This article contains spoilers for Disney’s MULAN. You can read our spoiler-free review of the film here.
When Disney’s Mulan came out in 1998, American viewers had not yet seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), which was the first big wuxia hit film for American audiences. The animated feature takes its inspiration from a Chinese legend, but the film fits more into the traditional animated Disney Princess mold—and, with Eddie Murphy playing Mulan’s sidekick Mushu, the resulting film felt very American, despite its Chinese setting. Disney’s 2020 live-action film continues in the tradition of its other live-action remakes, but also leans into the legend behind the original animated feature—and draws on Chinese filmmaking to create something that honors the cartoon while standing solidly on its own. Here are all of the differences and similarities between the 1998 animated Disney Mulan and the 2020 live-action adaptation.
In the previous Disney live-action remakes I have seen (Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin), the film stuck closely to the original animated feature. While both added complexities to the characters and subplots, which helped to justify their slightly-long runtimes (and got rid of some of the handwavium that viewers accept in animated features), the resulting features felt very much like the classic animated film.
Disney’s Mulan 2020 heads in the opposite direction. Rather than keeping the film as close to the original as possible, the creative team seems to have asked what would happen if the original Mulan had come to theaters after audiences were already familiar with the conceits of the wuxia film genre. While none of the writers or director are of Chinese descent, they lean heavily on martial arts epics, especially those in the wire-fu tradition, which allows their actors to fly (or something close to it). The fight choreography (credited to Nuo Sun, Shane Yan, and Heidi Moneymaker) uses martial arts acrobatics that nod to House of Flying Daggers and Hero more than any Western film. That the cast includes martial arts film luminaries Jet Li (the Emperor), Donnie Yen (Commander Tung), and Yifei Liu, who stars as Mulan, shows a clear consciousness of the creative team that they were investing in making their film as much a martial arts epic as a remake of an animated classic. (It’s also notable that while the animated Mulan is based on a story by Robert D. San Souci, which was released as a picture book the same year the film came out, the live-action Mulan credits its source material as “The Ballad of Mulan,” the legend originally recorded in the sixth century.)
The commitment to martial arts epic is also clear in the rating. Like most of the animated features of the 1990s, Mulan had a G rating, which means the violence, while implied, is off camera. The burned village the soldiers encounter has no survivors—but it also has no bodies. The most graphic moment in the animated film is when one of the soldiers presents Captain Shang with the helmet of his father, showing that General Shang has been killed in action. In the live action Mulan, there’s no shying away from combat. People are pierced by arrows. In a beautifully well-shot combat scene, boulders smeared with burning pitch are hurled into the shield walls of the imperial soldiers, devastating them. Battlefields are strewn with bodies, and while there’s not a ton of gore, it’s these combat sequences that earn the live-action film its PG-13 rating. (One tense moment at the end of the film shows a soldier with several arrows sticking out of his hip; a moment later, it’s revealed that these arrows are in his quiver, and he’s safe. It’s the kind of humor that might not play well with a younger audience, but the bait-and-switch works beautifully inside the context of a martial arts film.)
While there are scenes in the live-action version that quote the original film verbatim (Mulan’s father’s scolding when she protests that he’ll die if he goes to fight in the army, for example), tthers are familiar, but changed: For example, the scene in which Mulan takes a bath in the lake near the camp and runs into a fellow soldier and works to hide her body beneath the water’s surface, is adjusted to be less humorous and more tense. Here, when Liu’s Mulan encounters Honghui (played by Yoson An), she stays faced away from him, and it’s clear to adult audience members that she can’t turn around, because just the slope of her shoulders would give her away.
There’s also a nice nod to the animated film when a beautifully garmented Ming Na Wen, who voiced Mulan in the animated film, presents Liu’s Mulan to the Emperor.
Mulan the Strategist vs. Mulan the Warrior
In the animated feature, Mulan is no warrior. She’s as horrible in combat, at the beginning of the film, as the majority of her peer recruits. The training montage they receive (to the tune of Donnie Osmond’s performance of “I’ll Make a Man out of You”) shows them moving from complete disasters as soldiers to a competent fighting force. Mulan, one of the weakest and smallest among them, is nearly sent home in the middle of the song, until she makes a realization about one of the training exercises. In one of the defining moments for her character, she successfully retrieves an arrow from the top of a pole, using weights representing strength and discipline as a tool to help her achieve the goal (rather than allowing the weights to drag her down). A similar moment in Captain America: The First Avenger takes place when the physically weak military recruit Steve Rogers realizes that, instead of climbing a pole, he can take out the pin at the bottom, sending the pole falling to the ground. While Mulan’s strategy still requires actual strength, it’s her intelligence that allows her to defeat the obstacle.
