The real reason Mulan needed Mushu
No matter how you feel about Disney's live action remakes, it's safe to say 2020's Mulan has gone through the wringer. Back when the project was first announced in the sweet days of milk and honey (aka 2010), there was no way of foreseeing the hurdles it would have to overcome: development hell, accusations of whitewashing, script rewrites, boycotts after its lead actress defended the Hong Kong police amid pro-democracy protests, and, of course, the global pandemic that has thrice delayed its release before it was finally put up on Disney+, for a premium fee of $29.99, on Friday.
But among diehard fans of the 1998 animated original, none of Disney's sins have been as egregious as the erasure of Mushu, Mulan's travel-size, joke-cracking dragon companion. Following widespread outcry, director Niki Caro explained that the reason the scaly red sidekick was left out of the remake was a commitment to "the realism of [Mulan's] journey."
Unfortunately, erasing Mushu doesn't just weed out the quirkiness of the original film for the sake of making a more serious historical drama. By consequence, it also ends up muffling one of Disney's chattiest characters, Mulan.
When Mulan was first released in 1998, it was welcomed as Disney's most feminist movie to date. In the years since, though, the film has been criticized for being "startlingly male-dominated" when it comes to the vocal roles. Part of that is due to it being a story about a female warrior who enters an all-male army disguised as a man to defend her homeland against invaders — meaning basically all of the supporting characters are, well, men. The other part of it, though, is because her guardian dragon, Mushu, voiced by Eddie Murphy, "has 50 percent more words of dialogue than Mulan herself," The Pudding writes.
But instead of drowning out Mulan, Mushu ended up serving as her sounding board, someone for her character to talk to during her secretive, solitary journey. Among the Disney Renaissance princesses, Mulan actually ended up with the most lines by far: She speaks 3,028 words over the course of her movie, compared to Belle's 2,183 in Beauty and the Beast; Ariel's 1,538 in The Little Mermaid; Pocahontas' 1,518; and Jasmine's mere 774 in Aladdin, data collected by The Pudding shows. While the new film makes Mulan a more stoic, humorless, silent type (played by Beijing-based Chinese-American actress Liu Yifei, who is fluent in English), her character loses some of her radical unconventionality without all those vulnerable musings and doubts about her place in the world.
In fairness, Caro's new Mulan is clearly seeking to distinguish itself from the 1998 version — which I'll be the first to admit is a refreshing change of pace for Disney, which has tended to hew its live-action remakes so closely to the animated originals that they virtually become shot-for-shot imitations in some cases. In fact, some of the 2020 Mulan's best moments are when it establishes its own identity, one divorced from the pre-existing Disney universe: Caro's film is visibly inspired by the Chinese wuxia martial arts genre, both in Mulan's physics-defying battle sequences as well as in its breathtaking scenic shots (albeit filmed in Caro's native New Zealand, rather than the historically accurate north China). But Disney's strings never fully detach themselves from the movie — stray notes from "Reflection," the hit song in the 1998 version, float by on the wind on more than one occasion — making Mushu's absence all the more glaring, if the director was still going to be cherry-picking pieces from the original.
Initially Mushu's absence was chalked up to being a culturally sensitive edit by Disney. "[L]osing the fantastical aspects of the 1998 original sets the stage for the new film to be more dramatic and grounded, and provide an opportunity for Asian characters to be taken seriously, which rarely happens on screen," wrote Claudia Vaughan for Colorlines. (The new Mulan, for what it's worth, does not entirely do away with fantasy; this time Mulan is visited by a CGI phoenix). In truth, though, Chinese fans also despaired at Mushu's exclusion, sending complaints to the top of Weibo:
Why are people acting like Chinese people don’t want Mushu? The first trending topic on Weibo is “Mushu is not in Mulan”. People want a Disney fairy tale, not a documentary. I see a lot of people speaking on behalf of Chinese people despit not knowing what we want. pic.twitter.com/3qEgDXij6t
— yandere chan (@yanderekchan) July 8, 2019
And while Mulan has been fraught with accusations of "bowing to China's nationalistic agenda" — the movie was already being used as a "weapon against Hong Kong protesters," Indiewire reported last August — Mushu's inclusion would have guided it away from being a straighter adaptation of the sixth-century legend it's based on, more than one of which already exist. The original versions of the story actually don't even foreground the theme of feminism; it took hearing Mulan's thoughts and struggles, which were discussed openly with Mushu, her only verbal confidant, to give Disney's Mulan that particular bent. (Caro has additionally defended her decision to remove Mushu by claiming it gave Mulan more space to develop relationships with her fellow soldiers, although this does not ultimately come through in the somewhat clunky and disappointing script).
Writing for Vulture ahead of seeing the Mulan remake, Gregory Ng Yong He worried about another voice being snuffed by Mushu's absence: Mushu's own. One of the animated film's "most interesting ambiguities" is its "destabilization of race in Mushu, where Eastern iconography was shaken up by Eddie Murphy's unmistakable — and Black — voice," he writes, adding that "in the wake of this year's heightened conversations about Blackness and its key role in shaping the culture we all consume, there is something vexing about a new Mulan that has excised Mushu as part of an effort to appear more purely 'Asian.'" Removing Mushu doesn't just flatten our understanding of the character of Mulan by taking away her internal monologue; it flattens the nuances of the entire story, too.
Mushu could have been included as a comic character, or been updated along with Mulan to have a more serious part; he could have even been re-imagined as a female dragon, or another sort of character entirely, just so long as Mulan had someone to engage with on her journey. Without him, Disney still gets its gritty reboot — lovely to look at, yes, but not saying very much at all.