Disney’s Mulan is NOT a Musical & Why that Makes it a Superior Remake
This past decade had been a decade of remakes; Disney’s in particular. Some people hate them, most love the nostalgia they bring and others are on the fence of why they exist in the first place; while generously stuffing their cheeks with popcorn in a theater of children and amused parents.
As 2020 begins, Disney drops the trailer for their new remake: Mulan. The new film, originally that was set to be released in March is now pushed to be released on July 24th due to the Coronavirus pandemic. It is easy to discard the upcoming film, believing it will be the same old remake formula that audiences are annoyingly too familiar with. But, if one were to take a closer look at the trailer, they will find that something seems to be missing. By comparison, other remake trailers like Aladdin always featured one of the iconic musical numbers. Yet Mulan does not. At first it may seem as if Disney’s way of not spoiling the film, but an article on Cinema Blend confirms that the film will not be a musical.
Once people heard about it, everyone became concerned, because musicals were Disney’s trademark. Back in it’s early days, Disney’s understanding of the power of the Broadway musical is what put them on the map. The YouTube channel Sideways posted a video about this topic last year titled “What Makes Disney Music Sound Magical“, and connected the success of Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, and the rest of the classics to this understanding of what is a musical. As he explains in the video, a musical has a certain structure made up of key songs. For example, one of the most important songs is the “I Want Song.” The protagonist would share the audience their desires, their dreams, their fears, and it would set up the rest of the story. Without it, audiences would not be able to connect with the character, as a result not care about the story. Each song was extravagant and enjoyable to watch, but it also helped in furthering the plot and adding a bit of flavor to the storytelling. Disney then applied the musical structure to the animation, and created a successful business of the “Animated Broadway Musical.”
That being said, having a remake that is not a musical unlike its animated counterpart, may not be a bad thing. In fact, it’s probably the best thing for a film like Mulan to take this route. This article will explain why that is, and how it may become a more superior remake.
Making the Remake
It is important to understand the difference between a reboot and a remake. A reboot is when a company rebrands a new show or potential franchise. For example, Spiderman is a common product that has been rebranded 4 times by 4 different companies. Sony, Marvel, Fox and Disney all have started their own franchises, retelling the same story of Spiderman, but in different ways.However, they are not considered remakes because the films are not under the same company, and they are not supposed to be associated with each other, but to be treated as separate. Remakes are when a company take an existing product they own, put a spin on it and sells it to the audience. Examples are: Aladdin (2019) and Mulan (2020).
With that cleared up, one must ask: Are remakes necessary? By definition, remakes are not exactly a direct copy of the original. The term “original” must be used loosely here, as Disney is a company that is mostly made up of unoriginal content. The main critique people have is that all remakes are a shot for shot copy of the classic they represent. For example, The Lion King has no obvious changes, other than the fact they added a bit of backstory to Nala, Scar and Sarabi, and that the entire film looks like a Discovery Channel Documentary. The C.G. I is pleasing to watch, but the moment the characters speak, it ruins the magic of it all. All the songs may sound great, but visually they cannot compete with their animated counterparts. Even Disney, the man himself stated:
Despite their shortcomings, when Disney started this trend of remakes, it made sense to make them because they needed to reach new audiences. After Disney produced and sold all the classics, they put them all in the Disney Vault. This means they no longer sell them or show them in theaters. Therefore, the only way kids could watch the films was that their parents had a collection of DVDs. There have been times when Disney did take out their earlier films from the vault and allow their audience to buy or view their films once more for a limited time. But most of those films did not age well as they were animated. With outdated animation and poor sound effects, some desperately need a do over. However, with the addition of Disney Plus on the already long list of streaming services, kids now have the ability to watch both the original and the remake all in one sitting.
Are Remakes Bad?
Considering the fact that the current remakes are refusing to add something different to the existing narrative, they are banking on nostalgia to gain money. Even though it has been a good strategy so far, people are starting to show annoyance towards the new trend. On YouTube alone, there are over a thousand videos explaining why remakes are horrible, unnecessary and believe these remakes are huge slap in the face to the the creators behind the classics.
