A New Mulan: Hold the Mushu

Disney’s Mulan was scheduled to release in the US in late March this year. But due to the corona virus pandemic, the release date was pushed back to July 24, 2020. That leaves fans of the original myth or the first Disney take on it nothing to do but comb through the trailers and interviews. Having done so, fans have noticed quite a few differences between the original Disney animated film and the new live action remake.

One of the major differences fans can’t stop talking about is that the live action film does not include Mushu, the dragon guardian/sidekick who travels with Mulan to earn respect among the ancestors.

But that’s not the only difference. The live action seems to lean closer to the original Chinese tale in a lot of ways. The folktale was first penned as a poem The Ballad of Mulan in the 6th century. You can check out a comparison of the animated film and the late Ming Dynasty play by Hu Wei here.

Some of the main differences between the original folktale of Hua Mulan and the animated movie of Mulan were:

  • the characterization of Mulan. In the play, she was an accomplished woman from the beginning, confident in herself and simply filling her family duty. In the animation, she was awkward and out of place, not good at being a woman.
  • the involvement of spiritual forces. The play was a story about people, family, and honor. It did not involve spiritual forces. The Disney version seemed to want to bring as many pieces of Chinese culture into a single story as possible. So the animation was thick with references to Chinese mythology.

This second point is where we get to the question of dragons, and into mythsterhood territory.

Mushu vs. Mythology

Supposedly, Chinese viewers had several issues with the representation of Mushu in Mulan. Movie goers did not like the idea of a Chinese dragon shirking his duty and not living up to his mistakes. The comedic tone of Eddie Murphy, which went over well with western audiences, didn’t get the same positive response with Chinese audiences.

This is thought to be because Mushu strayed so far from the traditional Chinese dragon. In Chinese mythology, dragons are:

  • large, powerful serpents. Although sometimes they can change size and form, their default form shows grace and power. Mushu’s small form was played as a sort of joke, taking away the power of the mythical creature.
  • a just, benevolent creature. This is why dragons were associated with the divine mandate to rule in China. For much of Chinese history, only the Emperor and other people in extremely high positions, were allowed to wear clothing with dragons embroidered on them. In the Disney animation, Mushu is supposed to wake the great stone dragon to help Mulan. But he ends up breaking the statue. Instead of admitting his mistake, he tries to cover it up. This is thought to be an unjust act, and not in character with Chinese dragons.
  • fit within the collectivist theology of China. Chinese culture values the collective community. Dragons are shown as helping the entire people of China, concerned with great matters. But Mushu is concerned with expressing himself and proving himself as a valid guardian. It is a very western desire to be placed on a representation of Chinese culture.

Producer Jason Reed confirmed the main reason Mushu was left out by saying, “Obviously, Mushu is a beloved character and one of the most memorable of the animated film. It turns out that the traditional Chinese audience did not particularly think that was the best interpretation of the dragon in their culture. That the dragon is a sign of respect and of strength and power and sort of using it as a silly sidekick did not play well with a traditional Chinese audience.”

So it seems the changes in the new Mulan were made to create a more true-to-culture, respectful movie. And one that will do better than the original in the Chinese box office.

Not a Monolith

It’s important to note that no culture is a monolith. Many articles I read tended to set this question up simply: American audiences want Mushu while Chinese audiences do not. However, some Chinese viewers have expressed that they are not only fine with the Mushu, but they enjoyed him. Some viewers see the original Disney animation as a positive blending of western and Chinese cultures.

There are many reasons why the animated Mulan did not do well in the Chinese box office. The Chinese Government were instituting strict rules regarding American films in retaliation for the portrayal of China in Disney-funded film Kundun about the Dalai Lama. This led to a late, limited release. Many Chinese viewers had already seen pirated versions of the film by the time it was available in theaters.

More Magic, but Different

Just because the new Mulan is leaving Mushu behind doesn’t mean they are quite ready to have a magic-free feature. The new film seems to include a shape-shifting witch that is sure to have visual appeal. Additionally, Mulan will be accompanied by a Phoenix, said to sit at the side of the Emperor, a symbol of both strength and beauty.

While I love Eddie Murphy as Mushu and I’ll miss the dragon aspect of the animated film, I’m excited to see the new Mulan. I hope it will follow the original tale as close as it seems to, and bring pieces of Chinese lore to western audiences.

Koji A. Dae

Koji is a dreamer, a mother, and a writer in that order. The first short story she clearly remembers writing involved fairies losing their wings, and ever since then mythology has found different ways to creep into her storytelling. 

Featured image by Adele Blancsec ccBY2.0


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