Mulan – A story with universal appeal that embodies timeless themes of honor, family, respect for elders and duty

The live-action on re-imagining of Mulan tells the epic tale of a legendary female warrior immortalized in the centuries-old Chinese ballad.

Directed by filmmaker Niki Caro from a screenplay crafted by Rick Jaff a & Amanda Silver (Jurassic World, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and Lauren Hynek & Elizabeth Marion, Mulan is based on the narrative poem The Ballad of Mulan.

The story follows a fearless young woman as she risks everything out of love for her family and her country to become one of the greatest warriors China has ever known. When the Emperor of China issues a decree that one man per family must serve in the Imperial Army to defend the country from Northern invaders, Hua Mulan, the eldest daughter of an honored warrior, steps in to take the place of her ailing father. Masquerading as a man, Hua Jun, she is tested every step of the way and must harness her inner strength and embrace her true potential. It is an epic journey that will transform her into an honored warrior and earn her the respect of a grateful nation… and a proud father.

Mulan: A Hero’s Journey

Mulan brings audiences an incredible tale that celebrates the richness of Chinese culture and the power of female strength. A story that is Chinese yet transcends borders, Mulan reflects the breadth and depth of Chinese identity.

A combination on of relatable emotions, Mulan is a movie with universal appeal that embodies the timeless themes of honor, family, respect for elders and duty.

Disney first interpreted the story of Mulan as an animated feature in 1998.

“The original ‘Ballad of Mulan’ was written centuries ago and has been popular ever since,” says producer Jason Reed. “The animated movie brought it to Western audiences. Now we’re hoping to take elements from the original ballad and the beloved Disney animation and create something that is new and exciting, while honoring the essential elements of this inspiring story. We focused on how someone can embrace bravery, loyalty and duty while still being true to oneself.”

“What stands out about Mulan is her spirit,” adds Reed. “Mulan herself is what draws me to the story. When I watched the original animated film, I loved the locatioons, I loved the music, I loved the comedy, but what really stuck with me was her character. Even though she’s a woman and Chinese, her struggle spoke to me growing up. How do you fulfill your duty? How do you do what’s right? How do you fit in and how do you find your place? I think those are really important questions, and it’s the foundatio on which we built the live-action adaptation.”

Executiv producer Bill Kong feels that today’s audiences will be able to easily relate to Mulan, although the exploits of her bravery were first told centuries ago.

“Mulan may have existed in stories a long time ago, but her character and her actions reflect women of today. And especially young Chinese women today. What Mulan represents is very much related to today’s world and the way people think today.”

Back in 2015, producing partners Chris Bender and Jake Weiner were “constantly brainstorming” fresh approaches to known intellectual properties when two writers, Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Marion, came to them with an idea for “The Ballad of Mulan.”

“We were in a period of less-than-full employment and we knew we had to make a big move. A great friend introduced us to producer Jake Weiner. We knew going in that he was looking for four-quadrant ideas based on public domain IP. We spent some time brainstorming and picked our 10 best ideas. We wrote up a few paragraphs on each idea, then went in to Jake’s office to talk about what we could possibly do together. Immediately, he picked Mulan. (For context, this was before Disney’s live-action Cinderella came out but after it had been announced).

“But, as we were writing the script on spec, we steered clear of any reference to the Disney animated movie. We went back to the thousand year old Chinese poem and legend. We did a huge amount of historical research to figure out what time period made sense and then built the world out from there.”

“We passed pages back and forth with Jake as we were writing. When we were about half-way through, Disney announced that they’d be doing more live action remakes of their animated movies and we knew we had to write even faster. Jake made sure it got into the right hands and we ended up selling the spec script to Disney 24 hours after they got it. And 12 weeks after we had our first meeting with Jake.”

Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Marion started writing their first plays at the age of about 7.

Hynek fell in love with the magic of movies while visiting her dad (visual effects supervisor Joel Hynek) on the set of “Predator” as a kid. Marion spent her tween years writing fan-fiction on episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

In high school, the two joined forces while working at the same Shakespeare theater in the summers. They continued to work in classical theater together after college, producing plays on shoestring budgets and getting paid out of a passed hat. However, frustrated with the limited roles for women in Shakespeare’s work, they started to dream of creating their own stories—ones that featured strong women their little-girl selves could look up to. They let their imaginations run to tales that couldn’t be tackled on the stage— they demanded the big screen.

Hynek and Marion spent a few years teaching themselves how to write and format a screenplay. Along the way to writing Mulan, the duo won a handful of writing contests, wrote a Lifetime movie, “Christmas Perfection,” and were hired to adapt a New York Times best-seller into an hour-long drama series for Alcon Entertainment. Currently, they’re working on a biopic about computer pioneer Grace Hopper for Middleton Media as well as rewriting an action film for a trio of companies. In their spare time, they strive to make the world a more equal place as co-chairs of the Committee of Women Writers at the WGAW.

Read an interview with Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Marion

“We were excited to develop something different than the original animated film since the underlying legend has such strong themes of empowerment,” says Chris Bender. 3 Weiner and Bender took Hynek and Marion’s script to Disney, who subsequently acquired it.

