Disney recently confirmed that Chinese superstar Gong Li will play the villain, a powerful witch, for the studio’s live-action remake of its 1998 animated movie, “Mulan.”
Disney is also in final talks with actor Jet Li for the role of emperor of China.
Previously announced castmates include Donnie Yen from the “Ip Man” action movie series as Commander Tung, and Liu Yifei as Mulan, a young Chinese woman who pretends to be a male soldier to take her elderly father’s place in the military. Yifei won the role after a year-long search for the next actress to play the role originally voiced by Ming-Na Wen.
New Zealand director Niki Caro (of “Whale Rider” fame) will direct the film which is set to premiere March 27, 2020.
It’s a baby step move for a company that didn’t have their first black princess until 2009. Less than a decade ago, diversity in Disney movies was much harder to find and even non-white characters were sometimes voiced by white actors.
David Spade voiced the lead in the Peruvian-set “The Emperor’s New Groove,” Jake Gyllenhaal led the Disney-produced adaptation of “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” and Johnny Depp didn’t go over entirely well as Tonto in their version of “The Lone Ranger.”
Most of the Disney live-action remakes – “Alice in Wonderland,” “Cinderella,” “Pete’s Dragon” and “Beauty and the Beast” – feature white actors in the lead roles. “The Jungle Book” starred a nonwhite lead, although according to Disney’s proposed release schedule, we’re also due for a live-action version of “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.”
The casting decision may look like a savvy business move, and it likely is. China is one of the top movie markets in the world and casting big stars from the country is a good way to get fans to support the movie.
As “Black Panther” and several movies before it have shown, representation matters. The effect of watching an Asian heroine fight battles and win can be an empowering experience for those who have never seen an American-made movie cast an Asian woman in the lead role.
This version may not replace people’s fondness for the original, but the remake gives us Disney’s first live-action movie with an all-Asian cast, and shows us that Disney is continuing to invest in diversity.