At this point it seems pretty clear that the kiss of death, creatively speaking, for Disney’s new line of live-action/CGI remakes is a Broadway musical.
Until now, the better Disney remakes have been inspired reworkings of older films (Cinderella, The Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon) that improved on their predecessors. The beloved cartoons of the Disney Renaissance (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin), on the other hand, have been adapted with stifling “fidelity,” serving only to highlight the superiority of the hand-animated originals. (Tim Burton’s Dumbo makes the point that loose adaptations of non-Renaissance cartoons can also be uninspired.)
Disney’s 1998 Mulan, loosely inspired by Chinese folklore about a woman named Hua Mulan who disguises herself as a man to take her father’s place in battle, is a Renaissance cartoon — but the remake, from director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) and several writers, including husband-wife reboot specialists Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (Rise of the Planet of the Apes; Jurassic World; Avatar 2), doesn’t treat the cartoon as a sacred text.
Instead, following in the footsteps of Cinderella and The Jungle Book, the new Mulan weaves elements of the cartoon with new threads drawn from older sources (in this case The Ballad of Mulan and the Romance of Sui and Tang Dynasties) as well as new material invented for the film.
For example, Mulan’s ancestors are still reverentially invoked, along with the family’s “ancestral guardian,” here represented by a stone phoenix rather than a stone dragon. But the ancestors no longer appear as bickering luminous spirits or in any other form, and Eddie Murphy’s wisecracking dragon sidekick has been replaced with a silent, kite-like phoenix that may or may not exist in Mulan’s imagination.
The new Mulan isn’t even a musical — a liberty that would be unthinkable if the brand extended to Broadway. Instead, it’s a visually lavish, wuxia-influenced martial-arts action movie with warriors running on sheer walls or flying through the air to kick spears or arrows in midflight toward new targets with superhuman precision.
The result, while it doesn’t necessarily improve on its animated predecessor, isn’t overshadowed by it either and finds its own reason for existing.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.