Weiner was excited to get Disney on board. “Mulan is a warrior, and we loved the idea of a Disney movie in which the heroine wasn’t in need of rescue and instead puts her life on the line to fight for her country and, ultimately bring honor to her family,” explains Weiner.

Disney brought on screenwriters Rick Jaff a & Amanda Silver for additional writing and, with the producers’ guidance, the writers adapted the source materials with a deep respect.

“Our biggest challenge in writing the screenplay was creating something new, while honoring the beloved stories of Mulan that came before. It was also our greatest inspiration,” the writing duo explains. Continuing, they add, “We’re extremely proud of ‘Mulan’ because at its core, it’s an anthem to authenticity, celebrating the idea that power comes from being true to who you are.”

Amanda Silver and Rick Jaff

Rick Jaff , with his wife and partner, Amanda Silver, collaborated as a writing team for more than 25 years. They are currently writing and producing the TV series Circe, based on the best-selling book by Madeline Miller, set to stream on HBO Max in spring of 2021. They co-wrote Avatar 2 and Avatar 3 with James Cameron (in production and scheduled for release in 2021 and 2023). In 2011, the duo wrote and produced the hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and in 2014, they co-wrote and produced the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and the third installment, War for the Planet of the Apes, was released in 2017. In 2015, they wrote the worldwide blockbuster Jurassic World.

A native of DeSoto, Texas, Jaff a graduated from Southern Methodist University with a degree in history and political science. He later earned his MBA at the University of Southern California. In 1981, Jaff a began his entertainment career in the mail room of the William Morris Agency. He became the executive assistant to legendary agent Stan Kamen. Jaff collaborated with Joel Silver as an executive producer on The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, which she scripted. They then co-wrote Eye for an Eye” and The Relic.

Silver grew up in New York City and received her B.A. in history from Yale University before moving to Los Angeles. She was an executive assistant at TriStar and Paramount Pictures before enrolling in film school at the University of Southern California, where she earned an MFA in screenwriting. Silver’s thesis script was the thriller The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and began her collaboration with Jaff a, who executive produced the film.

Jake Weiner explains the producers’ approach to the story, which informed the direction the writers embraced.

“Since the ‘Ballad of Mulan’ is an important legend in Chinese culture, we knew we had to tell a culturally thoughtful version and let that be our guide in the development of the script.”

“We were less interested in the traditonal princess love story and more interested in Mulan’s internal journey at a time when women would be executed if they joined the army.”

When it came to creating the live-action film, the filmmakers wanted to explore what it was about the animated film that was so appealing. They asked people in China, Chinese Americans, and people in the Asian diaspora which themes, characters and storylines in the animated movie they really valued. What did the movie mean to them?

They asked Western audiences the same questions.

“And the movie did not always mean the same thing to everyone,” comments Reed. “So we had to figure out how to make a new movie for a new generation that spoke to their issues and their concerns and do it within the context of this classic universal story.”

There were specific elements of the animated film that would not be jettisoned from the live-action version.

“We wanted to keep the magic that was present in the animated film,” says Reed. “There are a number of very gritty versions of the Mulan story. We didn’t think that was appropriate for the Disney version. The Disney version of the movie has to have wonder and magic, and playfulness and spectacle. The result is a great mixture of action, comedy and romance—brought together to make a film that will delight audiences of all ages.”

The producers would brook no compromise when it came to choosing the director. “This movie requires a commitment to exploring other cultures, to doing the research and listening to other points of view,” explains Reed.

“One of our challenges was to combine the Disney culture and the Chinese culture while being respectful to both. This is, fundamentally, the story of a young girl discovering her own power and her place in the world. We needed someone who could really dig into the depths of that character and bring her to life.”

A worldwide search for a director began and ultimately led the producers to Niki Caro, the award-winning New Zealand filmmaker who burst onto the international stage with Whale Rider.

Read interview with Niki Caro

Yifei Liu with Niki Caro

“What drew me to this story was Mulan herself,” says Niki Caro. “Her journey from village girl to male soldier to warrior and hero is a story that’s as relevant and as resonant as it was when it was first writen.”

“My vision for ‘Mulan’ was to tell the story in the most epic and emotional but very real way, with an updated vision and canvas. Mulan as a character means so much to fans because of her essentia nature. She’s a dutiful daughter and a loving and courageous human being—but she’s also vulnerable and fallible. Because she’s disguised as a man, she can’t rely on any of her usual skillset to further her journey—and neither could she ever rely on brute strength.”

Caro didn’t want to re-create the original animated film but rather to honor the original “Ballad of Mulan.”

“‘The Ballad of Mulan’ has been told and retold countless times over centuries,” she says. “Chinese children are all taught this story. So, Mulan in China is very real and very important and very alive, even after all of this time.”

Retelling the story with a modern sensibility didn’t mean abandoning its origins. Caro was insistent that the film respect the culture from which it springs, and her creatiive vision for the film truly connected with Mulan’s story.

“It’s tremendously important to me in this film, and indeed in all the movies I’ve made, to be thoughtful and respectful of the culture, and to be collaborative. Every department of this movie did research into Chinese culture, painting, history and accounts of war,” says the director. That research gave the film, and its tone, added depth and richness, from the characterization to the action scenes to the comedy.