Mulan, Mulan, and Raya: A Tale of Three Disney Asians

Every Asian-American remembers the first time they saw Mulan (1998). I was seven and at summer camp. It was raining that day, but that was alright, because the counselors whipped out a TV, and we began watching Disney’s magical tale about Hua Mulan and her quest to save China while masquerading as a boy. Generations of Asian Americans, myself included, held Mulan in reverence. Mulan was a badass, and she looked like me!

But looking back, my thoughts on Mulan (1998) have become increasingly nuanced. Before we dive into this next point, I need to be clear: it’s an amazing movie, I love it very much, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” is a banger, I’ll support Ming-Na till the end of the Earth.

But Mulan isn’t perfect. Obviously very few films are, but I think Mulan in particular suffers from some flaws that I personally was never able to pinpoint as a child. Most of my objections stem from Mushu. Rewatching the movie recently, I found the Mushu’s entire character almost entirely unnecessary. Mushu adds nothing to the overarching narrative besides constructing a relatively weak narrative framing device— and as a teenager watching this movie again, I found him to be a lot less funny than the first go-around. Secondly, the antagonists of Mulan are these nameless, faceless “Huns.” I had to Google the name of the antagonist of Mulan while writing this article, and in an era of Disney films laden with memorable antagonists — Hades, Ursula, Frollo, Jafar, and Scar, among others — Shan Yu falls extremely flat. Mushu isn’t a character, he’s a comic relief device; Shan Yu isn’t a character, he’s a plot device. I think my main realization with the film, however, is how Western the movie feels. Despite the Chinese setting, and despite the historical context, Mulan is an American movie. The concept was conceived by two white men who would go on to direct the movie. No part of the movie is an offensive inaccuracy of culture (and in fact, the head writer was Asian American), but it’s indisputable that Mulan’s story takes the visage of a Chinese legend and frames it against a Western narrative structure. I think the most glaring example of this would be the scene in which Mushu makes congee for Mulan, and adorns it with two fried eggs and a strip of bacon, a concept that makes little to no sense besides contextualizing congee as breakfast food to American audiences.

Over the past year, I’ve watched a sizable number of films telling distinctly Asian and Asian-American stories. Between Parasite (2019), The Farewell (2019), and Minari (2020), quarantine has allowed me to explore the Asian experience through vastly different films telling stories with that thematic core. These filmmakers have created magical stories and truly embrace their settings. Specifically, the latter two films tell distinctly Asian-American stories, and the clear themes that comprise the Asian-American experience can be picked out and highlighted. Minari’s exploration of the American dream against the traditional Korean view of success and The Farewell’s exploration of Chinese collectivism juxtaposed against American individualism highlight unique stories that can only be told from the filmmakers’ lived experiences.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’ve seen better this year, and I’m holding Mulan to the same standard that I hold these more contemporary films to. Mulan was created in a different era than The Farewell and Minari, and suffers from the Western market’s lack of familiarity with Asian and Asian-American filmmaking. We have no way of knowing what Mulan (1998) would look like if it had been made twenty years late

Since the 90s, both the global market and Disney’s sphere of influence have expanded. In particular, blockbusters such as Frozen (2013), Zootopia (2016), and Frozen II (2019) have grossed millions of dollars, not to mention Disney-owned film franchises such as Avengers. Blockbuster films need to be made with China in mind, as the Chinese box office is the largest foreign market for Hollywood. Recently, Monster Hunter (2020) came under fire due to referencing an offensive playground chant towards Chinese children. The movie was pulled from theatres and suffered massive box office losses as a result of this controversy.

This, of course, brings us to Mulan (2020), a film that had the cards stacked against it from the get-go. Disney has had a recent trend of live action remakes of their classic animated films. Since 2014’s Maleficent, there has been at least one live action remake a year to varying critical reception. Many consumers had been unhappy with the repetition in Hollywood, seeing these remakes as pointless. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic had significantly impacted the movie theatre industry. Movies could no longer be launched in theatres, and many studios, such as Universal with Trolls: World Tour, rolled out their films on streaming platforms. Disney, still testing the waters with their streaming platform Disney+ in its infancy, decided to use Mulan as the pilot for their “Premier Access” feature. If you wanted to watch Mulan (2020), you had to pay $29.99 on top of your already-paid subscription (a paywall that does not exist on the platform for the original film.) COVID-19 also grew anti-Asian sentiments from many Americans, as President Donald Trump and many prominent public figures would refer to COVID as “the China virus”, sparking sinophobia and enmity towards Asians and Asian-Americans.

