When rumors of a live-action, nonmusical version of “Mulan” began to trickle out a few years ago, many hard-core fans of the 1998 Disney original groused. No big musical numbers and soaring ballads? No Mushu, the wisecracking dragon, or Li Shang, the movie’s clearly conflicted love interest? No “Reflection”? Many felt that the filmmakers were being unfaithful to the Mulan legend — or at least to Disney’s own version of it.
But Mulan has always been the most adaptable of heroines. Long before fans criticized Disney for taking liberties with their belovedanimated heroine, poets, writers, playwrights and filmmakers had been creating scores ofwildly different versions of the legendary woman warrior. In some, she’s a hardened army general; in others, she has magical powers; in yet others, she’s a crack shot with a bow. In one animated version, she’s a bug.
Over the centuries, she’s been celebrated in stage plays and operas, in musicals and TV series, in picture books and novels and young-adult fiction. On the big screen, she’s starred in silent movies (“Hua Mulan Joins the Army” from 1927); a gorgeous, full-color musical by the legendary Shaw Brothers (“Lady General Hua Mu-Lan,” 1964); a gritty, action-filled war epic (“Mulan: Rise of a Warrior,” from 2009, with Zhao Wei) — as well as a certain Disney animated movie, featuring a tiny red dragon.
In the latest “Mulan,” premiering Sept. 4 on Disney+, the Chinese-American actress Yifei Liu stars in a tale that blends stunning battlesequences (the film’s $200 million budget included a portion for 80 trick riders from Kazakhstan and Mongolia) with a story that makes much of the story’s gender-bendingsubtexts.
“Ballad of Mulan” is a relatively simple tale, only six stanzas long: Mulan leaves her village to take her infirm father’s place in the emperor’s army. For a dozen years, she servesnobly, all while disguised as a man; in the end, she refuses rewards and honors to return home, where her former comrades learn at long last that, surprise, Mulan is female.
The poem ends with an image of two rabbits (“how can you tell the female from the male?”) running alongside each other — a scene replicated in the new movie.
In many tellings, Mulan is a skilled fighter before joining the army. The animated versionportrayed Mulan as a novice (before that hummable boot-camp sequence makes a “man” out of her), but in the latest outing, we learn that Mulan has been trained by her dad from the time she was a girl.
Everyone involved in the new movie had favorite scenes and elements from the Disney original, things they had to have in this latest effort. Jaffa loved the sequence where the soldiers discuss their ideal woman, although in this go-round, he said, “we thought it was super important to tell that more clearly from Mulan’s point of view.”
And this being an action epic, there’s much more fighting than in the original, particularly by Mulan. The film has the look and feel of Zhang Yimou’s wuxia epics (think: “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers”), with flowing robes and flashing swords, soldiers running across rooftops and sprinting up walls. Popular veterans of his films (Gong Li, Donnie Yen, Jet Li) even have starring roles. “I was hugely inspired by his work,” Caro said. (“The Disney brand is that you can’t actually show violence,” she noted, so there are no wuxia-style disembowelments or spurting arcs of blood.)
The film also added characters like Gong Li’s shape-shifting sorceress, a strikingcounterpoint to Mulan’s trussed-up soldier. There’s also enough longing looks and scenes ofunrequited love to satisfy the most fervent fan of rom-coms. “I love the gender fluidity that’s inherent in the story,” Caro said. “And there’s a scene between Mulan and Gong Li’s character that’s literally directed like a love scene. It’s all conscious, and yet the movie can also live for a general audience quite happily.”
How will this version play to fans of the original — whether the ballad or the Disney animated one? “I know we’re not going to please everybody,” Caro said. “But I do think there’s a reason that the story has been soresonant and relevant for, what, over 1,300 years? And telling it in live action, my hope was that I would make it possible for everybody, including those who were so protective of the animation, to enjoy her again in a new way.”