Written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin, and Lauren Hynek
Directed by Niki Caro
Based on the Chinese folk song “Ballad of Mulan”
Starring Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Li Gong, Jason Scott Lee, and Jet Li
Released by Disney, 2020
Running time: 115 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence
As a child in the 1990s, I grew up watching animated Disney movies, and I sometimes reflect on them with a sense of nostalgia. Many friends cite these as good, wholesome material to teach their children values, but as I look back with a more critical eye, many stories are less inspirational than I remember. The 1998 animated movie Mulan was a diamond in the rough and is still my favorite Disney movie. It’s about a Chinese girl named Mulan who enrolls in the army in place of her injured father and must pretend to be male to survive. She trains, then engages with the enemy, defeating a villain and saving the empire. I empathize with the teenage coming-of-age story, with having to deal with parental and societal expectations, and with the desire to protect those I value. For the live-action remake, though, Disney writers made changes to the plot that fundamentally undermine the heroic character of Mulan as portrayed in the animated movie.
Live-action Mulan was shown to be fearless and skilled at martial arts from a young age, chasing a chicken onto the roof without hesitation and surviving a three-story fall with the reflexes of a cat. She is able to do these things because she has qi, an “energy flow” that permeates all living entities, yet only manifests in a small subset of them.1 Mulan repeatedly invokes this power, whether she’s carrying water up a mountain or fighting a deadly foe. Using qi does not require finesse, but it gives her added vigor, much like a simple “power-up.” Thus, she succeeds where her male counterparts fail only because of this biological (or supernatural?) difference.
Animated Mulan, by contrast, is shown to be a physically weak girl who falls behind her male counterparts in training. Her captain tells her directly that she is unfit to be a soldier—which only strengthens her resolve. In dealing with obstacles, she devises unorthodox methods that result in success where a brute-force approach would not work. Mulan uses a fishing pole to get her dog to feed chickens, astonishes chess players by strategically moving a piece after only a passing glance, locks two ropes around a pole in order to scale it while carrying heavy weights, and uses a single cannon to take down an entire enemy army. Mulan’s use of her mind is her true talent; she shows the incredible power of focus and human ingenuity. She beautifully illustrates the fact that the mind can triumph over might.
Despite her raw power, live-action Mulan does not drive the plot herself. On numerous occasions, she gets lost only to be saved by a magic phoenix or a magic witch feeding her key information. When her commander asks why she does not embrace her qi, Mulan responds, “I don’t know.” When she is informed of her arranged marriage, she says despondently, “It is what is best for the family.” In the climactic fight, Mulan initially is overpowered by a magic-wielding soldier but is encouraged to prevail by the emperor, who says, “You are a mighty warrior. Rise up like a phoenix. Fight for the kingdom and its people.”
It is unclear what Mulan’s values are, other than some general desire for self-improvement, until the final scene of the movie. She receives a sword with engravings of the warrior’s oath, “Loyal, Brave, True,” and on the reverse side, one essential virtue: “Filial Piety.” The character for Loyal (忠, zhōng) lacks context of right or wrong and instead signifies blind obedience.2 The essential “virtue” of filial piety (孝, xiào), which is central to Confucian ethics, consists of devotion to the family as shown through honoring, obeying, and serving one’s elders.3 Subjugating oneself to any person or group denies one’s individuality, and Mulan’s acceptance of this subjugation and other irrational beliefs sullies the Mulan legacy of a heroine fighting for her values.
The animated Mulan strives to maintain her sense of self, including her womanhood. She pitches a tent at the edge of camp to maintain privacy and bathes to avoid smelling like the men. After her gender is revealed and she is expelled from the army, she contemplates her actions: “Maybe I didn’t go for my father. Maybe what I really wanted was to prove that I could do things right, so when I looked in the mirror I see someone worthwhile.” This is a clear recognition of her pursuit of self-esteem, rather than protection of her father as filial piety would demand.
The live-action Mulan happens to be in the right place at the right time, but only because she repeatedly is given direction by other characters. Few of her choices stem from her own thoughts and values. She overcomes challenges only by using her qi, a superpower she was born with and adept at using from a young age. Aside from responding to prompts to use this native power, her character does not really develop. Unlike the gritty, animated heroine, she is but an inherently powerful super-soldier receiving confidence boosts from those around her.
The animated Mulan is not born a superhero but an average girl. She develops physically during her training, surmounting challenges by assessing the situation and employing unconventional yet effective strategies. Other characters occasionally help drive the plot, but Mulan makes her own decisions, affirming her free will within an understandable, causal universe. This Mulan is a true heroine and an inspiration, whereas her live-action counterpart muddles and dishonors the Mulan franchise. So if you’re looking for a Disney movie that conveys life-serving virtues and values, I passionately recommend watching (or rewatching) the 1998 animated Mulan—and abstaining from the 2020 live-action remake.
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2. I would like to thank Zhāng Gēpíng, Zhaò Wénqín, and Zhāng Hǎihai, who helped provide rich context on these traditional Chinese characters.
3. 孝經 Xiao Jing, “The Classic of Filial Piety 孝經,” last modified September 9, 2020, http://chinesenotes.com/xiaojing/xiaojing001.html.