On top of all of this, Mulan (2020) had many controversial aspects in its production. The decision of removing characters and musical numbers from the original film had many Americans object to the film from its conception. The removal of Mushu, Li Shang, and musical numbers alienated American audiences that had grown up with the original movie, since it felt like an “unfaithful adaptation.” Furthermore, the political climate between the United States and China created more divides between American audiences and Mulan (2020). In August 2019, Hong Kong citizens protested against the police due to the proposed Fugitive Offenders amendment bill that would have allowed extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China. Weeks of protests occurred as Hong Kong citizens protested both against the bill and police brutality. Yifei Liu, actress for Mulan, posted her support for the Hong Kong police on social media, sparking American ire. Yifei Liu also received controversy from Chinese consumers when she referred to herself as “Asian” instead of “Chinese” during a Variety interview. Furthermore, parts of Mulan (2020) were filmed in Xinjiang, China, an autonomous region of China that has come under Western scrutiny due to the treatment of the Uyghur Muslims that inhabit the area by the Chinese government. These two controversies sparked a Western social media campaign on Twitter, #BoycottMulan, which intended on pressuring Disney with a boycott of the film. Finally, some Chinese moviegoers believed that Liu (who was born in China but holds American citizenship) was using this uniquely Chinese tale to push her status up in Western society while downplaying her own Chinese heritage.

So you have a movie that nobody wants that everyone hates that costs significantly more money to watch than the original that appears to be worse in every way. The bar was set impossibly high, and Mulan (2020) stumbled and crashed straight into it. This movie is a trainwreck. Mostly.

Many of the character changes made to Mulan (2020) actually make the movie much more narratively sound. In particular, Li Shang is separated into two characters, with one character as Mulan’s commander, and one character as Mulan’s love interest. This allows for the preservation of gay undertones from the original without dealing with the power dynamic differences in their relationship. I also might be a cynic, but I always thought Mushu was out of place, so I found his removal refreshing. Finally, I actually thought the introduction of Xian Lang, the sorceress foil to Mulan, to be a much better way to discuss the institutional sexism present within society. Last year, I went to a talk by Madeline Miller, author of Song of Achilles and Circe, and one sentence from her speech has stuck with me since then: “a witch is any woman that becomes too powerful.” The dynamic between these two powerful women genuinely allowed for Mulan’s commentary on gender to have another character to truly play off of and strengthened the themes.

However, the rest of this movie is a mess. Musical numbers that progress plot and convey character motivations have been almost entirely replaced with clunky dialogue. But my particular gripe with Mulan (2020) is that it tries to jam this distinctly American story — Mulan (1998) — into a Chinese film. Hyper exaggerated action sequences have become a focal part of the movie due to the introduction of “chi”. In the Mulan (2020) universe, “chi” means moving impossibly fast for no explicable reason. Mulan, for reasons never addressed by the film, has midichlorians. She is naturally gifted, which takes away any payoff her achievements — such as, say, climbing a tower with weights using ingenuity to prove yourself to your peers — have. Chi is used explicitly to explain how Mulan can engage in these hyper fast fight sequences inspired by the works of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Donnie Yen (who is actually in the movie). The movie uses these fight sequences to attempt to modernize this movie for Chinese audiences while still trying to preserve the plot beats and structure from the original movie. As a result, this movie fails on both counts. Neither the fight sequences nor the dialogue are engaging, and the attempts to appeal to a global audience has only made this American story of a Chinese legend fall flat.

So I’ve vocalized my light criticism of one Mulan, and my scathing critique of the other. I think that ultimately, both fall short for me of telling an Asian story (although one is a much much better movie than the other.) But does a Disney movie that manages to tell a truly Asian story framed well for Western audiences exist? And if so, does it also cost $29.99 on Disney+?

Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) is the antithesis of Mulan (2020). While Mulan struggles with being a fantasy story told in an Asian setting, Raya manages to be an Asian story despite taking place entirely within a fantasy realm. The setting’s clear Southeast Asian inspiration manages to create a world where the introduction of magic and dragons feel just at home.

Raya has no obligation to stay grounded in reality. When Raya performs confident physical feats, no plot devices are needed to explain them. At no point in the movie does she ever question her ability, nor does she need to “learn” her power set; she’s just swagged the hell out. Furthermore, the themes of societal trust and faith, while sometimes muddled, are valuable lessons and create opportunity for Raya’s growth as a character— something Liu’s Mulan does very little of. Despite my objection to Sisu’s facial design, her character manages to serve as an effective foil to Raya, and serves as a comic relief character while still being central to the plot — she is, after all, the titular last dragon. Raya’s Asian-influenced setting stands out to me by feeling vibrant. And maybe that might be the tonal differences between Mulan and Raya — Mulan is a wartime epic, while Raya’s journey is based around exploration — but Raya’s world is gorgeous. In particular, the night market of Talon stands out as one of the strongest pieces of worldbuilding to me in modern Disney movies. Raya embraces its Asian roots and setting, while still being able to stay familiar with Western audiences — particularly kids — by firmly inhabiting the sphere of fantasy.

Honestly, Raya and the Last Dragon is a movie that succeeds in every place Mulan (2020) fails. I think you should watch it. I just hope that in 20 years, AAPI kids at summer camp years from now will watch Raya and have a movie to idolize. You don’t need “chi” or bacon in your congee to find your identity. You just need confidence and, for lack of better words, swag.