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Disney's 'Mulan' Loses in Transitioning From Animation to Live Action

September 25, 2020 | By

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a 2016 USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary (or other) works adapted into TV or movies.

Mulan (2020) directed by Niki Caro; based on the 1998 animated film of the same name, directed by Tony Bancroft. Live-action; rated PG-13 for stylistic violence. Animated was rated G.

St. Joan of Arc once captured the imagination of Mark Twain, who wrote an entire account of her in his favorite book of his own. Never before (or since) has a woman commanded an entire nation’s army at so young an age.

The animated film Mulan was always my favorite of the Disney films, in part, I admit, for the representation of Asians on the screen. (I’m half Asian on my mum’s side.) Mostly though, I enjoyed the film for its retelling of the Joan of Arc story, albeit on a more measured scale: Mulan (Yifei Liu) only desires to take her father’s place as a foot soldier.

For all of the saint’s visions and piety, Joan’s pragmatic side shone in battle — she employed gunpowder for the first time in military history. The animated film too, depicts the use of fireworks, although conflates history a bit, pitting this 12th-century invention against Imperial China’s enemy, the 5th-Century Huns. The live-action version creates a fictitious enemy which nevertheless bears striking resemblance to the black-clad desert terrorists more familiarly known as ISIS.

That the empire’s borders require defense against an external threat marks one of the film’s many conservative themes. The beginning of the film begins in Mulan’s childhood, where she's already self-taught in the martial arts.

By her late teens, the kingdom remains constantly harried by its enemies. After years of tremendous restraint, emissaries of the Emperor (Jet Li) venture to rural villages, recruiting one male from each family.

Mulan’s elderly father (Tzi Ma) must be conscripted, given the family’s small size. Here, I found a not-so-subtle critique of modern China’s one-child policy. Motivated partly by a willingness to protect her father, Mulan dons his armor and attempts to join the local unit. Her choice is not totally sacrificial, though, as she escapes the domestic life more well-suited for her other family members and neighbors.

Her tea-hour lessons taught her one crucial thing, however: never do anything that might besmirch the family honor. (That may have been the most repeated lesson from my own childhood.) So, when it is later revealed Mulan posed as a man to serve, she is most dishonorably discharged.

This central plot point I found to be lacking in the live-action version. While believable in the animated original, you won’t mistake her for a man in this new version; I suspect the rest of the cast didn’t either. But even in the film’s weakest moment, we see the obvious differences (in kind, not degree) between the genders.

The animated film also pulls off the spectacular avalanche sequence better. It happens in a visual sense that remains in the feel of animation throughout. But, the live-action film produces a bump in the visual continuity, in the way an old vinyl record might skip a beat.

Beyond the technical, I felt the new version, while wildly entertaining, resolves the story with brute force -- with Mulan assimilating too much with the way of the world.

The '90s animated version remains the superior consideration of a woman’s place in a patriarchal society. It readily concedes hand-to-hand combat to men. Animated Mulan reconceives her physical disadvantage into tactical advantages: using her wits, out-maneuvering her opponents and even re-imaging ways of soldiering.

Mulan is currently available via Disney+ for an extra fee; after Dec. 4, it will be available to all Disney+ subscribers.


Image: Walt Disney Company

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