But why ? What makes them “bad”?
A remake is supposed to both be recognizable and unique at the same time. Aladdin, and Maleficent are good examples as they told the beloved story using another perspective and were not afraid to take liberties with the story; allowing the film to have its own beat than being a direct copy of the original.
Which leads to the main argument of this article: Mulan’s missing musical element is the best move for the film, and will make it stand out among the other remakes. Even though the Disney classics are known for their catchy songs and beautiful dance numbers, not all musicals work in their remake version.
For example, the Lion King animated version was stunning in every shot. The characters were expressive and because of the animation, the musical numbers became iconic. However, as stated before, the musical element in the recent Lion King remake did not hold up against the animated version, because the C.G.I was so real that it was jarring when they began to sing. Songs like I can’t Wait to be King and Scar’s Be Prepared are not same as the animation. Instead of a colorful animal pyramid that displays a cub’s childish fantasy, or a Hitler inspired march that scares children, the remake does a poor job visually to convey these childish and villainous images because the film makers were too focused on making it realistic, without realizing the animal speaking world of Lion King is a far cry from realism. Making this film a fantastic example of how producing a live action remake of an animated musical does not work. Since the studio had conflicting goals of achieving realism and making it just like the original, it only sabotaged them.
However, when done right, a musical can work. Such examples are Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. Both films create a world that is semi-realistic. After all, in one movie there is a haunted castle in the middle of a forest where regular objects come to life, and in the other there is a genie that can grant you three wishes, and a magic carpet that can travel the world. Since the world within the film is not trying to be realistic, making it a musical will only add to the magic of it all. Some may argue that the original is better, but audiences should appreciate the effort the film makers made to make the song and dances look pleasing to watch.
With that in mind, Mulan‘s director, Niki Caro’s decision to make it realistic may make it successful. Since the story is based on China’s history, there is not a lot of room for magic, or musical elements. As Caro says in an interview with Cinema Blend:
Other than the ghosts of the ancestors and Mushu the beloved dragon, 90% of the original Mulan movie can easily be translated into live action better than other heavy animated films like Dumbo and Pinocchio.
However, cutting out the music won’t make it an instant realistic success. That success is determined by other factors such as easy translation. To reach realism, an animated film must be able to transform into live action easily without any hindrance. For instance, if the animated film has high fantasy elements that are nearly impossible to do in real life, the chances of it translating into live action are slim. There are some exceptions, like the Lion king, the Jungle Book and Lady and the tramp. However, the film company will most likely run into problems with the C.G.I. It is very expensive to create a realistic C.G.I character and will find that the more the character is real, the less they will be able to have the freedom to let the character to commit actions that defy the laws of physics, and how the character is to behave logically. Because the more a character becomes real, the more it is expected to follow the natural laws of the Earth.
The Issue of Release
Another success factor is Box office. Like every other film, Mulan needs an audience who will be willing to buy tickets to pay back the $200 million the company paid to produce the film. On March 5th, the Variety estimated that Mulan was expected to be $85 Million box office success in U.S theaters, Coronavirus notwithstanding. However, on March 16, schools across America were forced to close due to the pandemic. On March 23, four days before Mulan was set to be released, Canada began it’s three week quarantine. Today is April 11, and it looks like the quarantine is not going anywhere soon. Meanwhile, all films that were supposed to come out are postponed until a later date due to the shut down of theaters. New films will have a better chance of success than Mulan who has only gained $874 at the box office. Hopefully, it will have a better run later this year when it is released on July 24th.
There have been some buzz around the idea that Disney should just release all of the new movies into Disney Plus. It will draw a bigger audience and subscribers can finally stop complaining about the lack of new content. While it may seem like a good move for fans, it isn’t good for the company. It is possible for a film to debut on Disney Plus, after all, Disney did it with Lady and the Tramp last year. But according to Inside the Magic, it was done with the intention to encourage new subscriptions when the streaming service went live. Since its launch on November 12, it has over 28.6 million users. It will most likely gain more as the Coronavirus keep people indoors. However, the price of $12.99/month combined with the number of users will not be enough to support the company financially if they decided to debut every new film they planned on the service. A family could watch a movie 30 days in a row, and will only have to pay $13 a month. As a result, Disney would loose a lot of money, the only way to counter it, is to either have everyone subscribed, or more realistically, continue to release their films through the box office.
