Disney devotees have a lot to look forward to next month, as the live-action Mulan is slated to hit theaters nationwide. However, when it was first announced that the title character's trusty dragon sidekick Mushu wouldn't return, fans of the original animated flick voiced their concerns across social media. But according to the masterminds behind the live-action remake, the exclusion was intentional, an effort to make the story more real, relatable, and, perhaps most importantly, respectful to Chinese culture.
Before filming began, Director Niki Caro went on several research trips to China, where she spoke with historians and brushed up on the original story, which came from a popular fifth or sixth century CE Chinese poem titled The Ballad of Mulan. "I certainly wasn't aware of how deeply important it is to Mainland Chinese — all children were taught it," Caro told the Hollywood Reporter. "She is so meaningful that many places I went, people would say, 'Well, she comes from my village.' It was wonderful to feel that profound connection — but also terrifying."
Because of the connection that many Chinese people have with the time-honored tale, Caro wanted to stray from some of the fantastical elements seen in the animated movie, including Mushu. The choice to leave out the witty dragon, who was voiced by Eddie Murphy, was met with criticism from die-hard fans. But Caro feels certain it was ultimately the right decision. "Mushu was very popular in the U.S., but the Chinese hated it," USC Professor Stanley Rosen, who specializes in Chinese politics and society, told the Hollywood Reporter. "This kind of miniature dragon trivialized their culture."
But Mushu wasn't the only thing Mulan filmmakers decided to leave out of the upcoming film. Unlike the animated movie, the live-action version will not be a musical. Caro also said that a scene featuring a kiss between Mulan (Liu Yifei) and her love interest Chen Honghui (Yoson An) was later edited out. "It was very beautiful, but the China office went, 'No, you can't, that doesn't feel right to the Chinese people,'" the director said. "So we took it out."
Though some of those elements may be missed by those who fell in love with Disney's 1998 movie, deciding on whether or not to include Mushu and musical sequences was a hard-wrought discussion between the film's creators. "We had a lot of conversations about it," Producer Jason Reed said. But in the end, they hoped to create something that didn't "have the benefit of the joke to hide behind things that might be uncomfortable and we don't break into song to tell us the subtext."
What the film lacks in comedic dragons and roaring musical numbers every moment, it makes up for in picturesque sets and intense war scenes, and that's where Caro really had a field day. "Those sequences, I'm proud of them," she said. They're really beautiful and epic — but you can still take kids. No blood is shed. It's not Game of Thrones."