On Friday, Disney’s live-action Mulan featuring an all-Asian cast premiered on streaming service Disney+ in a bold small-screen gamble that analysts say could change Hollywood forever. The whopping USD200 million (SGD272 million) film about a legendary female Chinese warrior was scheduled to hit movie theatres in March but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the movie had to be postponed several times. In August amidst the uncertainty over whether movie-going families would feel safe to return, Disney shook the industry and its cast by announcing that Mulan would skip theatres and premiere in living rooms instead.
“The decision for it to go on Disney+ was a big shock I think for a lot of us,” said actor Jason Scott Lee, who plays the movie’s main villain, adding that the film was “meant to be seen” on the big screen.
“At first it was devastating,” Tzi Ma, who plays Mulan’s father, told AFP. “But after a day or so, I thought about the silver lining… with Covid-19, our responsibilities grow. We want to keep everybody safe.”
Besides health concerns, this move is an experiment in on-demand viewing and it could change the way viewers watch movies. The premiere of Mulan coincides with the same weekend that Warner Bros. sci-fi blockbuster Tenet hit US theatres or about 70 per cent that have reopened at reduced capacity. In contrary to its rival studio which will have to split box office receipts with theatres, Disney will keep 100 per cent of profits for Mulan which costs viewers USD30, on top of existing subscriptions.
In the past, Disney has produced plenty of straight-to-video movies but they have not tried this approach with anything close to the budget of Mulan, and Tinseltown will be watching nervously.
“What happens this weekend may be remembered forever, may be a tipping point for all of Hollywood as we go into the future,” said Jeff Bock, senior analyst for industry tracker Exhibitor Relations.
“This is about how audiences are going to digest blockbuster entertainment in the future,” he added.
The decision for Disney was made easy because, in China, where Disney+ is not available, many theatres have reopened. Mulan premieres on the big screens in China next week. The film is based on a 1,500-year-old Chinese tale about a young girl who takes her ailing father’s place in the imperial army. The film is expected to be one of Disney’s biggest films ever in China. Mulan is also groundbreaking in other ways such as the fact that the entire cast is Asian or Asian-American.
This demographic is serially underrepresented in Hollywood, especially among mega-budget blockbusters. In the 1998 animation, Eddie Murphy played a dragon named Mushu but in this live-action version, his character is nowhere to be seen.
“This is huge, that a major studio has the confidence in an all-Asian, Asian-American cast, to put their weight and financial support behind it,” said Ma. “It should be a benchmark. It should be something the world can see, that this is viable.”
Do not expect the musical numbers and romantic sub-plots in the live-action film. New Zealand director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) chose a more mature tone, with beautifully choreographed fight scenes and landscapes reminiscent of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Women’s empowerment can be seen in the film with Yifei Liu’s physical performance and the introduction of a mysterious new female foe (Gong Li.)
“I don’t think Niki wanted to do a remake,” said Ma. “That’s not what we’re trying to do. We really want to connect to the original ballad as our focal point.
“I loved the songs… but it is not our mission here.”
Early reviews of Mulan have been cautiously positive. Viewers praised the film’s exceptional visuals and willingness to depart from the animation. However, some criticised a lack of character depth or humour. After months of limbo, the cast celebrates the film’s long-awaited release.
“It’s been so long, I feel like the film has been caged up, and it just needs to be set free,” said Lee.
“It needs to have its wings… let people see it in whatever format.”/TISG