Comparing Mulan 1998 to 2020


Photo Courtesy of: Apeksha Nichrelay

Keira Ordonez, Staff Reporter

Feminism, empowerment, bravery, selflessness, the story of an underdog rising up and breaking gender norms in a traditional society. These were all things the original 1998 Disney Mulan film was. It was a beautiful story that took place in ancient China during the Northern Wei Dynasty following the main character. A 16-year-old girl named Mulan takes her father’s place of being drafted into the army, hidden as a man. She did this out of concern for her ill father. After her identity gets revealed in battle, she assists a group of soldiers in saving the emperor and gets rewarded as the hero of China. 

The 1998 film had the most iconic scenes that are still admired to this day, 22 years after the cartoon film’s release. One of the most notorious scenes is when Mulan prepares to go to war in place of her father in secret. She takes her father’s sword and cuts her hair to make herself appear more masculine. Another loved scene is when she goes to the matchmaker. Mulan goes through the preparation featuring a song named “Honor to Us All” where she gets her hair and makeup done and is clothed in traditional Chinese attire. The scene that features an array of fighting and training sequences with the song “Make a Man out of You” is one of the most captivating scenes in the film. Another amazing feature is the beautiful connection to the spiritual part of the Chinese culture. The spirits of her ancestors send a dragon named Mushu who helps Mulan to go to war disguised as a man in hopes of successfully not getting caught. Spoilers are coming up in the next paragraph.

Now on the contrary, the 2020 live action Mulan is the opposite of its sister movie. The directors and producers attempted a new approach to make the movie more realistic. Instead the outcome swerved the original beautiful story of an underdog fighting alongside men in war to one of a woman already born with the power of chi. In the live action film, Mulan is born with exceptional skills in martial arts which can also give into the stereotype that all Asians are skilled in martial arts. Additionally, they have removed many elements from the original film such as Mushu, who was an essential figure in the original movie to guide Mulan through her difficult journey and instead replaced him with a phenix who only shows up a few times during the live action film to push Mulan into the right direction.

They also took the liberty of making the live action not a musical, meaning no inclusion of the music that went along with painting the scenes. The fighting and training scenes of the soldiers were also removed. However they did include an instrumental version of a few songs such as “Reflection”. The most notably iconic scene where Mulan cuts her hair with her father’s sword was also sadly not included. 

Along with these changes came an addition of a character, a witch named Xian Lang whose powers were shapeshifting into other people and even into an eagle. She was meant to be a villain but at the end assists Mulan in saving the emperor. In the 1989 film, Mulan builds a friendship with three soldiers who helped her and even lightened the weight on her shoulders throughout their path. Unfortunately, her friends had little to no screen time in the live action film. Strong portrayal of their friendship was not featured, but there were moments where Mulan states that she would sacrifice her life to save them. They also made many smaller changes to the movie that took away from the general theme of the original film. Making this film a completely different retelling of the story.

In my opinion, the general message of the story, which was about a woman in a society where her main goal in life was to get married to a good man was entirely erased. This placed her in a situation where she could not excel at first but shows how she persevered not through strength but through using skills she already had. The original had a great message to send to young girls: that although society may be telling them that they have to be put in a confined box, they can persevere and face the challenges head on through growth. However, this live action shows off a girl who has no flaws, is exceptional at martial arts since birth, has no interest in the idea of marriage, and whose mind was only set on fighting. These changes were a major takeaway from the original where Mulan is selfless and goes to the war to save her father. However, in the live action film it feels as if she is going to war for herself because she has always wanted to fight rather than saving her father.

Although the live action did stray far away from its original story, it did have very beautiful cinematography, costumes and designs. It was also a further step into more Asian representation on big screens. With the downside that the crew nor the director was of Asian descent. In conclusion, hopefully next time Disney will listen more closely to the opinions of their audience and will give us a truly great live action film that greatly embodies the original story but still has its own unique character and will also deliver on the representation that’s needed.