Even without dropping the £20 rental fee, you’ve probably noticed that Disney’s new Mulan remake looks nothing like the beloved ‘90s cartoon movie. If not, let me catch you up: No one breaks into song while practicing a jumping side kick; Shang is out, and a new, more professionally appropriate suitor, played by New Zealand actor Yoson An, is in; Eddie Murphy’s Mushu is but a memory, and a silent, majestic guide has taken his place; the villain still has a hawk sidekick, but this time she’s actually a conflicted witch with transfiguration abilities; and rather than fumbling her way through all of this and eventually finding her inner strength, Mulan (Liu Yifei) pulls from her Chi, a power that exists within her from the first moment we meet our hero — and something she works tirelessly to hide. So no, this is not exactly the Mulan you grew up with.
“I had a really epic vision for it and a very strong commitment to the idea that when you have the opportunity to make something in live action, that means is you get to make it real,” director Niki Caro told Refinery29 back in March, during the film’s initial press tour.
Mulan is essentially the story of a woman who risks her life to prevent her elderly father from certain death on the battlefield, only to find that she has the strength to save her entire country. By bringing that familiar tale into live action, the character’s harsh reality becomes unavoidably sharper. And while Caro says she loves the animated film — it came out during her “nightclub phase,” but she’s since come to appreciate it as a mother of two young girls — she didn’t see a world in which a shot-by-shot remake made sense. Instead, she opted to follow the original legend upon which 1998’s Mulan was based which, combined with the more realistic bent, delivers a slightly more grown-up version of the epic tale.
“We can think of [this movie] as a coming of age for people of your generation, for whom Mulan really marked their childhood. This movie, I hope, can be embraced as a more adult telling.”
Still, Caro wanted her Mulan to include a few reflections of the original. As you watch the new film, you’ll notice that a few bars of Mulan’s now-classic Christina Aguilera song have been weaved into the score every time Mulan has an epiphany or triumph, inherently tying this new version of the character back to Ming-Na Wen’s animated hero. It was also important to Caro that some memorable moments were brought into this new version — including the matchmaking scene and the avalanche Mulan causes in order to save her fellow soldiers.
“The avalanche was not in the original script when I came on board, but it felt like we could really do an avalanche justice in live action. And the matchmaker sequence is the time where we can really be girly and play with all of that femininity and the fun of the matchmaker character and Mulan feeling so out of place in that get-up,” explains Caro.
Both scenes, fittingly, include several twists on the original animated sequences. In fact, everytime a familiar beat or musical cue filters into the new movie, the moment still manages to feel distinct, a tribute to Caro and cinematographer Mandy Walker’s process.
“I didn't take a direct visual reference from the animation,” says Walker. “I knew that Niki was telling a different version of this film.” Still, Caro and Walker weren’t completely dismissive of the original, and some visual nods did make it in — during the training montage that markedly does not include a 2020 rendition of “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You,” Disney fans will likely clock a few exact recreations of moments from the original animated training sequence. “Though there were references to the animation, I just went through the script with [Caro] and worked out how she wanted to tell the story and how she wanted the audience to travel through the journey with Mulan. I watched the animation to understand what people love about it and then when we were making this movie, it's separate.”
Perhaps the biggest change in 2020’s Mulan, however, is the introduction of intense action scenes. Walker says she studied Chinese films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to craft images throughout the film’s fight scenes that were still Disney-friendly (read: scenes of war minus the blood and carnage byproduct) without sacrificing the requisite ferocity of a live action battle.
“We set those fight scenes in a geothermal valley so that steam could obscure violence, reveal character, and be very beautiful and very cinematic. Mandy and I were determined to create a very real and visceral and adrenalised action movie, but make it gorgeous,” explains Caro.
Rather than fiddling with a brightly coloured firework that sets off an explosion that covers her enemies in fluffy, white snow, this Mulan can be found sniping henchman with arrows and skewering them with spears before setting off the avalanche — though said skewering happens just out of frame to avoid the inevitable bloody result. Caro and Walker also worked together to present a more feminine lens on all the action, rather than attempting to mimic action hallmarks often used for male heroes. “We were cognizant as we were watching it that there wasn't an ugly angle on her body, that it was an elegant angle so you could stop it on a single image and have an elegant image,” says Walker.
Even in a year that has brought us Birds of Prey, and with the release of Wonder Woman 1984 and Black Widow in our sights, the action space remains overwhelmingly male. As a result, Walker says she and Caro perceived some added pressure on their choices while bringing Mulan’s massive battle scenes to life. That pressure, however, just makes the film’s delayed release that much sweeter.
“It's quite unprecedented for women to have made a film this big together, so we knew that people will be watching us for that. But we did it and we did it well, and I'm really proud,” says Walker. “We were the warriors in our department.”