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Inside Disney’s Bold $200M Gamble on ‘Mulan’: “The Stakes Couldn’t Be Higher”

'Mulan' — with its beloved source material, cultural sensitivities and politically controversial star — was always going to be high-stakes gamble, and that was before the coronavirus shut down one of its most vital markets.

Liu Yifei, star of Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan, lives in Beijing, but she is originally from Wuhan, epicenter of the coronavirus. In January, the 32-year-old actress left China for Los Angeles to begin press for the film, weeks before the virus’ outbreak, which has now infected more than 77,000 people, killed more than 2,500 and wreaked havoc in her home country. She says she doesn’t have any family or close friends personally affected by the disease — she left Wuhan when she was 10 — but the epidemic has added an impossible-to-foresee variable to her film’s March 27 worldwide release.

Liu pauses when asked about the outbreak. “It’s really heavy for me to even think about it,” she says. “People are doing the right thing. They are being careful for themselves and others. I’m so touched actually to see how they haven’t been out for weeks. I’m really hoping for a miracle and that this will just be over soon.”

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In China, Liu is a household name, nicknamed “Fairy Sister” for her elegance and beauty. Modeling since age 8, she broke out in the 2003 Chinese TV series Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, a commercial hit in China and the highest-rated Chinese drama in Taiwan at the time, and hasn’t stopped working in film and TV since, earning fashion partnerships with Adidas, Shiseido and Armani along the way.

Disney and director Niki Caro selected Liu from more than 1,000 aspirants from around the world to star as Hua Mulan, the Chinese heroine who disguises herself as a man to fight in the Imperial Army in a film carefully designed to appeal to Western and Chinese audiences alike. But now there’s a question of when Mulan will be released in China. With the coronavirus shutting down all 70,000 of the country’s theaters since Jan. 24, it’s unclear — and more unlikely every day — that multiplexes will reopen in time for its planned release. (Several high-profile U.S. films, including Universal’s Dolittle and 1917 and Searchlight’s Jojo Rabbit, saw their February releases scrapped.) “It certainly has worldwide and global appeal, but there’s no denying that this is a very important film for the Chinese market,” says Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “It’s a huge blow for Disney if it doesn’t release in China.” Disney president of production Sean Bailey says he’s “looking at it day by day.”

Of course, this puts added pressure on the $200 million budgeted film — the priciest of Disney’s recent live-action remakes — to perform in the U.S. and the rest of the world. Liu, who is enveloped in her own storm of controversy based on a political social media post about the Hong Kong protests, says she is trying hard not to think about all that. “It would really be a loss for me if I let the pressure overtake my possibilities,” says the actress, who learned English when she lived in New York as a child for four years with her mother, a dancer, after her parents’ divorce.

Even before the outbreak of the virus, Mulan — the first Disney-branded film with an all-Asian cast and the first to be rated PG-13 (for battle scenes) — would have marked one of the studio’s riskiest live-action films to date. While the original 1998 Mulan was a critical and commercial hit, garnering a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination and grossing more than $300 million worldwide ($475 million today), it faltered at the Chinese box office. Part of the reason is that the Chinese government stalled its premiere for nearly a year because of lingering anger over Disney’s 1997 release of Kundun, Martin Scorsese’s Dalai Lama movie that dealt with China’s occupation of Tibet. By the time Mulan reached theaters in late February 1999, most children had returned to school after the Chinese New Year holiday and pirated copies were widely available. For the new film, the plan was to counter piracy by releasing the movie in China the same day as the rest of the world, a strategy that’s no longer possible.

The film also has tested the ability and tolerance of Disney — which aims to be ideologically neutral — in managing global political fallout. In August, Liu stirred up a major controversy when she reposted a pro-police comment on Chinese platform Weibo (where she has more than 66 million followers) at the height of the violence in Hong Kong. Her action was seen by critics of the Chinese government as supporting police brutality; soon after, the hashtag #BoycottMulan started trending on Twitter. Liu, who has American co-citizenship from her time in the U.S., was harshly criticized around the world for supporting oppression.

“I think it’s obviously a very complicated situation and I’m not an expert,” she says now, cautious in the extreme. “I just really hope this gets resolved soon.” When pressed, Liu, whose answer seemed rehearsed, declines to say much more, simply repeating, “I think it’s just a very sensitive situation.” (Bailey also deflects when asked: “Yifei’s politics are her own, and we are just focused on the movie and her performance.”)

