Disney continues its transformation of classic animations into live-action extravaganzas, and Mulan highlights the perils in trying to capitalise on past successes. One thing that has successfully made the transition from art to action, though, is a much-needed alternative to modern individuality.
The live-action version of Mulan marches alongside a host of recent Disney remakes reimagined for 21st century audiences – Cinderella, Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo, Aladdin and The Lion King. These have had varying degrees of success. In particular, The Lion King proved that no matter how loyal the original audiences were, the remake could still be mauled by critics and the box office. Mulan’s director Niki Caro seems to have taken the lesson to heart in constructing a new storyline that doesn’t stray far from the old.
The original 1998 animation introduced us to a groundbreaking heroine – Asian, uninterested in dresses and in no need of a Prince Charming to rescue her – and the 2020 version stays close to this concept. The invasion of ancient China provides an opportunity for a young girl to spare her injured father a battle by enlisting in the army in his place. She masters the sword and the bow and manages to stand against her nation’s fearsome enemies. And, when the ultimate test comes, her bravery and ingenuity win the day.
But what’s new for our modern Mulan? The commanding officer that the animated heroine fell in love with has been replaced by a fellow soldier who falls for her. Her archenemy commander has also been supplanted by a terrifying, shapeshifting witch. The new Mulan makes the most of wire-fighting techniques perfected for eastern screens and the live-action version fields a stellar Asian cast, including Yifei Liu (The Forbidden Kingdom) as Mulan, Li Gong, Donnie Yen and Jet Li.
Both the new and old productions challenge slavishly obeying traditions that stifle a woman’s true beauty. Once again Mulan is caught up in an arranged marriage, which is apparently the only way she can serve her family. Yet there is no suggestion she will defy her parents. Her inner beauty continues to shine through her preparedness to suppress personal desires for the sake of those depending on her.
Mulan contains many nods to modern thinking. Yet the film’s salvation moment still turns squarely on our eastern heroine’s preparedness to sacrifice for the sake of the collective, rather than a more western individual’s ‘determination to succeed’.
It is Mulan’s balance between submission and personal choice that best reflects the west’s submerged Christian heritage. Storytelling has long been shaped by heroes both submissive to the greater need and still choosing to sacrifice for the sake of those depending on them. The Bible contains many examples, including Esther who risks her queenly position to save her people and the humble slave girl who dares offer advice to General Naaman. These pictures all culminate in the cross. Jesus goes to Calvary both in obedience to his father and out of a desire to save the lost (Philippians 2:6–8).
Most of what Hollywood offers can only provide a fractured piece of that great story. Mulan has shortcomings, too. Yet for a children’s story, few come close to showing just how beautiful strength becomes when placed at someone else’s service.
RELEASE DATE: To be confirmed