The Mulan Mistake (With Spoilers)
This blog post has spoilers. If you do not want to see the spoilers, click here to read the blog without spoilers.
I must admit that I've debated this blog post for a few days now because I don't want it to seem political and veer into discussions that will not be resolved by the end. That said, with so much news coming out of this release, it's important to at least say something.
So, before proceeding, understand that I'm attempting to be as fair and objective as possible with this blog and am taking no political position. My purpose is to discuss the issues without taking any political position.
Disney Characters and Why People Love Them
Before getting into the politics of Mulan, it's important to take a look at why people love Disney and the characters they do.
There are a handful of 1990s Disney animated films that were truly groundbreaking. They include Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995), and Mulan (1998). These movies all had one thread that connects them, that the princesses were not caucasian. The fact Disney had these lead characters which were non-white in an animated movie gave millions of people the opportunity to see themselves in a way they previously could not. This change made it possible for Tiana and Vanellope, and more to come.
If we are all honest, we like some characters more than others in the Disney universe because we look like them, feel they are just like us, inspire us, and bring us joy. That's why people lined up at the Disney store on the weekend to buy Pluto merchandise, Mulan merchandise, and why some love Belle the most, some love Stitch, and others love Tiana, Pocahontas, and yes, Mulan.
For Mulan, people see themselves in ethnicity, in their frailties, and in their desire to find themselves. The fact that Mulan is also a strong female character that proves she an equal in all respects is also a very compelling reason to love Mulan. It is these qualities that leave some very disappointed in the movie. Mulan (2020), is first and foremost, entertainment, not historical drama, and the writers made a choice to portray her as they did, understanding (at least I hope they understood), that many of the reasons people love Mulan were diminished, if not stripped out entirely from the film.
The movie starts with Mulan as a child leaping off buildings in a fast-paced, Alladin-like, gymnast meets kung-fu master style that is explained by "chi" and that she is simply born with the skills needed to defeat China's enemies and she was destined to lead them. It carries on when she picks up her father's sword, points it to the camera, then is instantly in her father's armour and rides off to the encampment where she struggles for a few seconds with her training and then instantly starts back up with the "chi" perfection and is kicking weapons out of the hands of others and is the best recruit in the camp. Even the challenge of struggling to climb the pole to get the arrow to remain in camp, is replaced by her picking up 2 heavy buckets of water and climbing a mountain when everyone else struggles.
People love Mulan for the struggles she faced in the animated movie. From fitting in and being a demure, idealized Chinese woman, to fighting in a war while hiding her femininity since it would not be accepted by her fellow male soldiers. Simply giving her "chi" so she never has to go through much of this character arch is why the movie isn't getting very good reviews.
Choosing a New Path (and the Reasons Why) Did Not Make the Film More Representative of the Mulan Story
One of the biggest complaints critics of the film have are the lack of songs and the lack of Cri Kee and Mushu, with the creators of the film arguing that they wanted to make the story of Mulan in the live action much closer to the actual legend, and more culturally appropriate to a Chinese audience. If that is the case, they probably failed.
My wife is Chinese. She was born in China, immigrated to Canada with her family when she was little girl, and grew up with the legend of Mulan. This was not the story she was told.
Although there are different versions of the legend, none of the legends contain some of the elements that have been added in for entertainment purposes. As a result, some of the choices they made in the name of being a story that more closely resembles the Mulan legend are simply not true.
There are no talking dragons or blind grandmother with a lucky cricket in the original legend BUT neither are there witches with talons that transforms into one or many birds, phoenixes flying around telling the chosen which direction to travel in, and people running along the sides of walls to fight in close proximity to one another., and China's enemies would not have likely used trebuchets (which were invented by the Chinese around 4 BCE and the historical Mulan story takes place around the same time period, likely meaning that only China possessed this technology and it was likely not very accurate) and would not have moved them from fighting an army of thousand if there were 20 or even100 archers up on a mountain to kill them instead. That's all done for our entertainment and making those choices are for artistic reasons, not historical.
Decisions were made to appeal to a Chinese audience (hence talking dragons are out and a phoenix is in). Being honest about that would have gone a very long way in helping to reduce some of the negativity that has plagued this film in its reviews.
The Politics of the 2020 Version of Mulan
The politics of Mulan in 2020 are very different than when production began. In fairness to Disney, had they known the future political situation at the time work began on the film, it would have never been made. Plain and simple.
This blog is not taking a position on Hong Kong security laws, the treatment of Uighur minors, or the Chinese Communist Party or its policies. It's not appropriate for me to start expressing a bunch of opinions because they are my own and in no way contributes to the discussion.
That said, I think it is fair to say Disney did not want to, or expect to, get dragged into sexual politics of LGBTQ issues, human rights issues, or political affairs of China and the rest of the world. They also did not expect a global medical pandemic to have the effects it has on the political climate or ability of people to see films in theaters. The fact that it has must be of a tremendous concern to company executives and we may see this film edited (particularly it's credits) as the company tries to extract itself from what is a very bad situation in which it finds itself.
In the end, it is up to each of us to decide whether we want to pay to watch Mulan on Disney+ ($34.99 CAD), wait until it is free (expected to be free on December 4th), or even watch it at all.
What I will say is that if you're looking for the qualities in Mulan from the animated film in the new live action, you may be disappointed. If you're taking a political stance by watching / not watching Mulan, you should remember that it is a movie for entertainment purposes and judge it by that standard. I'd also remind everyone that Disney was not looking for a giant political stance with this film, they were looking for a blockbuster that simply did not happen.