Live-Action Mulan Versus The Classic Cartoon: 36 Changes, With Side-By-Side Comparison
Disney takes their 1998 animated classic and turns it into a wuxia epic.
The reception to Disney's 2020 live-action Mulan remake was mixed, to say the least. What's your take on the controversy? Let us know in the comments below. Disney, for its part, acknowledged the movie's problematic production. If you want to know what we thought, just read our review--where we said "Mulan's PG-13 rating and emphatic need to amp up the vintage, American war tropes may make it too scary, raunchy, or inscrutable for whole swaths of what ought to be its target audience."
After much delay, the live-action adaptation of Mulan debuted on Disney Plus on September 4.
The story, based on a Chinese ballad that dates back to the 6th century, is now an action drama. The Huns are now the more historically accurate Rouran tribes. Mulan is a secret master of chi (which is employed as a Force-esque plot device). And characters can run up walls and catch arrows--a tribute to the wuxia films (fantasy-driven kung fu films) from decades past.
There are also no more songs, although you can hear familiar instrumental musical cues during pivotal scenes. What else changed or remained from the original animated classic? Here's everything we've noticed in the live-action Mulan so far.
The comparisons start on the Disney Plus menu screen, which is a recreation of the poster for the 1998 animated film.
2. Hua and Fa
In the animated film, Mulan's family name is spelled "Fa." In the movie, her family name is spelled "Hua." Fa is actually the Cantonese romanization of Hua. The family name of the Mulan in the original ballad is also Hua, which translates directly to flower.
3. The Girl with Chi
Both the original ballad and the 1998 movie portray Mulan as a girl with ordinary powers, who uses her wits and courage to save China. The movie retains her wit and courage, but also uses chi, the energy of all living things, to explain what makes Mulan more exceptional than her peers, and why she has unnatural reflexes and martial arts ability.
4. Trouble With Chickens
Chickens are employed as a comedic device in both films. They invade the religious shrine as a result of Mulan's actions. But in the live-action film, the chicken also reveals her chi powers to the villagers, and they react with disgust and fear.
5. Two Daughters
In the animated film, Mulan is an only child. In the live-action film, Mulan has a younger sister named Xiu. Unlike Mulan, Xiu gives her parents no trouble at all. In the ballad, Mulan has a younger brother; when the army conscripts one man from each family to serve, the brother is still too young.
6. Two Rabbits, Side By Side
The first time we see Mulan as an adult, she's riding horseback next to two rabbits. She later tells her family that she couldn't be sure whether they were male or female. This is a direct homage to the original ballad's final lines, which read:
"The he-hare's feet go hop and skip,
The she-hare's eyes are muddled and fuddled.
Two hares running side by side close to the ground,
How can they tell if I am he or she?"
7. "Honor To Us All"
In the animated film, during the scene where Mulan is getting ready for the matchmaker, the women perform "Honor To Us All." In the live-action film, there is no singing, although you can hear the melody for "Honor To Us All." playing in the background.
8. Disaster At The Matchmaker's
In the animated film, the matchmaker's room gets destroyed as an indirect result of Cri-Kee, who bathes in the matchmaker's tea. In the live-action film, Mulan causes chaos by revealing a spider underneath the matchmaker's teapot, which she initially hid due to her sister's fear of spiders.
The cricket in the animated film was a gift from Mulan's grandmother, who gave it to her for luck. There is no grandmother in the live-action version.
9. Huns vs. Rourans
The villains in the animated film were Huns, and they were led by a monstrous man named Shan Yu. But this is not historically accurate. The Huns never attacked China; they are popularly conflated with the Xiongnu, nomadic people who lived north of China's borders. The live-action film specifically names the Rouran people as the film's antagonists. The Rourans, who lived in what is present-day Mongolia, had a number of skirmishes with the Northern Wei dynasty during the 5th century A.D.
10. The Great Wall
The first time we see the Huns in the 1998 film, they scale and break through the Great Wall of China. In the new film, we first see the Rourans when they attack a garrison stationed on the Silk Road. After defeating the garrison, they then slaughter the nearby villages.
11. Vengeance Plot
Shan-Yu's motives in the 1998 film were fairly one-dimensional. He wanted to pillage and conquer for the sake of power. The leader of the Rouran, Böri Khan, has more personal motives for conquering China; the emperor killed his father in a prior battle.
12. Good Witch or Bad Witch?
The most notable new character is Gong Li's Xian Lang, a "witch" who helps the Rouran army. She serves as a juxtaposition to Mulan; she's a woman who, because of her chi, was rejected and outcast from society, and is embittered as a result. She represents Mulan's fears about what might happen to her if she is discovered.
13. Hawk or Witch?
Xian Lang can turn into a hawk, which is a clear reference to Hayabusa, the pet falcon of Shan Yu in the animated film. Like most Disney animals, Hayabusa had humanlike intelligence; your headcanon could be that Hayabusa was actually a human the entire time.
14. Dragon or Phoenix?
Mushu, the family's guardian dragon in the animated film, is not in the live-action film, although Mulan does have a non-comedic phoenix that protects her. Fittingly, it has Mushu's color scheme.
