A Research On Animated Film Mulan And How It Achieves Transcultural Adaption


Recently a teaser trailer for the live-action remake of Disney's 1998 movie Mulan was released. The casting and Chinese elements showed in this trailer caused worldwide debate. BBC News reported a post with the headline of 'Disney aims to win over China with second take on the legend', and pointed this film was faced with lots of criticism already before it comes out. The adaption of foreign culture was often displayed in animated feature films but always a difficult problem to solve. Under this circumstance, the following article is aimed to look back at the first take of the legend of Mulan and research into the motivation of Disney for making this film, the unique process of production, the result and influence of Mulan, and how the transcultural adaption was carried out in that film.


Mulan is a 1988 Disney animated feature film, directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook, with story by Robert D. San Souci and screenplay by Rita Hsiao, Philip LaZebnik, Chris Sanders, Eugenia Bostwick-Singer, and Raymond Singer. It was released in the late so-called Disney's renaissance period. In this period, between 1989 and 1999, the Disney studio experienced both commercial and aesthetic evolution. Begun with The little mermaid(1989), box-office performance raised significantly. And it reached a peak with the release of The Lion King in 1994, which generated almost $800 million in total US and worldwide gross but only cost $50 million to produce. Thanks to accumulation of previous films, Disney Studio had a solid financial basis to make Mulan. Paul McDonald writes, the average production budget of animated features made after The lion King has risen to $88 million, which exceeds the $78 million Hollywood average. At the same time, the techniques also experience development. CAPS- a 'computer aided production system' changed the working process in Disney that allowed them to experiment with three-dimensional computer animation. Thus when they began to produce Mulan, the financial and technical support are relatively adequate and mature.

Choice of the subject

Mulan is originally a household traditional Chinese 'Ballad' from Northern Dynasties China, tells a story about a girl who goes to war in place of her father. Lan Dong notes in the Legend and Legacy in China and the United States, that although there were a few adaptions of the Mulan's tale appear since 1881, it was not well known among English speakers until the 1976 publication of Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior. This book illustrates Mulan's character into a talented and competent warrior who joins the army on behalf of her family and community and makes a contrast with the reality of her poor and repressed life of Chinese American women. The book received overwhelming response that it has become a canonical work in Asian American literary studies (Dong 2011,94). One of the reasons has to be that the female sensibility, subjectivity and feeling represented in the book cater to the emergence of feminism at that time. According to Eleanor Byrne and Martin McQuillan, 'Disney's renaissance in the 1980s was marked by the birth of a new breed of newly born women who have desires to escape the prisons of domesticity'. The story of Mulan just provided a potential beloved female model role as well as mystery oriental element. Hence, it was a reasonable choice of Disney rewriting this ancient Chinese independent female character that was like to win the modern age audience's heart. Moreover, this choice also could appeal to a wider international market.

Process of Production

How to adapt and modify an ancient 'Ballad' from a faraway country could be a challenge. Because the original 'Ballad' was made in refined ancient Chinese prose with only the core plot. First when they got the story, they made big mistakes that they were ignoring the initial motivation of Mulan in the original 'Ballad', saving his father's life, but trying to fit the story into a Disney formula, Pam Coats, the producer of Mulan said that 'we started off making a movie about a girl who is unhappy…a character who was tired of her life who wanted to escape' (1998). Looking back on previous Disney features like The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and Beast (1991), the structure of the storyline was obviously similar: an adolescent hero or heroine unsatisfied with her or his life takes an adventure in search of a true self-value. After going through all the challenge and obstacles, the protagonist finally solves the crisis and achieve individual fulfillment. Fortunately they realized that following the old model would direct to fail, and changed their direction of modifying. Dean DeBlois, Co-Head Story of Mulan, indicated that they ended up with a very self-serving character that was disagreeable. And they understood the reason they fall for the girl in the original story is that she cares more for others than she does for herself. (1998) Disney put devotion, wisdom, bravery along with carelessness, self-doubt, and timorous on this character at the same time, which makes her believable.

What they didn't follow the original 'Ballad' was that they developed a number of episodes to describe Mulan 's military career. The original lines were refined and abstract:

'Ten thousand miles she rode in war,

Crossing passes and mountains as if on a wing.

On the northern air comes the sentry's gong,

Cold light shines on her coat of steel.

The general dead after a hundred battles,

The warriors return after ten years.'

Disney creates new scenarios to describe how Mulan is trained and how she saves the whole troop by triggering the avalanche. These innovative plots portray Mulan's wisdom, persistence, courage, skills acquired through intensive training, which builds the credibility for her later success.

In order to discover and recover the original cultural environment of the story, in 1994, Disney sent out ten of creative people to China for a three-week trip to conduct the research. In the making of Mulan, Pam Coats states that their journey began from the north part of the Great Wall and then to Datong, Luoyang, Xi'an, Jiayu Guan, Dun- huang, and Guilin to trace the cultural heritage of Mulan and her heroic deeds. They were trying to record every unique element during the visiting, such as the aflutter flat on the Great Wall, Moon Gate in traditional gardens, ancestors stone stela and curve design of rooftop. All of those icons are reflected in the designing of the film. The 'poetic simplicity' (to use Pam Coats's phrase) that infuses traditional Chinese painting appears to be the signpost in the processing of visual development. They went with the design theory inspired from the Chinese art that everything is going to have inner strength not get caught up and covering things with lots of details. Setting the scenery with big shapes without many positive details allows them to play with the negative space.

