How Mulan’s web release does the warrior heroine a disservice

Image Credit: Disney

There are many fine and lyrical Chinese proverbs about patience, forbearance and the need to accommodate the vagaries of fortune — the mountain cannot turn but the road can, etc — but how infuriating is it that once again, Hua Mulan is being deprived of the huge and noisy multiscreen Disney debut she so richly deserves?

Last week, Disney announced that the highly anticipated live-action version of ‘Mulan’ would not be premiering in theatres when they finally open. Instead, on September 4, it will debut on Disney+ as “premium” content, which means it will cost an additional $30 to rent.

Mulan film
Image Credit: Disney

Many people, including theatre owners in the US and abroad, are not happy about this, but overall, it makes financial sense. Or at least as much financial sense as anything does these days.

With theatres and most of its parks still closed, Disney is haemorrhaging money from every limb save its new streaming service. Universal’s VOD success with ‘Trolls World Tour’ proved what we pretty much already knew: Families facing down months of the COVID-19 pandemic and its safer-at-home restrictions will jump on any chance to replicate life as we knew it, including paying for the chance to see new movies on TV.

Especially, Disney is betting, an eagerly awaited film like director Niki Caro’s ‘Mulan’. Stripped of music and sidekicks, this ‘Mulan’ is an adventure epic that hews even more closely to the original legend — the ballad of a young woman who assumes a male identity to join the Chinese army in place of her ailing father — than did the 1998 animated film.

Which was, by the way, one of the best Disney movies ever and plays just as well on television as in theatres.

See, I have no problem viewing ‘Mulan’ for the first time in the privacy of my own home; as a former television critic, I have seen some of the best cinematic storytelling play across my computer screen and emerge none the worse for it. I believe theatres will survive even the combined efforts of a pandemic and VOD trends, because people like to go to the movies — and as soon as it is safe, they will. In droves.

The big problem

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Yifei Lui at the Mulan premiere
Image Credit: ADP

My problem is that using ‘Mulan’ as a Disney+ premiere means that once again, ‘Mulan’ is being discussed as an economic trial balloon rather than an artistic endeavour centred on a main character that has no parallel in the cinematic universe.

Instead of focusing on the game-changing possibilities of a female-directed epic adventure led by a young Asian woman, or even the risks/benefits of remaking a musical as an adventure tale, the conversation around ‘Mulan’ is now all about Disney: its decision to keep the film from theatres in all areas where Disney+ is available, including places where theatres are open; its hubris in charging extra for content on a service that is less than six months old; its willingness, in some people’s view, to surrender the future of the film industry to its own short-term bottom line.

Can Hua Mulan never catch a break? Not even Cinderella has repeatedly been put under so much pressure to get her house in order.

Story so far

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Image Credit: AP

The debut of the original ‘Mulan’ was shadowed by fears that the Disney renaissance, which began in 1989 with ‘Little Mermaid’ and continued with hugely popular films including ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Aladdin’ and ‘The Lion King’, was on the wane. While ‘Pocahontas’ (1995) fell short of ‘The Lion King’, which preceded it, it was still a hit that won two Academy Awards, for score and song. But the films that followed — ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ and ‘Hercules’ — were complete bombs and, arriving in their wake, ‘Mulan’ suffered for it.

Lowered box office expectations led Disney to hedge its bets with a seriously curtailed marketing campaign, including dialled-down promotional tie-ins and a low-glitz premiere. While ‘Pocahontas’, ‘Hunchback’ and ‘Hercules’ got spectacle at high-end venues (‘Hunchback’ had a televised parade through New Orleans’ French Quarter before screening at the Superdome), ‘Mulan’ had to be content with a relatively low-key event at the Hollywood Bowl.

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Image Credit: Disney

Even so, ‘Mulan’ did well, both critically and at the box office. Yet even with its ground-breaking heroine, magnificent animation and hilarious supporting characters (including Eddie Murphy as Mulan’s dragon sidekick and Harvey Fierstein’s grouchy soldier Yao), it never quite recovered from the lack of initial hype to assume its rightful place in the Disney pantheon.

It didn’t help that when Disney began leaning heavily on its princess brand, no one seemed to know what to do with Mulan; her merchandise was short on tulle and long on weaponry, her story more focused on action and overcoming prejudice than on magic and fairy tale romance.

Ming-Na Wen and Lea Salonga in Mulan (1998)-1583245928633
Image Credit: Disney

Of course, that is exactly why Mulan remains for many — including me and my family — the best loved and most enduring Disney heroine. Though rooted in history, she is, like Tiana and Merida who followed her, a very modern female lead.

Disney clearly did not plan to soft-pedal this version, originally scheduled to hit theatres on March 27, as it did the last. A teaser during the Women’s World Cup and a Super Bowl spot promised a marketing campaign to make any warrior proud; ‘Mulan’ even managed to squeeze a red-carpet premiere at the Dolby Theatre under the wire on March 10 — and no doubt there are additional plans taking shape for the weeks leading up to the September 4 Disney+ release.

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Image Credit: Disney

What I do mind is that once again ‘Mulan’ is being denied the kind of extravaganza for which Disney is famous.

Obviously, even Disney is powerless over a pandemic, still, I can’t help but wonder why, if Disney was going to force one of its big movies to sidle onto our home screens, it couldn’t have been ‘Jungle Cruise’? Or even ‘Black Widow’? Isn’t ‘Mulan’ owed the chance to be the mountain around which the road must turn for once?

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