No Songs in ‘Mulan’? That’s Good!

So… No songs in the live-action Disney remake of Mulan

In a recent interview, Niki Caro, the director of Disney’s live-action Mulan said that she is aiming to make her version more of a martial arts film, something rougher around the edges. She had apparently commented that the picture wouldn’t really have songs in it. (Update – 4/6/17: It appears that Caro was taken out of context, and that Walt Disney Pictures president Sean Bailey said that no songs are going to be in the picture “at the moment.”)

It seems people are split on this particular bit.

My biggest problem with many of the recent remakes that Walt Disney Studios has been making is the fact that many of them follow the Disney animated films way too closely. Of course, stories like Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella have existed long before Disney ever got to adapting them. Walt Disney put his own unique spin on the stories he adapted, and the studio continued to do just that after his death. Other people made their own unique adaptations as well.

After the runaway successes of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent, and Cinderella, Disney is ordering more and more remakes of its massive animated feature canon. The problem is, the remakes that are really their own thing are fading out, while the remakes that are very close to the animated pictures are scoring. And how!

cogsworth-lumiere-live-action-beauty-and-the-beast

Only Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland movie, its 2016 sequel, and the remake of Pete’s Dragon deviated from the Disney adaptations of those stories. Alice was a breakout hit in 2010, but the sequel tanked hard, and Pete’s Dragon came and went. On the other side, you had MaleficentCinderella, The Jungle Book, and Beauty and the Beast. Cinderella is half its own thing, half the Disney film re-skinned, ditto The Jungle BookMaleficent cribs heavily from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Beauty and the Beast is basically the Disney animated classic with some filler material. Future remakes look to be very close to the iconic animated films, not new takes on those older stories.

Mulan is not my top pick for best Disney animated feature. Recently, I took another look at it for my break down of the later “Renaissance” period of Disney Animation. While I felt most of its songs were pleasant, the movie could’ve functioned well enough without them. By the late 1990s, Disney’s animation was locked into a formula by careless executives who wanted every new movie to be next Beauty and the Beast, or the next Lion King. Mulan does at times kind of buck those tropes, and the few songs it has almost feel low-key in a way.

So Caro not going for them in her movie? Props to her. I want this movie to be a new take on the Hua Mulan stories, not “Disney’s Mulan – Reskinned.” My beef with these remakes is that they are too close to their animated counterparts, when there’s a lot of potential in new adaptations. For example, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin should be its own thing. Tim Burton’s Dumbo should be its own thing. Jon Favreau’s The Lion King, based on a movie that’s not really based on any pre-existing source material (it’s inspired by some things, but what isn’t?), should be its own thing.

Basically… I’m not a fan of the remakes being the way they currently are. Ever since Maleficent, I never have been. They also fuel, inadvertently or not, a greater problem that affects animation here in America. One of the criticisms being leveled at the new Beauty and the Beast is that the enchanted objects, in photoreal CG form, are more creepy and unsettling than endearing. Endearing… Like they were in the “inferior cartoon.”

girlworthfightingfor

So no songs in Niki Caro’s Mulan? Excellent. Next up, get rid of Mushu. Mushu is clearly a character that was forced into the movie by the higher ups who wanted the typical Disney Renaissance™ sidekick in every picture. Eddie Murphy did what he could with what he was given, but the character is only sporadically funny and when he’s not funny… Well…  He’s rather annoying. Mulan doesn’t need anthropomorphic accompaniment, anyways. Sure, that kind of thing works better in the limitless medium of animation, but that doesn’t mean she has to have one. She didn’t need one in the 1998 film, and she definitely doesn’t need one in this film.

The other side is upset, because these are the things they love about Disney’s Mulan. These same people flock to remakes that ring very close to their animated counterparts. If the new Beauty and the Beast was its own (ahem) beast, would it have broken the March opening weekend record at the box office? It probably would not have even made half of the opening day gross, let alone the weekend haul! Many 90s kids who are roughly my age “grew out” of Disney animation when they hit their preteen years, and these live-action remakes chase their nostalgia for a bygone era. See, I am not an overly-nostalgic type. I never grew out of my Disney films, I knew animation was an art form ever since I was a young kid. Many people don’t see it as an art form, and many people see Disney films as those things they had to “put on the shelf” when they were growing up… Because their peers and society told them to do this.