Having developed ways to animate 3-D environments, Disney began to utilize new techniques to generate bigger special effects. The director Tony Bancroft explained their process of creating the scene that Huns' army rundown hill. The CG department created a terrain, basically a three-dimensional surface based on the layout and simulated the Huns with simple squares. Also the camera was animated to track, zoom and pan in the computer. With those techniques, they are able to create crowd scenes of epic proportion in Mulan.

Result and influence

Mulan got successful box office performance and made significant cultural impact. It earned $120 million in US and $300 million revenue in international market which was a great profit comparing to the $70 million production budget. In addition, Mulan has won a number of awards and nominations. Mulan themed products appeared in fast-food restaurants, shopping mall and chain stores. The film Mulan has been released in many countries and regions and dubbed into thirty-five languages including Mandarin and Cantonese.

Along with international fame, there were different voices coming out. Richard Corliss was one of the praising voice. Her review for the Times comments that the film delivers positive messages for children: family love and duty, personal honor and group commitment, obedience and ingenuity. In Corie Brown and Laura Shapiro's Newsweek article, they view the film as a positive product of female empowerment for it portraying a strong-willed and powerful heroine figure. Moreover, Joseph M. Chan claimed that the film adapts a traditional Chinese legend onto the screen while keeping in mind an international market. It achieves transculturation and globalization successfully.

However, there were other opposite voices at the same time. Kathi Maio criticizes in her article for the New Internationalis that the Disney version of Mulan actually confirms a male-dominant rule for the heroine is looking for the identification with man instead of seeking her own empowerment. She also argues that this film has become 'an agent of a U.S. conglomerate's ambition to dominate the culture of Asia and the entire globe'. An Asian American scholar Sheng- mei Ma also argues against the film's re-orientalizing China and Chinese culture for consumption and cultural authenticity. 

Transcultural Adaption

Following the criticisms of Mulan, I would like to address two critical questions: Is Mulan a success example of transcultural adaption? How it affects international and original culture?

According to the process of preproduction, Disney did make efforts to show 'respect' to the culture origin for taking a research trip to China and infusing Chinese elements in designing. They also hired Asian and Asian American artists such as Taiwan-born artist Chen-Yi Chang as Character designer, the Chinese-American scriptwriter Rita Hsiao, and Ming-Na Wen as the speaking voice of Mulan to utilize so-called 'cross-cultural referencing mechanisms'. However, there are still many images and designs in the film fail to represent Chinese and Chinese Culture. For instance, the prevailing use of dragon images appears in the whole film including lamps, shields, and pillars in the Fa household and canons of solders were problematic. Because in ancient China, only the emperor has the right to use the image of dragon while civilians' using it will be regarded as a severe crime. Disney only incorporates the icons of Chinese culture that are familiar to non-Chinese audiences, i.e. the Great Wall, a panda bears, the Imperial City, Chinese calligraphy and Chinese martial arts. Moreover, the film has instilled individualism, the mainstream American ideology to appeal to American and international audiences. Joseph Chan concludes: 'Mulan is not genuinely Chinese, nor is it all American. It has become a transcultural text: a combination of old and new, traditional and modern, East and West, collectivism and individualism, female submissiveness and women's liberation, filial piety and reciprocal love between father and daughter'.

According to the performance of box office, this hybrid adaption film works well to the international audience except for Chinese audience. The statistical data from China Film Corporation in February 1999 showed that Mulan's box office revenue in mainland China was the lowest among the thirty-four imported American films since 1994, which poses a sharp contrast to the great success of The Lion King. To the audience that is familiar with the Mulan's legend and with specific original cultural setting, the film fails to meet their expectations. Furthermore, the westernized interpretation that simplifies and misrepresents Chinese tradition raised concern at that time. Wang qian's essay analyzes that such misunderstanding is harmful for the transmission of Chinese culture and will damage 'the national independence and the cultural uniqueness.' Despite the worries for colonizing Chinese culture, there are some opinions support this adaption product. Bi Geng and Li Dongqing 's article acclaim this film as 'a vivid model and salutary lesson for Chinese literature and arts to enter the global stage'.


In summary, Mulan is a worldwide successful animated feature both commercially and artistically with mature audio-visual language. It also exerted strong culture influence with conflicts and fusion of eastern and western culture. This adaption product of Chinese ancient introduced Fa-Mulan to the world. It may enrich their knowledge of china when people enjoy movies and attract their attention to Chinese culture. However, the inaccuracies represented it the film can cause culture domination because of Disney's significant international influence. For the people who don't know the original story may believe this Disney version hybrid Mulan is the true story. 'American Mulan' replaced the Chinese one. Disney owns the narrative of this Chinese story and even Chinese culture which is what Chinese are concerned. For persistent transcultural adaption works nowadays like live-action Mulan, cultural authenticity is a problem that needs to be regarded.


  • LAN DONG. Mulan's Legend and Legacy in China and the United States. Temple University Press, 2011. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt14btd0g.
  • Bancroft, Tony. et al. Mulan. Special ed. United States: Walt Disney Home Entertainment, 2004. Film.
16 December 2021
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