In Defense of a Mushu-less Mulan: It’s Time to Take Asian Leads Seriously [OP-ED]

By Claudia Vaughan Jul 19, 2019

Last week, Disney released the first teaser trailer for the new live action “Mulan” movie, and the internet had plenty to say about it. When it comes to classic Disney films, audiences are fiercely defensive of the stories that shaped their childhood. So it’s no surprise that many were disappointed to discover that beloved talking dragon Mushu (originally voiced by the charismatic Eddie Murphy) was cut from the story, as had the iconic musical numbers (the 2020 film will not be a singalong, but it will incorporate some of the songs into the instrumental score). Fans took to social media to express their frustration and skepticism with the changes, with some even saying that the new version would never live up to the original without the sassy sidekick and the character of Li Shang, Mulan's original love interest (and my first cinematic crush, thank you very much).

But if we’re able to separate ourselves from the nostalgia, we could see that these changes might actually make the new film even better. Hear me out: losing the fantastical aspects of the 1998 original sets the stage for the new film to be more dramatic and grounded, and provide an opportunity for Asian characters to be taken seriously, which rarely happens on screen.

All too often, Asians are depicted as either small side characters or punchlines. It feels like we’ve only recently started to get it right—“it” being authentic portrayals of Asians in entertainment (think “Always Be My Maybe” from comedy duo Ali Wong and Randall Park, or Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” starring Awkwafina, both of which only came out within the past two months). Typically, Hollywood still gets these portrayals really, really wrong: consider Chris Rock at the 2016 Oscars wheeling out three Asian kids onstage for a laugh, or the Asian characters in the most recent season of “Black Mirror” being relegated to a pushy business executive with seemingly no redeeming qualities and two stereotypical ninja-like characters straight out of a futuristic version of Street Fighter. In short, there’s still much progress to be made.

But the new Mulan teaser is interesting. What Disney has chosen to share with audiences thus far speaks volumes about the tone it’s trying to set. To be sure, Mulan's always been a badass, especially on the spectrum of other Disney princesses. But this takes her to an entirely different level; the 90-second teaser promises a film that will be a large scale, action-packed, female-driven adventure. We get a steady voiceover from one of the matchmakers describing the qualities they believe Mulan embodies (“quiet, composed, graceful, disciplined”) set in ironic juxtaposition with shots of Mulan flipping through the air, wielding weapons (fans may be pleased to see that she’s also taken on a bow and arrow in this version) and engaging in combat on the battlefield against male soldiers. Also notable is the fact that the only other characters shown in the teaser are the matchmakers and Mulan’s family members; that is, any potential love interest is completely absent—another mark toward her strength and independence. The teaser ends with a solo shot of Mulan, hair down and sword in hand, draped in bright red, China’s national color and a widely-recognized symbol of fire. Then her voiceover declares, “It is my duty to fight.” This is a freer, fiercer, more powerful Mulan.

Merely creating Asian characters for screen is only the beginning of the journey toward proper representation. Beyond that, and what is even more exciting, is the prospect of watching them dominate the screen. In a world where authentic Asian stories are still relatively new to the silver screen, we need to treat them with the weight and complexity they warrant. We deserve Asian characters who are not simply present, but who rise to meet their fate and bring honor to loyal audiences everywhere.

Claudia Vaughan is an entertainment writer and lover of all things TV and film. Originally from Chicago, she currently resides in Los Angeles and is most interested in examining diversity and representation within the entertainment industry, especially for Asians and Asian Americans. In her spare time, she enjoys boxing, coordinating a women's book club and spending quality time with her cat, Jet.