I’m an animation fan, I’m a writer of works that I want to turn into animated features, and I’m someone who knows his animation history. At least enough history to know that Walt Disney didn’t spearhead animation to make films meant only for children. So, my perspective: These remakes are made for the people I described above. The “cool” people who were/are too “cool” for cartoons. For them, these remakes are definitive and are what the animated films needed to be.

shang-yu

So to see the 2018 Mulan go its own way, that’s actually kind of exciting to me. Warts and all, I think Disney’s animated Mulan is a good enough film. There are some real high points, and the art direction is pretty unique. It functions well as an entertaining action-adventure with a great lead character, but is marred by some of the more corporate elements that Disney’s animation was being infected with back in those days. If I wanted a “better” version of the 1998 Mulan, I wouldn’t want it to be done in live-action. You lose the art direction, the magic of animation, and lots of other things… And in the process, you insinuate that live-action is – like many people feel – better than animation. When can I get a traditionally animated remake of a Disney animated movie that wasn’t amazing the first time around?

(Hint, hint: Disney, lift your 2D animation ban and remake Home on the Range into a great animated Western!)

Beauty and the Beast may have just blasted the box office into oblivion, but to see Caro going forward with a Mulan that doesn’t slavishly copy-paste from the Disney animated film? I like that. I’m not crying over the lack of songs, because I already have that. I don’t need a carbon copy of the 1998 Mulan done in live-action, I don’t need to “relive” my “childhood.” Mulan, like 95% of Disney’s animated feature library, was something I never cast into the pit. Throughout my preteen and teen years, I adored animation, especially Disney’s. I was probably the only 12-13 year old in my school studying scenes of Snow White on my VHS copy, I was probably the only 12-13 year old in my town that owned and regularly spun a $100-costing Walt Disney Treasures 4-DVD set. If I want songs, I’ll watch the 1998 Mulan.

Now, I have no idea how far Caro will be able to go with her take on Mulan. It likely won’t be a no-holds-barred, PG-13 war epic like it probably should be. Will there be a Mushu or an anthropomorphic creature? I hope not. Will it be its own story? I think it should be, and since they’re doing it in live-action, they shouldn’t try to recreate what’s already there. The visuals should contrast with the animated picture’s look.

I don’t care if it’s “Disney’s” new Mulan, it doesn’t have to be beholden to the animated movie. I know that is a lot to ask for from a company that gladly strip-mines its library for seas of green paper, but I can dream can I? Enough of this “better the cartoon”, more “let’s make something that will co-exist with the animated feature.” Or heck, just adapt a classic story that Disney happened to make a franchise out of!

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4 thoughts on “No Songs in ‘Mulan’? That’s Good!

  1. Oh wow, Niki Caro directed Whale Rider. Despite my misgivings and general indifference/annoyance at these remakes, I am curious to see how she re imagines the story. I’m all for an adaptation of the Hua Mulan tale that hews a little more closely to the actual legend and with a bit more reverence.

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  2. PETE’S DRAGON isn’t something that existed in the public’s consciousness prior to 1977; it was originally a treatment sold to the studio in the 1940s by a screenwriter whose résumé included the original SCARFACE (which also got an in-name only remake in 1983)! The story was on and off the production schedule for years and went through many changes, including musicalization (that was a gamble in the 1970s, especially after the failure of WB’s film of the Broadway show MAME, also choreographed by the late, great Onna White, and after other studios had lost millions on their own musicals in the late 1960s), before it finally got made. In that case, the movie is, for all intents and purposes, the source material, and since Disney owns it outright, no other studio could do their own version of the story without buying the remake rights from them. At least not until the original film’s copyright expires in 2072.

    MULAN is different: it is a legend that has been around for over a thousand years. No one owns it. Anyone could make a movie about it if they wanted to. And when Disney made it the first time, other studios made direct-to-video knockoffs with inferior animation.

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    • I didn’t know that about ‘Pete’s Dragon’ – many thanks for the heads up. So essentially it was an ‘Aristocats’-esque project: An original pitch submitted to Disney, and it wouldn’t be made until a long time after it was pitched. That being said, I mentioned the 2016 ‘Pete’s Dragon’ movie, mostly because it too is a remake of a story Disney already told, regardless of where that story came from.

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