career, Mulan won’t be a musical. And going by the tone of the trailer, it won’t employ much of the animated film’s comedy either, given that Mushu, voiced by Eddie Murphy in the original, will also be absent. Instead Mulan will be a fantasy war epic. The names of a number of prominent characters have also been changed with love interest Li Shang recast as Chen Honghui (Yoson An) and villainous leader of the Huns, Shan Yu recast as Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee). The film will also introduce a secondary villain, shape-shifting witch, Xian Lang (Gong Li). All of these differences serve to create a sense that Mulan is something more than a remake, and perhaps geared at slightly older audience members, or at least those less interested in nostalgia.

Mulan comes at a point when Hollywood is broadening, slowly, the look of their protagonists. While not an Asian-American story, the film comes at a time when Crazy Rich Asians (2018), and The Farewell (2019), have succeeded at box office, once again proving the point that many have always known, representation sells. Disney will expand this notion further with 2021 Marvel Studios’ film, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, starring Simu Liu. Disney is typically risk adverse, but a Mulan film that doesn’t rely on familiar characters, songs or story beats, and instead hinges on the action prowess of its Chinese leads and cultural fantasy elements, is an admirably bold move. With luck, Mulan will become a breakout hit and give Disney further license to take chances with their remakes.

There will surely be some disappointment over the film straying from the animated film, and how the film will play overseas is anyone’s guess (The 1998 edition failed to become a hit in China). But Mulan looks to follow the path paved by Cinderella (2015), Pete’s Dragon (2016) and Christopher Robin (2018), and offer a vision that can stand on its own merits and filmmaking skills. While we’re far from the realm of an age of auteur Disney remakes, Mulan certainly looks like a step in the right direction, and its success could usher in a new era for Disney’s consideration of its animated classics just in time for a new decade of storytelling.