Disney is once again looking to bring honor to the cherished story of Mulan – a young woman who disguises herself as a man to fight for the Chinese Imperial Army in place of her ailing father. More than two decades have passed since the original was released in 1998 as an animated musical based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan.
The newest reimagining is directed by Niki Caro (The Zookeeper’s Wife, The Whale Rider) and stars Yifei Liu as the titular character in a live-action film. Absent, however, will be two prominent characters from the original. Mushu, the wise-cracking sidekick dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy, and Li Shang, the captain of the Imperial Army and Mulan’s mentor, voiced by B.D. Wong. Among those who love the original, there are sure to be some questions as to why these seemingly pivotal characters were removed. Producer Jason Reed recently confirmed both characters’ absences, both for different reasons.
“Obviously, Mushu is a beloved character and one of the most memorable of the animated film,” Reed told CinemaBlend.com. “It turns out that the traditional Chinese audience did not particularly think that was the best interpretation of the dragon in their culture. That the dragon is a sign of respect and of strength and power and sort of using it as a silly sidekick did not play well with a traditional Chinese audience.”
Much has changed since the late ’90s. Western movies weren’t globally distributed as they are today. Cultural appropriation wasn’t a topic ingrained in the zeitgeist (although it has existed as a concept since the 1970s in academia). Loosely defined as the taking of another culture’s practices without permission, it’s understandable how the earlier performance of Mushu could be construed as disrespectful to the cultural significance of the dragon. Some may argue that people should be able to appropriate whatever they find beautiful or interesting and reinterpret without criticism. But whether for or against, it’s imperative to have a deep understanding of and respect for the historical context of the cultural topic in question. Otherwise it could be the difference between the stereotyping and the celebrating of a culture.
As for removal of Li Shang, Reed told Collider that in the wake of the #MeToo movement, it would be inappropriate to have a character that’s both Mulan’s commanding officer as well as her love interest. Fans of the animated film have taken to social media to express their disapproval for this decision as it could be reasoned that Li, as the embodiment of all males, learns that women can be equals. However, this was a lesson he eventually learned and not necessarily a belief he held for all women. It’s a sensitive and ongoing topic given the male-dominated culture at the upper echelons of Hollywood, especially with the recent conviction of Harvey Weinstein.
Whether the decisions prove to be right or wrong depends on how the viewer defines success. Do viewers disregard the absence of two major characters from the original and view the movie as a successful reinterpretation of the original? Are box office receipts the only measure? While Hollywood still has a long way to go in addressing some of the underlying biases that haunt the industry, the decision-makers behind Mulan being cognizant of cultural topics and having awareness of current social issues and inequities have taken mindful steps towards a more progressive future.
Mulan opens nationwide Friday, March 27. Watch the trailer below.Read More