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Donnie Yen Joins Disney’s Live-Action ‘Mulan’

We’re starting to see just how different Niki Caro’s remake the 1998 animated classic will be.
Donnie Yen Rogue One
By  · Published on April 12th, 2018

We’re starting to see just how different Niki Caro’s remake the 1998 animated classic will be.

In early March, Disney announced that it would be pushing back the live-action Mulan remake, which was an admittedly frustrating development. However, after thinking back on how the studio’s Marvel arm delayed the release of Black Panther only to have the superhero film really soar, perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing. If releasing Mulan in 2020 means that Disney is courting the best people possible for every role, let’s be all for it.

After more than a year of extensive searching, the studio eventually cast Hollywood newcomer Liu Yifei as the title character. Now, according to Deadline, veteran Hong Kong movie star Donnie Yen has joined the project in a role that isn’t part of the animated version. He is slated to play Commander Tung, a purported mentor and teacher of Mulan.

Tung could be a good role for Yen, seeing as it will obviously utilize his martial arts background as much as possible while also allowing him to tap into some emotional beats as he builds that mentor-protege relationship. The rest of Tung’s characterization is up in the air for now given that there isn’t a blueprint for such a character in the original film. One could point to Mushu as a mentor — albeit a very bad one — and good friend, or even, to some extent, Li Shang, who is Mulan’s trainer in the animated feature. Nevertheless, these speculations are mostly shots in the dark, and that could be a good thing.

Mulan is a particularly tricky live-action adaptation to craft. At its core, the 1998 film is about a woman who dons her father’s armor and heads off to war in his stead. Along the way, she has to get used to life in the army with rough and tough soldiers until she proves to be both hardworking and resilient, earning her place in her unit and becoming a well-liked soldier herself. Mulan’s heroism is especially highlighted when despite being discovered as a woman and kicked out of the army, she returns to fight by her comrades’ sides nonetheless. Mulan’s brash decisions are necessary in the fight for her country and family.

Still, the animated feature has a lot more bells and whistles amidst its powerful story, including songs and rather overt humor in the form of a talking dragon. These are more tenuous features of the film that wouldn’t likely make it to the big screen a second time without being jarring or hokey. Regardless, even if the iconic melodies of “Reflection” and “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” are axed, that could genuinely be okay.

Disney has already set a precedent with its live-action remakes; these films have been bolstered by material that simply isn’t in a 90-minute animated package. For example, the 2015 version of Cinderella adds side characters, shifts origin stories around, and makes every supporting character a little more well-rounded. There are no talking animals. There isn’t even any singing, except for when it feels more organic to the film’s plot. The Mulan remake could follow Cinderella‘s lead in these respects. Furthermore, in looking at the filmography of Caro (Whale Rider) and imagining her version of the story through her demonstrated penchant for pathos, these changes would perfectly fit into the adaptation.

Reports have been rather vague about which characters will be included in the live-action Mulan, although Disney is committed to hiring an all-Chinese cast. The reshuffling of core characters in the film at least ensures an element of surprise as the production takes shape. At the very least, Disney has assured the world that no white man will be Mulan’s love interest and that the story will prioritize her.

Yen is a rather obvious choice for a big-budget film ever since appearing in Rogue One over a year ago — he is arguably a fan favorite in that particular Star Wars movie — but there aren’t any complaints. Yen has a great international appeal as a renowned action star and has demonstrated some serious dramatic chops plenty of times over. So far, Disney is two for two for this highly-anticipated adaptation.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)