In both versions of the film, Mulan leaves behind her comb as a memento, to tell her family that she took the armor.
16. Captain Shang
Captain Li Shang, Mulan's commander and love interest in the first film, is split into two new characters: Commander Tung (Donnie Yen), who serves as her mentor and father figure, and Chen Honghui, who is a fellow soldier alongside Mulan.
17. Good Horse
The horse's name in the animated film is Khan. The horse's name in the live-action movie is Black Wind.
In addition to Honghui, the live-action movie retains Mulan's three comrades from the first film. The first is Yao, who is a boorish, posturing lug in both films.
Ling is also in the live-action film; he's the one who's making elaborate metaphors about her bride-to-be's eyes and skin. Ling also does this in the animated film, during the song "A Girl Worth Fighting For."
20. Chien Po
Lastly, Chien Po is in both films, although his live-action version seems a little less good-natured than his animated version. Both versions, however, say they want a wife who cooks well.
21. "A Girl Worth Fighting For"
Again, there is no singing. Instead the basic sentiment of "A Girl Worth Fighting For" is reduced to a single campfire sequence, where all the men are talking about their fantasy wives.
The adorable lucky cricket from the animated film, Cri-Kee, is not in the live-action film, but there is a Chinese soldier named Cricket, who is small in stature and a consistent underachiever until the ending sequence.
23. Training Sequence
The music during the training sequence is unfortunately not the melody for "I'll Make a Man Out Of You," the best song from the animated film.
24. Bathing Scene
Both movies have a bathing sequence where Mulan is nearly found out for being a woman, and the men who previously gave her a hard time try to become her friend. But in the animated film, the scene is largely played for laughs. There's more anxiety during the live-action sequence, because Mushu isn't around to bite Ling's butt or drop one-liners to break the tension.
25. Retrieving The Arrow
In the animated film, one of the best moments is when Mulan climbs a pole with weights on her hands to retrieve an arrow. It took physical strength and discipline, but it also took cleverness. There is no arrow pole in the live-action film. Instead, it's replaced with a mountain hike while carrying buckets of water, which Mulan is able to complete after embracing her chi.
26. War Atrocity
In the live-action film, on their way to meet the Rourans in battle, Mulan's garrison passes by a slaughtered Chinese army. There's an equivalent scene in the animated film, where the Emperor's imperial army is slaughtered protecting a village near the Tung-Shao Pass, and Mulan's garrison stumbles across the remains.
The climactic avalanche that kills off the bulk of the enemy army is triggered differently. In the animated film, Mulan uses the army's last cannon shot to hit the mountain. In the live-action film, Mulan uses spare helmets to make the Rourans believe that there is a Chinese battalion on the mountain, and they fire a catapult at it, thus triggering their own destruction.
28. Revealing The Ruse
In the animated film, Mulan is injured by Shan Yu, and the doctor examining her reveals she's a woman to Captain Shang. The live-action Mulan reveals herself as a woman during the battle, so she can fulfill her potential to save her friends.
29. The Witch's Temptation
Xian Lang tempts Mulan by seeding doubt, saying that she'll never reach her potential if she hides her identity, and she'll never be respected if they find out she's a woman. The animated film plays with these ideas too, but it largely leaves them as subtext for the main plot.
30. A Life For A Life
In the animated film, the penalty for impersonating a man and infiltrating the Chinese army is death, but Captain Shang spares Mulan, because she saved his life during the avalanche sequence. In the live-action film, Commander Tung spares Mulan because the penalty for deception is expulsion from the army and disgrace to one's family.
31. Saving the Emperor
In the live-action film, Xian Lang leads Mulan to where the Emperor was being held, and sacrifices herself so that Mulan can complete her mission. She fights on top of a partially built structure, and kills him disarming him. Meanwhile, her friends fight the remaining Rouran to keep them from following her.
In the animated version of the same sequence, the soldiers infiltrate the Emperor's palace in drag, and keep the Huns at bay while Mulan fights Shan Yu. After she disarms Shan, it's Mushu who kills him with a massive firework.
The live-action emperor, played by Jet Li, is framed as a chi master himself, and is able to catch arrows midair. He seems a lot more able to take care of himself than the animated Emperor, who's portrayed as an older, weaker man.
32. Ming-Na Wen
The court lady who introduces Mulan to the Emperor is Ming-Na Wen, who performed the voice of Mulan in the 1998 animated film.
33. Ming Na Wen's Daughter
The girl who reacts to Mulan in the crowd is Ming-Na Wen's daughter, Michaela.
34. Heading Home
In the animated version, the Emperor offers Mulan a seat on his imperial council. In the live version, he offers her a position as an Imperial guard. In both versions, Mulan declines the offer, preferring instead to return home to her family. Mulan also declines the Emperor's offer in the ballad. Unlike in the movies, the ballad version of Mulan served in the army for 12 years, and fooled everyone; no one knew she was a woman until after she was discharged.
Christina Aguilera returned to sing a pop version of "Reflection," just as she did for the first film. The song plays over the credits, as does a Mandarin version of the same song.
36. Video Cassette Cover
Lastly, the graphic that plays over the end credits is a recreation of the 1998 film's video cassette cover.