“Most Chinese celebrities choose to avoid posting such political statements because of the risks to their careers internationally,” says Dorothy Lau, a professor at the Academy of Film, Hong Kong Baptist University. But though Liu’s post drew criticism globally, some experts believe the political drama could actually result in more support for the film in China. “At the time, the government came out in various publications supporting the film very strongly,” says USC professor Stanley Rosen, who specializes in Chinese politics and society. “There’s a real impetus on the part of the Chinese government to make this work. I’m sure the government is going to try to show that the boycott has had no effect.” And while her comment might still anger filmgoers in Hong Kong, where the recent live-action Aladdin took in $8 million, that market is tiny compared to the mainland (total 2019 Hong Kong box office was $245 million compared with China’s $9.2 billion). “Most people outside Hong Kong have likely forgotten about this controversy,” says Rosen. “But the Chinese government does not forget these things.”

The fact that this version of Mulan is a large-scale war epic inspired more by the ancient Chinese ballad than the original animated film may also help win fans in Beijing, but the choice carries its own significant risks: The film needs to satisfy Chinese audiences raised on the legend while not disappointing a generation of fans in Asia (and elsewhere) for whom the animated film is foundational. “People would come in to audition and would say, ‘Sorry, I know this is really unprofessional, but before I start, I just want you to know, the animated movie was the first time I saw someone that looked like me speak English in a movie theater,’ ” says producer Jason Reed. “The stakes couldn’t be higher.”

Mulan also represents a leap of faith in the film’s director, Caro, whose previous two films boasted budgets of about 10 percent of Mulan‘s (The Zookeeper’s Wife and Disney’s 2015 sports drama McFarland USA were each in the $20 million to $25 million range). Caro, 53, was not Disney’s first choice. Before hiring the New Zealand filmmaker, the studio targeted directors of Asian descent, including Taiwanese Oscar winner Ang Lee (he was busy promoting Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) and Chinese helmer Jiang Wen. Still, Caro showcased a knack for representing cultures outside of her own with her 2002 debut Whale Rider, which follows a young Maori girl who wants to become chief, a role traditionally reserved for men.

The feminist story of Mulan resonated deeply with Caro. “When I first started wanting to be a filmmaker, there was so little precedent for women doing this [big studio] work,” she says. She has now directed the most expensive live-action film by a woman, joining only a handful (Kathryn Bigelow, Ava DuVernay and Patty Jenkins) who have helmed films costing more than $100 million. “Patty changed the game with Wonder Woman. It was like a shot of adrenaline for me as a filmmaker,” says Caro, who assembled a mostly female-led crew, including cinematographer Mandy Walker, costume designer Bina Daigeler, makeup designer Denise Kum and first assistant director Liz Tan.

To those still upset that an Asian filmmaker didn’t get the job, Caro responds: “Although it’s a critically important Chinese story and it’s set in Chinese culture and history, there is another culture at play here, which is the culture of Disney, and that the director, whoever they were, needed to be able to handle both — and here I am.”

Soon after Caro’s hiring, rumors about the movie began to swirl online. Years of studios centering Asian movies around white protagonists (from Scarlett Johansson’s Ghost in the Shell to Matt Damon’s The Great Wall) meant the threat of whitewashing loomed large. An early report online claimed that the first draft, penned by Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek, featured a white male protagonist.

“This is the first time I’ve been on a big touchstone movie with the internet what it is today. And I had a Google alert set, so I’d see these things, ‘Oh, there was originally a white male lead, or they’re casting Jennifer Lawrence,’ and they were all just made up,” says Reed, who adds that there may have been two non-Chinese characters in the initial script, but both were secondary roles.

The rumors may have been unfounded, but the fallout was real: The Lawrence-as-Mulan story sparked a 2016 petition, “Tell Disney You Don’t Want a Whitewashed Mulan!” drawing more than 110,000 signatures.

Ironically, as that rumor swirled, Caro struggled to find an actress to play Mulan. The global hunt began in October 2016, when Caro sent a team of casting directors to each continent and virtually every small village in China. They were looking for an actress who could play Mulan across three phases, from a young woman unsure of her place to a soldier masquerading as a man and, finally, as an empowered warrior. She had to be fluent in English, handle the physical demands of martial arts and deliver the more emotional moments with Mulan’s family. “She’s a needle in a haystack, but we were going to find her,” says Caro. “It’s impossible to make this movie without this person.”

Though the studio cast a wide multinational net, Bill Kong — a veteran Chinese producer known for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Monster Hunt who was brought on as a producer on Mulan — advised Caro that in order for this film to play well in China, not just anyone of Asian descent would work. “The first thing I told her was, ‘Hire a Chinese girl. You can’t hire a Japanese girl to do this,’ ” he says.

Actresses who made it past that initial audition were brought to Los Angeles, but, after vetting several promising candidates for months, Caro decided to start over. (The search dragged on for so long that Disney delayed the original November 2018 release date.) Eventually, Liu, who had been unavailable during the first pass because of a TV show in China, was able to audition.

