Mulan 2020: The Epic Story of How Disney Doesn’t Understand Their Fans
I have fallen down a fascinating rabbit hole: Chinese and Chinese Descent YouTubers reviewing the 2020 Live Action Mulan. “If Mulan doesn’t work in China, we have a problem,” quipped Alan F. Horn, co-chairman of Disney Studios. Horn is presumably off eating his hat somewhere because Disney’s got a BIG problem: a $170 million dollar problem. What is so fascinating about these reviews is the consensus of the problems in the film, many of which are refreshingly unlike the splashy special effects, minimal character development, and dazzling big budget action Westerners have been told Chinese audiences value in films.
China is the #2 biggest market for Hollywood films, right after North America and Europe. Plenty of critics have accused the major studios of “pandering” to Chinese audiences, such as making LGBTQ character scenes easily removeable, including Chinese actors, or cutting romantic scenes. I can’t say if those critiques are accurate and, frankly, I think they’re just as likely to be pandering to particular segments of the Western audience. There seems to be much speculation of why franchises like Transformers or Marvel have done so well in China, with the Hollywood business types eyeing even bigger returns. Mulan was supposed to rule over the Chinese box office. Instead it failed spectacularly.
Mulan is not of particular interest to me. I am not Chinese, nor of Asian descent, nor have I seen the 2020 Mulan. In fact, I’ve only seen the animated version once, way back when it was released in theaters. But movie making generally is of great importance to me and it’s clear from these reviews that Disney failed to see what audiences loved about the animated Mulan and the Mulan of legend.
What’s so remarkable about these Mulan reviews is the number of repeated concerns and criticisms and the obvious caliber of the reviewers. I’m not overly impressed by a negative review of a YouTuber who reviews every big film that comes out, but people who created channels or deliberately broke away from their personal YouTube brand because they had to express how Mulan made them feel? Those are reactions worth hearing. Here are the top issues most of the Chinese or Chinese descent YouTubers had about 2020 Mulan:
- Mulan’s character. This is the single largest criticism I’ve seen. It’s echoed in nearly every review. Mulan in the animated feature is an ordinary girl who feels compelled to pretend to be a man in order to save her father from conscription into a war where he will almost certainly die. She isn’t particularly physically strong, but through training, determination, and using her own particular skill set manages to save the emperor, her homeland, and her family. She is a perfect example of the idea that an ordinary person can achieve extraordinary things. 2020 Mulan has superpowers and a natural ability to do martial arts through an odd interpretation of chi, which a number of reviewers described as “midichlorians” (Midichlorians are from the Star Wars prequels and explains person’s ability to use the Force is down to the levels of a physical element present in the blood. This reduces the Force from an omnipresent energy flowing through everything in the universe that could be theoretically harnessed by everyone to a genetic hereditary trait). 2020 Mulan’s motivation is also moved from a specific love of her family and town to a duty to protect her country, which has some historical issues as well. 2020 Mulan is in direct contrast to her sister who does not have chi, is afraid of spiders, and is more typically feminine. YouTuber David Chen and his wife do a particularly good job of explaining how this takes Mulan from an aspirational figure to children and puts her firmly in the realm of the unachievable. After all, if superpowers do not exist in the real world and only girls who have superpowers can achieve great things, then real girls cannot reasonably expect to achieve anything great. The way most of the YouTubers describe this change is harrowing. They express a sense of betrayal, as though Disney has forever altered the image of one of their personal heroes. It also negates a major theme of the poem, which ends with the idea that it’s impossible to tell a male and female rabbit apart when they run side by side. Clearly, Disney did not think to really delve into why the animated Mulan is important to people of Chinese descent or this would have been immediately apparent. I suspect that is a major issue with the Disney animated films and their lack of diversity of characters. Mulan, Tiana, Pocahontas, and Moana are the only representations of their groups and thus take on greater significance in terms of how they are portrayed. For example, it’s much harder to be upset with Snow White being a helpless white European damsel when we also have Belle and Rapunzel to serve as counterpoints.
