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The Mulan Live-Action: Disney’s Dishonour and Disappointment

BY: Emanuel Louis

Disney has long served as a beacon of hopes and dreams to the general public. In the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, they pulled all the stops when releasing “Black is King”, a visual album in collaboration with Beyoncé.  Disney spared no expense in demonstrating their full support for this landmark human rights movement by embracing African American culture.

In that same angle of cultural appreciation, Disney prepared to remake the renowned Mulan animation released in 1998. The live-action version was intended to be a celebration of Chinese culture and a mark of cinematic progressivity. There was a considerable amount of research put behind the creation of the movie; director Niki Caro surrounded herself with a team of Chinese advisors and appointed the cast very selectively through an arduous casting process. The $200 million production budget along with the $100 million marketing budget allocated to the remake was a testament to the commitment that Disney was investing in the remake.

In spite of Disney’s high expectations, the movie missed the mark completely. While it’s too early to come to a conclusion in regard to the movie’s sales and profits, the overwhelming amount of low ratings that it has earned itself on online platforms indicates that it won’t obtain anywhere near the fame that live-actions such as Aladdin has received. That’s no surprise considering the many controversies and unfortunate circumstances that have jeopardized Mulan’s success. 

If things weren’t already bad enough, COVID-19 made it even worse with theatre closures worldwide. The film industry heavily relies on theatrical releases to rake in profits from premieres. With this new obstacle, Disney got creative and instead released the movie on its Disney+ app with a $30 fee; it would then become free for subscribers as of December 4. This strategy got mixed reviews at first, but for the moment, the numbers indicate that it worked.

The movie was also mostly pirated rather than purchased in China, having been released there a few days after North America, which also hindered sales.

Disney’s second hiccup occurred when the lead actress for Mulan, Liu Yifei, released a post on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, concerning the Hong Kong protests. In August 2019, she openly expressed her support for the Hong Kong police that had received widespread international criticism for its brutality on protestors.

To say that the citizens of Hong Kong were displeased would be a grave understatement; within a few days, the hashtag #boycottMulan became trending on Twitter and was regularly commented under many of Disney’s advertisements on social media such as Facebook. Some argue that she made the post simply to stay in the Chinese Communist Party’s good graces for her career and to gain loyalty from the mainland Chinese population. 

After the movie was released, Disney thought that it would be the end of their troubles. However, viewers took special notice in the movie’s ending credits of the production crew’s thanks to the authorities of the Xinjiang province security for letting them film there. Learning that part of the movie was produced in the region where Uighur Muslims are being detained in camps resulted in massive international backlash.

Once again, #boycottMulan was circulating anew within various social media platforms. Viewers were angered by the fact that the scene that was shot in Xinjiang could have been filmed pretty much elsewhere in China or in the world for that matter. The few minutes shot in Xinjiang simply depicted a landscape meant to highlight the beauty of the Chinese land. That being said, the company’s blatant negligence and obviousness to the fact that huge human rights violations are being committed in that same area came to many as a slap to the face. 

One has to wonder why Disney would take so many risks. At the end of the day, the viewership in mainland China corresponds to a large portion of Disney’s revenue. Over the past few years, the Chinese population has increasingly become one of the principal international consumers of American film.

It’s recently become a common phenomenon for American film companies to adjust the contents of their movies in order to appeal to the Chinese community, a vital market with much financial potential. In this regard, it can be seen that the production of the Mulan live-action underwent many sacrifices; the previous’ animations songs were removed culturally accuracy, and Mushu, the iconic and comedic side-character, was entirely axed. 

Bearing all this in mind, did the movie succeed in China as Disney would have hoped? Nope. The movie has an average rating of 4.7/10 on Douban, a famous Chinese movie rating site. Ultimately, no matter the horde of advisors that have participated in the making of the movie, the live-action was bound to have cultural inconsistencies.

Chinese viewers complained about the odd makeup that many actors adorned as well as some of the costumes that were historically inaccurate. At first, many people celebrated the fact that the director, Niki Caro, was a woman, considering the gender disparity within the film industry and the feminist message behind the tale of Mulan. However, it remained that she herself was not of Asian descent. She responded confidently to that critique, saying: 

“Although it’s a critically important Chinese story and it’s set in Chinese culture and history, there is another culture at play here, which is the culture of Disney, and that the director, whoever they were, needed to be able to handle both – and here I am.”

The ratings from Chinese viewers on Douban suggest otherwise. It isn’t surprising, considering that Disney’s remake isn’t the first live-action version of Mulan. With the tale originating from a famous Chinese poem called “The Ballad of Mulan”, there are many Chinese live-action adaptations already released with a much higher level of cultural and plot accuracy.

In short, Disney’s 2020 release of Mulan will certainly be remembered for many years to come, but certainly not for the reasons that Disney has hoped. The exceptionally problematic nature of this movie highlights a fast-growing dilemma in the film industry: how far will the film industry sacrifice morals for the sake of profit?


*All arguments made and viewpoints expressed within Youth In Politics and its nominal entities do not necessarily reflect the views of the writers or the organization as a whole.


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