From its inception, Disney’s upcoming Mulan feature film has felt different from its live-action adaptation brethren. The announcement that it would not be a movie musical was the first sign that, unlike other recent adaptations— such as Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, or Aladdin—Mulanisn’t looking to rest on its nostalgia laurels. With every trailer we’ve seem for Mulan, this impression has been reinforced. Now with the recent announcement that Mulan will be rated PG-13, the first of the recent adaptation not to be rated PG (a more inclusive rating for obvious reasons), we have another major indicator that Mulan could be something new.
What will this PG-13 rating mean for viewers? Well, if the trailers are anything to go by, some killer (often literally) action sequences. From everything we’ve seen of the Niki Caro-helmed epic so far, it is leaning hard into the warrior/military aspects of Mulan’s character, played here by Chinese-American actress Yifei Liu. The final trailer in particular emphasizes sword fights and battle scenes. Mulan is being marketed as a war fantasy drama, and the film seems to be following that premise through to its violent conclusions. (The PG-13 rating is reportedly due to “sequences of violence.”)
While the PG-13 rating will limit the kid/family audience for this film, the strength of the action sequences will potentially bring in an audience that perhaps didn’t show up for Beauty and the Beast—I’m thinking more men (that aforementioned final trailer played during this year’s Super Bowl) and potentially more people outside of the millennial age bracket, who didn’t grow up with the 1998 Mulan animated film that the 2020 flick is loosely based on. (There are more dragons in the former, though the latter does feature a witch antagonist who can turn into a bird.)
It’s an interesting and probably smart move for Disney, who doesn’t really need to cater past the nostalgia audience when it comes to these remakes, as box office returns have proven. Rather this kind of decision speaks more to long-term strategy than anything else. Disney cannot keep remaking their animated classics into what are more or less shot-for-shot adaptations forever. Eventually, they will run out of source material and, eventually, the audience will move on and/or age out of the most lucrative (for merchandise purposes) age demographics.
Mulan isn’t just the first live-action remake to be rated PG-13; it’s the first of Disney’s in-house studio film that’s introduced with a logo featuring Sleeping Beauty’s castle to be rated PG-13 since 2017’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. Disney needs to diversify the live-action cinematic Disney brand (which is separate from their Marvel and Lucasfilm brands) if they want to maintain the health of that brand, and recontextualizing Mulan as a martial arts war epic or 101 Dalmatians as a Cruella de Vil origin story starring Emma Stone seems like the way to do that.
We’ll have to wait and see how Mulan does at the box office (it finished fourth in a Fandango survey of most-anticipated movies of 2020), and it has the #BoycottMulan campaign to contend with, which seems to have died down a bit but could still affect box office totals, particularly in Asia. How ever well Mulan and its PG-13 rating does at the box office, it’s success might not be judged solely on its box office total but also on how it does or does not change wider perceptions of what a live-action Disney movie can be.