The Mouse House’s latest live-action projects could be its most rewarding… if they get it right.
When a blog post on Angry Asian Man revealed a spec script for Disney’s live-action Mulan movie featured a white male romantic lead, the reaction on social media was swift. The hashtag #MakeMulanRight was filled with concerned reactions from fans of the original Disney animated film and members of the Asian-American community. By the end of the day, the Mouse House issued a statement that assured viewers: “Don’t worry: Mulan will not feature a white male lead.” The next morning, the anonymous poster dubbed as ConcernedForMulan breathed a sigh of relief, thanking the internet for its support in this “tremendous feat of solidarity.”
On the same day as “Mulan-gate,” Disney announced a live-action version of Aladdin could be moving forward with director Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes, Snatch). THR reports the film will feature a script by John August (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Big Fish) and will keep many of the musical elements of the original animated film. It is described as a “non-traditional” project that will be told in “non-linear” fashion, as the “stylistic” Ritchie is known to do.
In the age of Hollywood whitewashing, can we really just sit back and “not worry” as Disney turns our favorite street rat and woman warrior into real-life action heroes?
While Disney has been successful in transforming animated properties into creative and profitable live-action movies, adapting Mulan and Aladdin to live-action could be its biggest challenge yet. Recent hits like Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon were fun and safe remakes, drawing audiences in with spectacle-driven fantasy tales and computer generated creatures voiced by famous people. On the other hand, Mulan and Aladdin are known for their heroic people of color leads and stories rich in cultural and historic detail. As we have seen, racial diversity and cultural representation are controversial issues in today’s hashtag-rich climate. Disney and its filmmakers will have to be very mindful in producing these films into entertaining stories while staying true to the source material and the environments in which these stories take place.
The Asian-American community has faced a long history of being rendered invisible in mainstream movies and television. The Mulan spec script is just one of numerous examples just this past year of “Hollywood whitewashing” of Asian and Asian-American stories. (See: Ghost in the Shell, Doctor Strange, Iron Fist, Birth of a Dragon, The Great Wall, last year’s Oscars, this year’s Emmys, etc.)
According to Variety, a spec script is “a script shopped or sold on the open market, as opposed to one commissioned by a studio or production company.” The spec script The Legend of Mulan was written by Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin, who discussed their project in some detail on Chicks Who Script podcast last year. When asked if the cast was going to be Chinese, the two declined to answer. But as the Angry Asian Man blog post revealed, there is a white love interest who is described as a “30-something European trader who initially cares only for the pleasure of women and money.” As ConcernedForMulan puts it, he is the literal “white savior” who “has come to the aid of Ancient China due to a classic case of Yellow Fever.”
The story of Mulan is based on the Chinese poem “The Ballad of Mulan,” which follows a legendary woman warrior who took her aged father’s place in the army. She gained high merit as a strong warrior but, despite her success, she refused any reward and retired to her hometown. There is no room for a white male love interest in Mulan’s tale of feminist bad-assery and heroism.
The strong reaction to the spec script hopefully reminds and encourages the filmmakers to keep the live-action movie faithful to its literary roots. Prior to the spec debacle, Disney announced a “global casting search” for a Chinese actress to play the lead role. Following the #MakeMulanRight movement, Disney assured fans that the spec script was just a “jumping off point for the story.” The script is being rewritten by scribes Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (the writing team behind Jurassic World), supposedly based on Mulan’s literary origin story and the 1998 animated movie. They also confirmed that “Mulan is and will always be the lead character in the story, and all primary roles, including the love interest, are Chinese.” While it is still a bummer they paid for a spec script featuring a white dude, these latest developments show that perhaps there is some hope after all.
Aladdin was arguably one of the most popular films during the Disney Renaissance, so remaking a real-life version could prove tricky. In 2015, Disney announced they were going to make a prequel called Genies, which focused on the origin story of Genie, the beloved Disney character voiced by Robin Williams. While it is unclear what is happening with the prequel, it looks as if interest in the original animated film has been renewed.
What made 1992’s Aladdin so successful was its literal rags-to-riches story about a young brown boy who gets to have his wishes come true via a genie in a magic lamp. It also featured a catchy soundtrack by famed Disney composers Alan Menken and Tim Rice, a cast of colorful side characters including Genie, Carpet, Iago and Abu, and a #relationshipgoals romantic story between its two lovable leads: the “diamond in the rough” hero Aladdin and tough-as-nails Princess Jasmine. (Fun fact: Jasmine’s memorable performance of “A Whole New World” was voiced by Broadway star Lea Salonga, who also served as the singing voice for Mulan.) The film spoke to brown guys and gals alike, and that’s something that Disney should not underestimate in casting its live-action version.
Another tricky part of producing a live-action Aladdin will be the representation of its Arab characters and culture. A 1993 article in the Los Angeles Times reported the Arab-American community criticized the lyrics to the opening song “Arabian Nights” as racist. The original lyrics included the following lines: “Oh, I come from a land / From a faraway place / Where the caravan camels roam. / Where they cut off your ear / If they don’t like your face / It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.”
Critics also said supporting characters perpetuated negative Arab stereotypes with their heavy accents, in contrast with the lead characters’ English accents. While some of the lyrics were altered for the film’s home video release, the character representations remain unchanged. The studio will have to ensure they do not commit the same mistakes in the live-action version.
While the term “Hollywood whitewashing” is en vogue thanks to social media, racist representations in movies and television are nothing new. Disney has made quite a fortune on racist stereotypes and cultural commodification, as seen in films like Dumbo and Pocahontas. Just as fanboys can go gaga over Marvel movie adaptations of their favorite comic book characters, people of color have a right to demand accuracy and transparency in the representation of their cultures onscreen.
As we’ve seen with recent events like the Fox News Chinatown segment, a New York Times editor’s recent racist encounter, and The Night Of’s Riz Ahmed’s experience of being typecast as a terrorist, people of color have to live with the consequences of stereotypes presented about them in mainstream media. In the case of Asians, they are often portrayed as “other,” whereas people of Arab or Persian descent are dubbed as terrorists. In this highly sensitive political climate, where movie clips and videos can be shared on social media in an instant, the seemingly innocent act of making a movie can be a political one.
It’s an exciting time for Disney as they dig through their vault of nostalgic animated classics and transform them into live-action movies to be enjoyed by both 90s kids who grew up with the originals and the digital natives growing up today. Disney has the great challenge of making sure these films tug at the same nostalgic heartstrings as the originals did, while being sensitive to the portrayals of the characters and cultures depicted onscreen. One would hope the filmmakers have some sort of “cultural consultant” to help guide them through the process. In any case, if they are able to accomplish diversity and cultural accuracy while maximizing entertainment value and profitability, Disney could launch some serious franchises while staying “one jump ahead” of the social media pitchforks.