Live-action Mulan, on the other hand, is warned from the beginning of the film that she has too much chi for a girl. While there are deeper definitions of chi/qi/ki as described in philosophy and martial arts, in the context of the film, chi seems to represent a warrior’s energy, one that society decides that the greatest male warriors should have and that women should not. Though Mulan’s father indulges her by teaching her martial arts, and though she is clearly gifted at stunts both dramatic and small (once catching falling teacups in a stunt reminiscent of a scene in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), ultimately, her wellspring of chi will bring dishonor to her family. As a soldier, she nearly forgets that she can reveal her chi: she’s posing as a man, where her chi will be praised and valued rather than derided. When Mulan faces the challenge to make it to the top of a mountain (rather than a pole) with two buckets of water (rather than two weights), she draws on her inner chi to get through the challenge. It is this chi, this formidable skill as a warrior, that makes the live-action film’s Mulan stand apart from her animated counterpart.
She does retain her intelligence in the live-action film; the scene where she defeats the opposing army by causing an avalanche is more realistic (and possibly even cleverer) in the live-action version. But it’s ultimately her reputation as the best warrior in her unit that enables her to lead, and earns their respect, despite her gender.
But Where’s Mushu in Mulan?
The relationship between Mushu, and the parallel between Mulan’s quest to earn respect for her true self and Mushu’s desire to regain his place among the honored guardians of the Fa family, is a central part of the animated film’s story. But Mushu also exists primarily for comic relief (and possibly to sell stuffed animals and lunch boxes). Nominally there to help Mulan succeed, Mushu is frequently the reason Mulan gets into trouble. He and a lucky cricket are the ones to set off cannons, alerting the enemy army to the location of the imperial soldiers. It’s Mushu’s fault that Mulan gets off on the wrong foot with many of her fellow soldiers. And while Mushu ultimately helps save the day, Mulan often rises to heroism despite, not because of, her companion.
That comic relief isn’t really needed in the more mature tone of the live action film. Mulan’s failures are her own; humor comes from her interactions with her fellow soldiers (who share names and similarities with some of the animated cast, but are ultimately less caricatured—which makes them more realistic, yet less distinct). Humor and tension both come from the audience and Mulan knowing her secret while the others don’t; at times, this is played for laughs, and at times, it heightens the drama, because the stakes are high: if Mulan’s secret is revealed, she will die.
Instead of using Mushu as a foil, the live-action Mulan converts an animal character from the animated film, Shan Yu’s hawk, to a woman who, like Mulan, has “too much” chi for her gender. Xianniang, played by Li Gong, is disparaged as a witch. She was rejected by her family, her village, her nation. The one man willing to take her in and accept her and her powers (which allow her to do far more than fight: she can shapeshift, steal other people’s forms, and direct swarms of bats) is Böri Khan, leader of the Rouran Khaganate. Böri Khan’s soldiers fear Xianniang and say they’d be better off without her, until Böri Khan promises that he is hers to command—no better, he says at another point, than a dog.
When Mulan and Xianniang first encounter each other, Xianniang sees through her disguise immediately. Accusing Mulan of being a liar, Xianniang ultimately forces Mulan to see that she must be honest, admitting her lie, to be her true self, even if it means execution by her own comrades. When Mulan has been thrown out of the army for her gender, Xianniang faces her again, urging her to join forces—Xianniang insists there is no place for women like them in a man’s world, but that together, they could change things. Once Mulan has proved Xianniang wrong, convincing her commander to entrusts her with a role of leadership, it’s Xianniang who clears a path for Mulan to become the hero that Xianniang wishes she herself had been able to become. That redemption arc has a far deeper resonance in the story: unlike Mushu, Xianniang was not being punished for her mistakes, but for simply being her true self. And unlike Mushu, Xianniang is willing to sacrifice everything so that Mulan can rise (symbolized by the phoenix, another Mushu replacement who appears in useful fashion through the film and never causes Mulan any trouble).
Trading Songs for Stunts
While many audience members were horrified to learn that the original musical numbers would be cut, there’s really no place for them in the tone of the live action film. The comical number “A Girl Worth Fighting For” is replaced by a similar conversation between Mulan and her fellow soldiers at mess. The themes from “Reflection” and “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” appear in the orchestration behind the action, blending in reasonably well with the more Chinese-influenced score.
In exchange, however, audiences get amazing stunts and martial arts sequences. Xianniang uses her sleeves as whips, and the Emperor uses hanging banners to defeat archers attacking him. (The Emperor does get to do his own fight scene, which is important because it would have been a waste to have the amazing Jet Li in the film and not allow him to fight.) Cricket, one of Mulan’s fellow soldiers and a new addition to the cast, shoots a bow behind his back, firing two arrows into enemies on either side of Mulan. Commander Tung and Mulan have a gorgeous spliced sequence of martial arts forms following a discussion about chi. And Mulan fights Böri Khan in a construction scaffold, with gorgeous cinematography that amplifies the multi-tiered combat.
Ultimately, the live-action film provides plenty of nostalgic nods to the animated feature, while digging deeper into the heritage of the legend. The resulting movie is its own original piece, building upon a strong foundation of wuxia film while remaining true to the Disney classic.