Three and a half years ago, pen and paper in hand, I sat down to watch Disney’s 1998 animated film Mulan for the first time since it was originally released.
I came to the task with some uneasiness. I was in the midst of writing Women Warriors. The historical (or perhaps legendary) figure Mulan is one of the women I discuss in the book* and I wanted to check out how Disney’s Mulan aligned with the “real” Mulan. Although I remembered enjoying Mulan when it came out, I did not remember many details about the film, except that Eddie Murphy played a smart-mouthed dragon–not a feature of any of the Chinese versions of the story that I knew.
I was more than pleasantly surprised. The film was as delightful as I remembered: well-constructed in terms of both plot and aesthetics, with sly wit and an occasional punch to the emotional gut. And to my amazement, it kept most of the elements of the original story, with one critical exception. Mulan’s fellow soldiers discover her deception when she is wounded–a historically valid change since this was the way in which women who fought disguised as men were most often exposed.
Last weekend, I sucked it up and paid the “premiere” price to watch Disney’s new, live action version of Mulan.** I came to the task with some uneasiness. And I was pleasantly surprised. Disney did not attempt to simply reproduce the animated movie. Instead it was its own thing.*** The style reminded me of the magical athleticism of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which I had greatly enjoyed when it came out in 2000. The real life version addresses the difficulties of a woman disguising herself as a man, something I don’t remember the animated version doing, at least not in such a realistic way. (With the caveat that it’s been morethan three years since I watched it.) The addition of a second powerful female character enriches the “girl power” theme of movie.
In short, I’m glad I saw the new version. But I must admit, I cannot imagine watching it again, unlike the animated version which I will happily watch again. In fact, the animated Mulan is in my immediate future.
*If you’re interested in seeing what I wrote about Mulan, you can check out this piece on the Beacon Press blog: Daughter Archer Soldier Man: The Enduring, Cross-Dressing Folk Heroine Mulan (If blatant self-promotion makes you queasy, close your eyes for the next bit.) Or you could buy the book.
**What else could I do? If I waited to see the film in December, the conversation would already be over.*** And, as My Own True Love pointed out, we would have paid the same amount to see the film in a first run theater. Which we certainly would have done if times were different.
*** In fact, in the week between my watching the film and sitting down to write this, the conversation has moved on, taking a political and social justice turn that makes my own discussion of the film feel a tad frivolous. I don’t think I can make a meaningful contribution to that conversation. If you are interested, I found this article in The Lily thought provoking. I’m still processing.
****I strongly believe that this is the test of a successful movie re-make (or for that matter, a film adaptation of a novel.) If all a director does is replicate the earlier work, point by point, why not simply watch the original?
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