Yesterday afternoon brought news that Disney is developing a live-action version of its 1998 animated classic “Mulan.”
Here’s some real talk: “Mulan” was not a big hit for Disney. Its $304 million box-office gross was a big fall from early-nineties blockbusters like “Beauty and the Beast” ($425 million), “Aladdin” ($504 million), and “The Lion King” ($987 million). Yet “Mulan” was an extraordinarily important film for Big Mouse, since the film opened up the Chinese box office for the first time to Disney’s animated films.
That’s not to say, though, that “Mulan” should be discarded as mere flattery to Beijing. I’ve written before about how Hollywood’s efforts to cater to global tastes may yield long-term positive outcomes, and “Mulan” is a perfect example of that. Whatever its faults as a Disneyfied adaptation of a classic epic — though how could you argue with the power of a song like “Reflections”? — “Mulan” is integral to the Big Mouse’s panoply of diverse female protagonists. (Let’s also debate how Disney gave Mulan a princess makeover at a later time.)
We need children’s movies to represent what people look like in real life — an urgent goal that the film industry routinely fails, both with gender and race. In movies aimed at children 12 or younger, female characters make up less than one third of all characters. (Put another way, there are 2.24 male characters for every female character.) And in animated movies, characters of color stood at less than 15% of all characters, even though nearly half of all children under the age of 5 in the US today are not white.
“Mulan,” then, is doubly important for diversifying our images of girls as kindhearted but determined warriors and for providing desperately needed role models of color. And just as importantly, the live-action version of “Mulan,” which has been written by the female writing team of Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek, is likely to continue Disney’s post-“Alice in Wonderland” trend of revisiting its own animated archive and retelling those stories with more feminism.
Screenwriter Linda Woolverton injected her own feminist perspective into “Alice” and “Maleficent,” for example, tackling issues of early marriage and sexual assault, respectively. Even Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella,” while no Valerie Solanas manifesto, was slightly more progressive than its cartoon predecessor.
There’s no reason to doubt that Disney will continue this trend of femme-powered fairy tales. A profound feminist revision of “The Snow Queen” made “Frozen” one of the most fantastic successes in recent movie history. And it’s no secret that much of the success of that sororal romance lies in the girl-power anthem “Let It Go.”
If there’s one thing Disney has proven adept at — evidenced by these live-action adaptations — Mouse Corp. knows what sells in this century, which is feminism.
Now if only Disney could commit to gender equality behind the camera, too.