WARNING: This article will contain spoilers for both the animated and live action Mulan films.
Personally, Mulan is my favorite Disney movie. It’s the story of a strong-willed girl who risks her life (and reputation) just to save her father. Not only does Mulan survive a brutal war, but she brings honor to her family and proves how being different is okay. In fact, my love for this movie is the reason I hadn’t seen the live action version until just two weeks ago.
Now, I am fully aware that there are many issues with the film from a political standpoint (which is also a massive reason why I didn’t watch it for so long), but this is not something I will be looking into. We will be looking into the long, long list of differences between the animated and live action films both visually and through the plot.
It’s Not Even the Same Movie…
Let’s address my beef with the movie: if you changed Mulan’s name (and fine, maybe a few side characters’ names) no one would be the wiser. Yes, this may be a slight exaggeration, but everything is completely different. It is important to note that this film was created to appeal to a more Chinese audience and thus more closely resembles the original story of Mulan, but I feel like it shouldn’t have been advertised as a live-action version of Mulan, but rather a remake and should have been titled slightly differently, perhaps like “The Legend of Mulan”.
Well, what were the main differences between the two movies?
First off, the live action Mulan is no longer a musical. While the animated Mulan is lighter on songs (only 5 in total, though I would only consider 4 of them to be soundtrack songs), I think those songs pushed the plot along quite a bit and was very disappointed in the fact that there were no songs whatsoever. However, I will admit that there were some instrumental songs that reminded me of the original songs, so there were nods to the songs throughout the live action film.
No More Shang, Mushu, or Cri-Kee… Kind Of
Secondly, the live action movie got rid of characters like Mushu, Shang, and Cri-Kee the cricket.
Shang was “replaced” by a foot soldier named Chen Honghui, who is admittedly a skilled warrior but is also engaged to another woman and never actually peruses Mulan like Shang does in the animated film; Honghui and Mulan’s interest is all very implied and they are willing to let each other go, while Shang doesn’t let Mulan go and even ends up marrying her in the sequels.
Cri-Kee is replaced by a human nicknamed Cricket who is another soldier who is a very innocent “mama’s boy”, according to actor Jun Yu.
Meanwhile, Mushu is replaced by a phoenix, who is the only non-human character and is honestly a bit more of a motif than a character. The phoenix is still a family guardian who guides Mulan but is more of a calming presence than a mentor. And, yes, that is the best photo of the phoenix I could get.
The antagonists are also very different in the films. In the animated film, the antagonists are the Huns who are led by Shan Yu (which is incredibly problematic from a historical perspective since in history, the Huns aren’t an antagonistic group but rather the name for an era in Chinese history). Meanwhile, the live action antagonists are the Rorans who are led by Böri Khan with the assistance of Xianniang, who is a witch and is essentially Böri Khan’s henchwoman.
There was a clear intent in the live-action film to draw a parallel between Mulan and Xianniang since they are both woman with a strong chi – we’ll get to that in a moment – who are forced to leave their families and are still trying to figure out their path in life.
This “chi” is certainly a new addition to the franchise – chi is a term used to speak of someone’s predisposition to strength and is seen as more of a magic. This allows Mulan to do intense things like kick a spear away from her and jump onto rooves and even allows Xianniang to shift into a hawk at a moment’s notice.
However, the existence of this chi actually change’s Mulan’s character significantly (in my opinion). In the animated film, Mulan’s greatest weakness is entirely physical: she simply does not have the capability to do things like carry two bags of who knows what on a hike which leads to Shang kicking her out of the army. However, when Mulan learns to combine her intelligence and the strength she has gained from training, she quickly moves up to the head of the pack. Live-action Mulan’s weaknesses are entirely mental; she shows clear strength at a very young age by chasing a chicken onto her roof only to be told by her father that “chi is for warriors, not daughters… it is time for you to hide your gift away.” Understandably, this creates a bit of a complex within Mulan since she is constantly hiding her skills. When Mulan accidentally reveals her chi during training, she panics and leaves the ring. However, she is praised by her general and Mulan is now perfectly fine and has experienced her character development.
For me, this change is uncomfortable. Animated Mulan works her tail off to prove that she can be more than just a wife while live-action Mulan’s skills are all inherited, so she doesn’t have to work for everything she receives.
There are many other changes between the films – for instance, Mulan is an only child with a pet dog in the animated film but has a younger sister in the live action film –, but these changes are minute compared to the plot changes made.
While I certainly do not think that the live-action film is a bad movie, I do think that some things were changed needlessly which makes the animated film better, in my book.
What do you think? Did giving Mulan borderline magical abilities cheapen her development or make it better? Were the parallels between Mulan and Xianniang accurate or just thrown in there? And do you really think it was worth it to get rid of Shang?
That’s all for this article. Next time we will be looking at Aladdin – which, unlike Mulan, actually added some musical numbers!