Fans around the world of all ages have anticipated Disney’s upcoming live action “Mulan” for years, and the recently released teaser trailer delivers a visually beautiful and action-packed minute and 30 seconds that clearly communicates the project’s intention to depict a proper adaptation of the original sixth-century story of the “Ballad of Mulan.” Yet, as much as audiences around the world deserve to see a more historically accurate rendition of this empowering story, that doesn’t necessarily make this film a faithful adaptation of Disney’s 1998 “Mulan.”
Disney’s live-action adaptations in recent years, like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin,” all strayed from the originals, but they ultimately maintained the spirits of their animated predecessors. “Beauty and the Beast” brought animated figures like Lumiere and Cogsworth and iconic songs like “Be Our Guest” to life, and “Aladdin’s” Genie provided wit and humor throughout. Regardless of whether these adaptations could compare to the originals, they allowed older fans to reimagine these childhood staples and younger audiences to experience these classic stories in fresh ways. As much as this trailer hints at an impressive film to come, the absences are conspicuous. Frankly, I’m not terribly torn up over the absence of Li Shang (he’s fine, but it’s not like he was anyone’s favorite part of the 1998 version, and Disney previously confirmed that Li Shang will be replaced by a new rival/love interest), but the losses of Mushu and the incredible soundtrack are just shy of heartbreaking, and not just for nostalgia’s sake. These elements aren’t the only sources of humor in the 1998 original, but the intense and action-oriented teaser in conjunction with these changes raises concerns about the tone of the upcoming film as a whole.
One reason the 1998 “Mulan” is so beloved is that it not only told a rich and empowering story full of action, but that it did so with incredible humor. It would be a real shame to lose that fun and levity, particularly if Disney wants to make this film appeal to a new generation of kids. A tiny, dishonor-assigning dragon named Mushu (after the pork?) played by Eddie Murphy doesn’t exactly radiate authenticity, but the character beautifully subverts expectations and delivers jokes that charm audiences of any age. Not every audience member, young or old, will directly relate to a story about war in ancient China, but everyone can engage with humor. Even if Mushu is gone, I certainly hope that brightness isn’t.
Further, “Mulan’s” soundtrack is one of Disney’s best. “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” is rarely played or sung without at least half the audience singing along, and few other Disney songs come up as often and as randomly as this clearly beloved bop. Additionally, “Reflection” is an emotional and beautiful ballad that operates perfectly within the narrative and as a stand alone song. Both of these songs could easily transition into equally memorable and iconic live action scenes. Instrumental versions of the original soundtrack are reportedly going to be in the live action film, but it’d be a shame if these songs don’t get the big screen return they deserve, particularly since some previous Disney live action films have gotten the full musical treatment (even if there’s been controversy about just how capable the actors are of executing the songs).
Ultimately, the question is, if you take these traditionally “Disney” elements away, what makes this film distinct from the hundreds of historical action films that come out in China every year? Several film and TV interpretations of Mulan have come out of mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, and this trailer played to me like another one of those movies — no matter how expensive and well done. Frankly, I never particularly looked to Mulan for an accurate depiction of dynastic China, just like I didn’t need “Beauty and the Beast” to show me the realities of nineteenth century France.
Don’t get me wrong — the teaser is beautiful, charismatic, and competently made, and audiences have good reason to be excited for the upcoming film. The fear isn’t that the movie will be bad, but rather that it won’t truly be an adaptation of the childhood favorite. Yet, as much as trailers can raise expectations and controversy, any moviegoer knows the actual film can be a wholly different beast. In this case, even if that beast isn’t a guardian dragon, it should still spark with “Disney magic.”
—Staff writer Jenna X. Bao can be reached at email@example.com.