- General misunderstanding of Chinese cultural ideas and folklore. This one is interesting because it seems like it would have been the easiest to fix in the writing stage. Chi is supposed to be an energy present in everything, as one of the guiding forces of the world and here it’s bent to support the supergirl narrative. The YouTube channel Blue Lotus has a particularly funny issue with this. One of the group points out that the movie continually claims that only men are supposed to have chi, but the audience only sees women with advanced cultivation of chi and he found that confusing. The movie’s idea of filial piety is confused too. Dr. Jon Tam took a break from his YouTube career coaching to wrestle with this one. He points out that filial piety, caring for and respecting your parents and ancestors, is never called that in the film. There’s a lot of throwing around “honor” and “duty” but it never comes back to the root of the concept which is loving, protecting, and supporting one’s family and parents. A number of YouTubers are distressed about the characterization of the phoenix. The fenghuang in Chinese mythology that is sometimes called a “Chinese Phoenix.” However, the one in 2020 Mulan has the attributes of the Greek phoenix, in particular the idea of it rising from its own ashes. The fenghuang doesn’t do that at all. Xiran Jay Zhao made my favorite review of 2020 Mulan. She created her channel specifically to rant about the film and it’s brilliant in its detail. She has excellent explanations of chi and the roles of women, but my favorite segment is the witch. She points out that Chinese folklore does not really have the concept of witches in the sense that witches are magically powerful women who are categorically feared and isolated because of those abilities. Performing magic is a neutral action in Chinese folklore. A woman might perform witchcraft that harms a person and get in trouble, but her punishment would come from causing harm rather than performing witchcraft itself. She also points out that this problem could have easily fixed this by making the witch a spirit in the guise of a human. It would have explained her abilities and distrust of the humans around her.
- General tone and dialogue. This one surprised me: people missed the songs and Mushu because they interjected humor and warmth into the story. Mushu also served the function of giving Mulan someone to talk to to express her real feelings. 2020 Mulan is generally just sort of stoic. Generally, if you’re creating a film where the protagonist is hiding a big secret, someone either knows from the beginning or finds out immediately, but keeps their secret, to serve this role. A number of YouTubers also complained about the dialogue feeling wooden, as though the writers were trying to give the characters Chinese style lines, but didn’t entirely know how to do it. Frequently, viewers mentioned that the film, which is entirely Chinese speakers, should have been filmed in Chinese because the number of different accents in English was bewildering.
- Chinese cultural artifacts, like traditional makeup and clothes, were aesthetically ugly. YouTuber AvenueX does a particular good job laying this one out. She points out that while traditional Chinese makeup is extremely stylized, there is a beauty to it that everyone can appreciate. Mulan’s bridal makeup in the 2020 Live Action seems to be make as garish as possible and that trend continues into other areas, such as strange color combinations, jarring hairstyles, and deliberately exaggerated styling (one YouTuber points out that Jet Li’s Emperor has so many layers of collars going up his neck, he looks like a bamboo shoot). Presumably this was done to constrast with 2020 Mulan’s natural beauty, but the effect on the reviewers was a feeling that Disney did not respect their traditional culture. Numerous people pointed out that the costume designer is not Chinese, although she did study Chinese costuming, and this seems to have created another needless roadblock.
All in all, it appears Disney took a hard fail in understanding what it was that the audience likes about the story of Mulan. This is surprising because a juggernaut like Disney absolutely has the time and money to create as many focus groups as they want and they clearly understood the size of the potential audience and the box office returns. In many ways, 2020 Mulan feels like the same sort of thinking that is present in the modern Star Wars movies. Disney executives assumed that they knew what it was that audiences liked and created a film like a science experience in a lab: add in some action, epic battle scenes, girl power, attractive actors, special effects and POOF! A blockbuster is made. Except it wasn’t. Like many things built by formula, the result is missing the human elements, care, and love of the material that are the real elements in films to which people respond. I really hope Disney will learn some lessons from this mistake, and hopefully they learn the right ones this time.