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It wasn’t difficult for die hard Disney fans to spot all the differences between the animated version of Mulan from 1998 and the modern live-action retelling that premiered on Disney+ this month. Besides the musical numbers, one of the major missing pieces from the original was Mushu, the talking dragon-turned-sidekick voiced by Eddie Murphy.
Why exactly did Mulan’s former buddy get the boot in this new imagining of the fabled Chinese warrior?
As you might suspect, the reasoning’s for removing Mushu very much hinged on the fact that this version of Mulan was attempting to be more realistic (after all, it is a live-action movie!). As director of the new film, Niki Caro briefly touched upon this direction in an interview with USA Today: “Mushu, beloved as that character is in the animation, was Mulan’s confidante, and part of bringing it into the live-action is to commit to the realism of her journey,” Caro explained. “She had to make those relationships with her fellow soldiers. So there was certainly a lot to work with in that department.”
Indeed, Mulan’s band of comrades was more central to the story in the 2020 film than the original, and fans saw friendships blossom between Hua Mulan and her fellow soldiers like Chen Honghui. But some viewers may have missed the fact that despite the lack of talking dragons, Mulan is still guided on her journey by a mythical animal — the red phoenix, which Caro told Digital Spy was meant to honor the original character of Mushu while adding to the new, more realistic narrative:
“I think we can all appreciate that Mushu is irreplaceable… You know, the animated classic stands on its own in that regard. In this movie, there is a creature representative: A spiritual representation of the ancestors, and most particularly of Mulan’s relationship with her father. But an update of Mushu? No.”
Since the new Mulan is currently facing backlash over its choice of filming locations, some may be wondering if cultural influences and considerations had any bearing on the removal of Mushu from the film. Indeed, as first noted by Vulture, Mushu’s name is just one example of how filmmakers specifically Americanized the Chinese tale for a Disney audience. And this time around, Mulan producer Jason Reed told Collider that filmmakers took note of criticism levied against the original animated film, which included adverse reactions from Chinese audiences to the use of an animated dragon. “The dragon is a sign of respect and it’s a sign of strength and power,” he said. “Using it as a silly sidekick didn’t play very well with the traditional Chinese audience.”
But perhaps the most significant reason why the new Mulan film features a phoenix instead is due to the symbolism of the mythical bird for Chinese women in particular — or at least according to Caro’s vision. “The dragon is representative of the masculine, and the phoenix is representative of the feminine,” she said when asked about the topic, People reports. “In a movie, in a story that so much explores gender fluidity, I thought that that was a really nice and appropriate way to go.”