“I was determined that whoever played Mulan was not going to be fragile and feminine,” says Caro. “She had to pass as a man in a man’s army.” So the director and a trainer put Liu through a 90-minute physical assessment, with extreme cardio and weight exercises. Other actresses fared less well. “Boy, did they flame out,” says Caro with a laugh. But Liu “never complained once, never said, ‘I can’t.’ She went to her limits.”

With Liu, Disney also found an actress who could speak English, was familiar with martial arts from her TV work in China and, most importantly, was known to the Chinese market.

While Liu spent three months training for the role in New Zealand, Caro finished up her own extensive research. She took multiple trips to China and spoke to dozens of experts — including the world’s foremost specialist on Tang dynasty military strategy. She also studied the 360-word Chinese poem The Ballad of Mulan, which first told the young heroine’s story. The legend, which originated in the fifth or sixth century CE, is a tale as familiar in China as the story of Joan of Arc or Paul Bunyan in the West, and it’s been adapted many times into plays, operas and films.

“I certainly wasn’t aware of how deeply important it is to Mainland Chinese — all children are taught it,” says Caro. “She is so meaningful that many places I went, people would say, ‘Well, she comes from my village.’ It was wonderful to feel that profound connection — but also terrifying.”

As soon as the first trailers rolled out, so did the grumblings about factual inaccuracy, like the choice to situate Mulan’s family in a tulou, a traditional round structure that housed several clans. These homes were mostly present in southern China, in what is now Fujian province (Mulan is said to be from the north), and would not have existed at the time she lived.

“I told [Caro] to not be too concerned about the historical accuracy,” says Kong. “Mulan, though very famous, is fictional. She’s not a historical person.”

Disney tested the film thoroughly with Chinese audiences, including its own local executives. In an early version, Mulan kissed love interest Chen Honghui (Yoson An) on a bridge when they were about to part. “It was very beautiful, but the China office went, ‘No, you can’t, that doesn’t feel right to the Chinese people,’ ” says Caro. “So we took it out.”

Caro and the writers, Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa (the husband-and-wife team behind Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Jurassic World who rewrote the original script), also had to consider the passionate fans of the 1998 film. Most Disney remakes, like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King, have remained loyal to the tone and structure of the animated source material while adding a new song or character. Departing from that formula wasn’t a swift decision. “We had a lot of conversations about it,” says Reed. Ultimately they wanted “to tell this story in a way that is more real, more relatable, where we don’t have the benefit of the joke to hide behind things that might be uncomfortable and we don’t break into song to tell us the subtext.”

They swapped the musical numbers and funny animal sidekicks for a large-scale war epic in which Mulan takes her father’s place in the Imperial Army. “It’s a woman’s story that has been told for centuries but never by women, and we felt like it was really time to tell that story,” says Silver. The question is whether Generation Z and millennials, who fell in love with these animated tales as kids and helped boost Aladdin to its $1 billion global haul, will embrace the direction. “To be honest, we really go by our gut and what creatively excites the team here,” says Bailey. “I think it shows that there can be different approaches to these [movies] that have validity.”

When word leaked that Mushu, the silly dragon sidekick (originally voiced by Eddie Murphy), would not be included, some fans expressed disappointment on social media. But the character’s disappearance makes sense in the Chinese context. “Mushu was very popular in the U.S., but the Chinese hated it,” says Rosen. “This kind of miniature dragon trivialized their culture.”

Unlike its Marvel-branded films, Disney live-action movies must appeal to significantly younger audiences. Yet Caro wanted to make a real war movie. “You have to deliver on the war of it,” she says, “and how do you do that under the Disney brand where you can’t show any violence, gratuitous or otherwise?” She took advantage of the film’s stunning locations, like setting a battle sequence in a geothermal valley, where steam could mask the fighting. “Those sequences, I’m proud of them. They’re really beautiful and epic — but you can still take kids. No blood is shed. It’s not Game of Thrones.

Disney’s past live-action performance in China is a mixed bag. Both The Lion King ($120.5 million there) and Jungle Book ($148 million) enjoyed strong showings. Aladdin earned only $53 million, while 2017’s Beauty and the Beast took in just $84 million (though it earned $1.3 billion worldwide).

Of course, the expectations for Mulan in China are much higher. “They will eventually release it in China,” Dergarabedian notes. “It’s just a matter of when and what effect that might have.” Some analysts forecast that the film could match the success of the Kung Fu Panda series. The third movie, released in 2016, earned north of $144.2 million and became the country’s biggest animated film ever. It was praised for being a Hollywood film that understood and showed respect toward the Chinese culture. Panda, however, had the advantage of being a Chinese co-production, which guarantees a larger share of the market — an advantage Mulan doesn’t have.

Caro thinks about the film’s fate there in more than simply financial terms. “Of course it’s vitally important that it succeeds in China,” she says, “because it belongs to China.”

This story first appeared in the Feb. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.