But Disney has an uphill battle to fight when it comes to convincing Chinese audiences that it knows how to make a good adaptation of the Mulan legend. Although the 1998 animated film was a successful commerical blockbuster, earning over $304 million as well as winning several Annie Awards and receiving some Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations, in China, the film was a complete flop. After Disney’s The Lion King became one of the highest grossing Hollywood films to be released in China at the time, Disney had high hopes for Mulan. However, while Mulan is a beloved Chinese legend that dates to the 6th century, the Chinese audience felt that Disney’s version was too westernized. To them, Disney’s Mulan did not even look Chinese.
When the Mulan trailer dropped in China, it got 1.5 billion views in just a few days, but also some criticism. The trailer showed that the film depicts Mulan’s home as a tulou, a traditional round house from southern China during the Ming Dynasty. The Ming period was about a millennium later than Mulan’s time and, as she was a northerner, she would not have lived in such a house. Disney, despite the apparent efforts to court Chinese audiences, was called out again for its insensitivity to Chinese culture. In mid-August, an official poster released in China was mocked online for appearing dated and ugly.
Hollywood Whitewashing Concerns
When the Mulan reboot was announced, the film drew immediate concerns of whitewashing. At the time, Ghost in the Shell, a live-action adaptation of the beloved Japanese manga series, was in production with Scarlett Johansson in the lead role, and was drawing significant criticism from the Asian-American community for its casting of Johansson, a white actress, for a story that takes place in Japan and, in its original form, features all Japanese characters. The casting was only the latest example in Hollywood’s long history of whitewashing.
Following the announcement that Mulan would be getting a live-action reboot, concerns that Hollywood would choose to whitewash the central roles soon followed online. There was even a hoax report announcing that Scarlett herself was cast as Mulan. Rumors circulated that a white male lead would be introduced, based on an alleged leaked script written by Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin, spurring fans to launch the hashtag #MakeMulanRight. To its credit, Mulan has an entirely Asian cast, including Chinese-born American actress Crystal Liu Yifei (best known to Hollywood for her role in the Jackie Chan and Jet Li film The Forbidden Kingdom) in the lead role.
Mulan Eschews the Disney Reboot Formula
Mulan is an outlier in the current era of live action Disney reboots in that it is not afraid to make significant changes in both format and content from its animated source material. This hasn’t come without criticism, of course, especially as most of the Disney reboot era so far has catered toward nostalgia viewing. The live-action Mulan will not be a musical, a decision that caused many fans of the animated original to express disappointment when the announcement was made. Additionally, it became clear during marketing that the new film would not feature some of the cherished characters from the original, such as Mushu and Cri-kee. Some in the LGBTQ community criticized the removal of Li Shang, a character who is sometimes interpreted as bisexual because of his attraction to Ping (Mulan, disguised as a man). It’s worth noting that these are the characters that were rejected by Chinese audiences, and that they were added to the Mulan legend for the original animated Disney version.