Disney’s live action remake of Mulan was not a success.
This isn’t exactly a shock, considering the studio’s track record reimagining their beloved animated classics, but several aspects of this specific failure set the Mulan remake apart. It’s hard to tell how much of a finantial triumph the film was for the studio, given the strange circumstances in which it was released, but the film seems to have accrued more negative criticism than any other Disney live action remakes due to a myriad of reasons. Besides the usual talking points from people fundamentally opposed to the idea of these recycled projects, it has been criticised for deviating too much from from the original film, for missrepresenting Chinese culture, for colliding with the authoritarian Chinese regime…It’s a lot.
Naturally, it’s also received criticism from numerous feminist circles. Many people consider that the remake does a disservice to one of Disney’s most beloved and proactive female characters, striping her off her agency, personality, and merit. In the remake, Mulan does not achieve great things through her hard work and cleverness, like in the original film, but through her innate ability to use chi, which she can employ seemingly instinctively to overcome almost any obstacle.
The very concept of how chi is used in the storyhas been one of the most universally criticised story elements from the remake. I would like to propose that a similar message to what the film was going for could have worked, and point at a film that did something similar.
Legally Blonde, released in 2001, tells the story of Elle Woods, a young woman whose boyfriend breaks up with her because he doesn’t consider her respectable enough for his aspiring political career. Determined to prove him wrong, Elle sets out to join Harvard Law School as well, facing and endless stream of opposition in the process.
It’s a film about how women are constantly sidelined, undermined, and underrated in many academical and professional fields, regardless of their actual capabilities. Harvard’s Law School in the film doesn’t necessarily discriminate against women, but it does discriminate against feminimity. The character Vivian Kensington, another female law student, renounces completely to anything that can be considered feminine in order to fit in and be taken seriously, whether she does it consciously or not. She’s preppy, she’s serious-minded, and she’s definitely not feminine. The kind of woman that can graduate from Harvard, according to what everyone in the film takes for granted. Elle refuses to renounce to be who she is to satisfy others, and therefore she is constantly and mercilessly attacked for it, regularly being told that she doesn’t belong or that she’s not good enough.
But she does, and she is. Elle is just as competent as any other student in the film, if not more, to the surprise of everyone who assumed that a feminine, fashionable, and cheerful girl could not be able to enter Harvard Law School. Even after demonstrating that she can do it, her efforts and achievements are still constantly undermined by the people who refuse to accept how capable she is, and it takes the entire film for Elle to finally come out on top and prove her detractors wrong. It’s an extremely empowering message that reenforces how capable and determined Elle is, even in the face of adversity. Elle didn’t need to change to be good enough. She always was, and she never let anyone convince her that she wasn’t.
All things considered, despite the massive differences in setting, tone, and genre, the situations in which Elle and Mulan find themselves are not that different. They’re both women who willingly enter a traditionally male-centric world, they’re both able to stand out in their field above their competitors, and they’re both forced to face an extra challenge due to the societal expectations enthrusted upon their gender. Of course, the major difference between them is that Mulan tells a tale in which the main character is forced to pass as a different gender to bypass societal biases. Nevertheless, the similarities are clear, as they’re both films about gifted, talented women who are forced to prove themselves to a society that won’t give them a fair, equal opportunity.
Just like Mulan was essentially born as a fighter, Elle has a natural talent and the disposition necessary to be accepted into Harvard if she wants. It should be noted that this is not to say Elle has an easy way to the top. In fact, she has to work extremely hard to overcome the extra biases and obstacles put ahead of her. However, the whole crux of the conflict is how her environment assumes that she’s not able to achieve her objectives, refusing to giving her a chance, even though she can certainly accomplish her goals through effort, creativity, and lateral thinking. Both characters already had everything they needed, but they prove it and earn a moral victory in completely different ways.
For Mulan, all it takes is to finally show her true potential for everyone to come around and immediately forget about their biases and preconceptions. Unlike Elle (or Mulan herself in the original movie), she doesn’t need to work extra hard, or even work at all, she just needs to hide her naturally given superpowers until the time is right, and then hope the men around her will suddenly change their opinion upon seeing her magical abilities. This completely bypasses an extremely relatable issue for many female viewers, women who often face similar biases to those Elle and Mulan encounter. Mulan brushes aside this theme with a quick and cheap solution, despite setting it up as the main plot point of the movie, without really offering any commentary on how women deserve equal opportunities and respect from their male peers. In the end, the moral of the story is that you need to have superpowers to be respected as a woman in a traditionally male-centric environment, whereas the message in Legally Blonde is not only much more uplifting and inspiring, but also grounded and realistic.
The whole treatment of chi in Mulan is questionable at best, and it needs a major rewrite no matter what. And it’s not like Mulan could (or should) adopt the same plot as Legally Blonde, since Mulan’s posing as a different gender is an inherent part of the tale. Nevertheless, Mulan could have learned a lot from how Legally Blonde uses societal biases against women not just to provide an extra challenge to its main character, but also to enhance her merits.