The tale of warrior woman Mulan got the Disney animated treatment more than 20 years ago and here’s how #MeToo helped it transfer to a live action blockbuster.
The tale of warrior woman Mulan got the Disney animated treatment more than 20 years ago and here’s how #MeToo helped it transfer to a live action blockbuster.

Modern twist on Disney’s Mulan remake

The journey of Disney's live action adventure Mulan has almost been as epic as the tale itself but somehow it seems to be arriving at exactly the right time.

The Chinese legend of a brave and spirited young woman who defies tradition to fight in the imperial army in place of her father is thought to have been written about 400AD and retold many times over the centuries.

What had endured as one of that country's most beloved stories found a whole new audience when it got the animated Disney treatment in 1998, with Ming Na Wen becoming the studio's first Asian princess and Eddie Murphy as her wisecracking dragon sidekick, Mushu.

The inevitable live action remake, which follows global hits including Alice In Wonderland, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and The Jungle Book, has been in the works for a decade, during which time the spotlight has fallen on stories about female empowerment in the wake of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.

Yifei Liu was chosen from 1000 actors for the lead role in Mulan.
Yifei Liu was chosen from 1000 actors for the lead role in Mulan.

After even more false starts - with a broad cinema release postponed several times due to the pandemic - Mulan will become the biggest film to pivot to a streaming strategy when it's finally on Disney+ (with a premium fee) on Friday.

"It has been a long time coming, but the script and the story we decided to tell has never really changed from the original conception," says producer Jason Reed.

"But oddly, it becomes more relevant every day. Unfortunately because of the things we're seeing in current events, particularly in the US, it becomes more and more relevant.

"It speaks to the classic nature of the story. We never made changes or modifications to try to link it to MeToo or anything like that, but obviously it's a story about a woman operating in a man's world so there's a lot of relevance."

Directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider) and mostly shot in her homeland, the new-look Mulan looks and feels as grand as its $270 million budget. The much loved songs of the animated version have gone - as has the culturally inappropriate Mushu -- replaced with monumental battle scenes, spectacular scenery and a cast boasting a who's who of the Asian cinema world, including Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Gong Li and Jason Scott Lee.

Jason Scott Lee, left, trained and dieted for months to play a lean, ripped version of the villainous warlor Bori Khan.
Jason Scott Lee, left, trained and dieted for months to play a lean, ripped version of the villainous warlor Bori Khan.

Disney reportedly saw 1000 young women to find their 'real' Mulan, before settling on model-actor-singer Liu Yifei, a 32-year-old born in Wuhan, China, who lived in New York from age 10-15 before being accepted into the Beijing Film Institute. It's by far her highest profile assignment to date, and one for which she did three months of horse, strength and conditioning training, but she says she's feeling honoured by the opportunity rather than stressed.

"I'm very lucky but I don't want to put on too much pressure," says Liu with a laugh, "because pressure means doubt. For me, the spirit of Mulan is the simpleness and the unspeakable belief and strength. This power inspires me."

Any Disney movie is only as good as its villain, and the man who plays Mulan's nemesis Bori Khan, Jason Scott Lee, says he was initially rejected for the part for being too nice a guy.

The California-born, Hawaii-raised Lee was no stranger to the Disney family, having played Mowgli in the 1994 live action version of The Jungle Book and voiced a character in 2002's Lilo and Stitch, but he says he had to work hard to land the role of the fearsome war lord.

"They made me jump through the hoops on this one," the affable actor says.

"They couldn't decide and then they told me at the beginning that I was not the guy for them or for the part." But once he was cast (Caro said the Bori Khan she wanted needed to be "stripped and lean and ripped") he was determined to undergo both a physical and mental transformation.

The two-and-a-half months he spent dieting and weightlifting gave the now 53-year-old a physique and 4 per cent body fat he hadn't had since he played martial arts legend Bruce Lee in the biopic Dragon at the age of 25, but to tap into the warrior mentality Caro set him up with a Maori kappa haka master.

Lee already had an appreciation of Maori culture, and the All Blacks, since he'd made the historical drama Rapa Nui on Easter Island with a group of imported Kiwi actors and extras, so he says reconnecting with that spirit was "almost like meeting an old friend". "He put me through my paces and he gave me some chants and some haka what would really bring out that deep-seated, primal force," Lee says.

"Niki being from New Zealand and growing up around Maoris and stuff she felt it and she knew when it didn't feel real. That was the test - if you could do it in front of her and she didn't call you out on your BS."

Mulan streams from Friday for Disney+ subscribers with Premier Access, for an additional fee of $34.99

Originally published as Modern twist on Disney's Mulan remake


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