Fight Like a Girl: Can Mulan Save Disney From the Pandemic? 

On February 25th, Bob Iger unexpectedly resigned as CEO of Disney. During his 15-year tenure, he oversaw the rise of the House of Mouse into the most powerful entertainment company in the world. In retrospect, his 2009 decision to acquire Marvel Entertainment, and the 2012 acquisition of Lucasfilm Ltd., led to Disney dominating the box office to an extent never seen before in the history of the film business.

So why, on an unassuming Tuesday in February, did he quit "effective immediately"? I think it's because he saw COVID coming. Disney, like all the Hollywood studios, have long focused on breaking into the Chinese market. In February, the reports out of Wuhan were dire, and it was clear that the disease was poised to spread unchecked across the world. Two weeks later, the rest of America figured it out, too.

The coronavirus pandemic has done huge damage to the film industry. Theaters, a high-risk environment, were shut down immediately. They have only recently reopened overseas and are still closed in many parts of America. Film production at the scale of Mulan is a logistical challenge rivaled only by military mobilization. Now that projects are returning to shooting, pandemic precautions are adding upwards of 25 percent to budgets. Even worse for Disney, the pandemic shut down their theme parks, a major cash cow — initial estimates put the loss for the year at $280 million. Iger did the math and decided to go out on top and leave it to others to save the day.

click to enlarge Anything you can do, Mulan can do better — Yifei Liu (above and below) jumps at the chance to swing a sword for her country in Mulan, now streaming on the Disney+ platform.
  • Anything you can do, Mulan can do better — Yifei Liu (above and below) jumps at the chance to swing a sword for her country in Mulan, now streaming on the Disney+ platform.
click to enlarge film_screen_shot_2020-09-14_at_11.10.07_am_copy.jpg

Mulan was the biggest Disney release consigned to pandemic limbo. It is the epitome of the international strategy pursued by the studio. When you drop $200 million on a movie, it has to have very, very wide appeal. And since there are a billion people in China, many of whom have newly minted middle-class incomes, setting your movie there just makes good sense.

"The Ballad of Mulan" was first written down in about 550 CE, but it is believed to be much older. Hua Mulan, the female warrior who disguised her gender to fight for her emperor, is as deeply ingrained in Chinese culture as Robin Hood in English folklore. In other words, she's the perfect protagonist to build a Disney movie around. And indeed, she already got the animated musical treatment in 1998, complete with a dragon sidekick.

Directed by Niki Caro, and budgeted at a breathtaking $200 million, Mulan is the first of Disney's live-action remakes not to feel like an egregious waste of time and resources. The musical elements have been removed and the dragon sidekick has been replaced with a phoenix that the heroine occasionally hallucinates. Instead, the story gets a straight wuxia treatment — the Chinese story genre whose name translates to "marshall heroes" in which kung fu fighters are blessed with superhuman powers through their mastery of the life force, "qi." Hugely popular in China, wuxia is familiar to Western audiences through the high-flying wire work of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

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Mulan is played by Yifei Liu, a Chinese-American actor and model who is well-known in China. Director Caro puts her through the Hero's Journey paces, with one notable exception. In Joseph Campbell's formulation, the hero must first hear the call of adventure, then refuse it, before finally being forced into action by forces beyond their control. Mulan never refuses the call. She is already being held back from her destiny by the patriarchal forces of traditional Chinese society, as personified by the village matchmaker (Pei-Pei Cheng, a veteran of both the Shaw Brothers' legendary Hong Kong studio and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.) When her aged father Zhou (Tzi Ma) is called up to protect the realm against invasion by the forces of Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and the witch Xianniang (Li Gong), Mulan jumps at the chance to swing a sword in drag.

Unlike some movies in the $100-million club, Mulan puts the money on the screen. There are sweeping vistas of bamboo forests and a sprawling set-piece battle that takes visual inspiration from the climax of Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus. Like Daisy Ridley's Rey in the Disney-fied Star Wars, Liu hits her marks with a flawless physicality, but never emotes much more than a dutiful jaw-clench. Caro knows how to deploy the Spielberg punch-in to keep the action coherent, though things do get a bit muddled at the end as Mulan races to save the emperor (Jet Li). While expertly made, the whole thing seems bloodless and restrained, and definitely conservative.

With the theatrical situation uncertain, Disney decided to punt on Mulan in America, releasing it as an add-on to the Disney+ streaming service, and go with a full theatrical release in China, where the virus is under control. The streaming numbers are unknown, but the Chinese audiences so far have not shown up. Mulan is an artistic success, but Disney, who six months ago was at the helm of the global film business, now seems rudderless.

Mulan Now streaming on Disney+

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