Ballad of Mulan
Despite its financial setbacks due to the Coronavirus, this film still can resonate among film audiences, and set a precedent for future remakes; showing how doing something different will not harm the film but make it better.
Unlike most of the Disney Princess films, Mulan 2020 is based on a ballad that highlights a historic event that happened in 6th century Chinese history. According to China highlights.com, it states that the ballad was created in Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534). During this period, the Northern region of Han China was invaded by the Huns (Xiongnu), other known as the Mongols, and the war lasted for 12 years. The war took place at Black Mountain (Shahukou Mountain) and Mount Yanran. For a modern point of reference, Black mountain is 480 kilometers west of Bejing. Also, Shahukou Pass was one of the fortified passes of the Great Wall. During this time, the ballad was written to encourage soldiers as the Moguls were a ferocious enemy. In fact, they were associated with tigers, one of the most deadly big cats in the world.
In the animated film, Mulan is a disappointment to her family as she is rebellious and does not confine to gender roles. After she learns that her father is called to fight, Mulan, who has no fighting experience, secretly goes in his place as his “son” and trains under strict General Shang. After her training is complete, she and the rest of the men go to Black Mountain where Mulan causes an avalanche and successfully wipes out the Huns. However, she gets hurt and her gender is discovered. As a result, General Shang, sends her away. But some of the Huns survived and are planing to attack the emperor. Once Mulan catches wind of this plan, she goes with the help of her comrades dressing up like women, and of course Mushu, to save China. In the end, Mulan is given a high honor and returns home to be with her family. Later General Shang visits to apologize, and they all live happily ever after.
Unlike the film, the ballad paints Mulan as a young content woman who enjoys weaving and already knows how to fight, thanks to her father. She, unlike her film counterpart does not hide from her parents when she decides to fight instead of her father, as it is only logical in her eyes. It is also important to notice that her parents were not protective or dissatisfied with their daughter. The phrase “no sound of her parents hailing their girl” is repeated twice in the ballad, implicating that they were proud of Mulan of running off to war. In preparing for war, instead of getting trained, Mulan travels to get supplies. “She buys a fine steed at the east market; A saddle and blanket at the west market; A bridle at the south market; And a long whip at the north market.”After 12 years of fighting, Mulan meets the emperor who generously pay the soldiers for their time. Once it is Mulan’s turn, she politely declines any of the valuable gifts and asks for a ride home, the emperor grants her wish. Her parents welcome her back, and Mulan transforms back into her feminine self and returns to weave. Then her comrades visit her, and it is then when they learn that she was a woman the whole time. They were astonished. ‘We traveled twelve years together, yet didn’t realize Mulan was a lady!'” They said. The ballad then ends with line that comes to Mulan’s defense:
“The buck bounds here and there,Whilst the doe has narrow eyes. But when the two rabbits run side by side, how can you tell the female from the male?”
Historians continue to debate if the person Mulan is real or not. So far it has been agreed upon that Mulan is nothing more than a legend, created from the Ballad of Mulan. How much the film’s plot will draw from the ballad is up to debate, as there is not a lot to go on. Therefore it is only expected that the screenplay may take influences from history.
Considering the fact that Mulan tells the war story of the Huns, it only makes sense to respect China’s history with realism. This also explains the disappearance of Mushu from the screenplay, as Mushu is a Disney creation. Because Mulan will be solely based on the ballad than the Disney animated film, everything that screams “Disney” will be absent from the upcoming film. That goes without saying that Mulan will pay tribute to some musical numbers. The song Reflection can be heard in the film’s trailer, which offers hope of more songs from the musical to be incorporated into the score.
As stated before, a successful remake is both recognizable and unique compared to the original. Since Director Caro will step out of the familiar musical pattern and take a more realistic route, it will stand out among the rest; and shows the potential for future remakes to take chances, make it stand out and to add to the lore of a beloved franchise.
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