By R.T. Watson
Walt Disney Co.'s retelling of an ancient Chinese folk tale,
"Mulan," fought off political backlash and lukewarm reviews on its
way to a strong opening in China.
Ranking atop the world's second-largest movie market this
weekend, the film grossed a solid $23.2 million, according to
preliminary estimates. That is encouraging news for the studio,
which spent years producing the $200 million movie with the goal of
winning over Chinese moviegoers. In addition to the size of its box
office, China is also home to two Disney theme parks, making it a
crucial market for Disney to bolster its brand.
Disney headed into the weekend under fire from human-rights
advocates and American politicians for using the movie's credits to
thank Chinese authorities in the Xinjiang region, where a portion
of the movie was filmed. Those groups and others accuse the Chinese
government of committing rights abuses against millions of members
of ethnic Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang.
Last week, as calls to boycott the film swirled on social media
and elsewhere, U.S. lawmakers, led by Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.),
sent a letter to Disney Chief Executive Bob Chapek requesting that
the company explain why it chose to film part of the movie in
Xinjiang. It wasn't the first time calls to boycott the film
bubbled up. Activists railed against "Mulan" after the film's star,
Liu Yifei, voiced support in 2019 for Hong Kong police amid
pro-democracy demonstrations there.
Disney first attempted to adapt the centuries-old story of
"Mulan" in 1998, with an animated musical version of the tale about
a young woman who disguises herself as a man and marches off to war
in her ailing father's stead. The movie performed well
internationally but bombed in China, even by the standards of
China's then-fledgling theatrical market. Some Chinese moviegoers
complained the version favored Western values like personal
transformation. The film's cast of voices included Eddie Murphy,
Harvey Fierstein and other Western stars.
This time, Disney sought to learn from past errors. Producers
found an all Chinese cast including the film's star, Ms. Liu, a
household name in China. The Hollywood studio consulted with
Chinese authorities on the script, while also endeavoring to hew
closer to traditional Chinese values than the previous film.
Not all Chinese moviegoers believe Disney succeeded.
The film's first weekend in China is respectable, especially
considering that theaters there began reopening only in July, but
Disney's efforts to make a more culturally authentic version of
"Mulan" have so far received a mixed reception there. The movie
scored 4.9 out of 10 on the country's most popular movie-review
"Mulan's tale is a traditional story almost every Chinese person
is familiar with," said 27-year-old Chen Jize, a human-resources
professional who saw "Mulan" in Shanghai. "For us, there is a
strong sense of conflict when we watch the movie because of how it
differs from the story we are familiar with."
The "Mulan" numbers put the movie in the middle of the pack for
recent Disney remakes opening in China: more than the $18.8 million
that its live-action "Aladdin" made last May but well below the
$53.9 million the new "Lion King" earned, according to Comscore
In many markets, including the U.S., Disney canceled plans to
release "Mulan" in theaters, posting it instead on its new Disney+
streaming service for about $30, on top of the $6.99 monthly
subscription. The company hasn't said how many users purchased the
movie since it became available on Sept. 4.
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Chinese box office has
rebounded more swiftly than in the U.S. China even has a bona fide
box-office hit on its hands. The Chinese war epic "The Eight
Hundred" embodies the resilience of China's theatrical business,
grossing $80.4 million during its first weekend. According to
Comscore, the movie has made nearly $400 million in China, putting
it on pace to potentially dethrone Sony Corp.'s "Bad Boys for
Life," which made $424.6 million globally, as the top-grossing film
released in 2020.
U.S. theaters have been struggling to find their footing since
they began opening in sizable numbers late last month.
During its second weekend in domestic theaters, Warner Bros.'
"Tenet" grossed $6.7 million, bringing its North American total to
$29.5 million, according to preliminary estimates. "Tenet" still
has a chance to earn significant returns in the U.S., as it is
scheduled to run for several more weeks as the only high-profile
film that theaters have to offer. Globally, the film has earned
$207 million, according to Comscore.
In China, by contrast, "Tenet" grossed $10.2 million this
weekend, bringing its total there to $50.8 million after roughly
the same amount of time the film has played in the U.S.
The U.S. theatrical market's road to recovery may remain slow.
The decision by AT&T Inc.'s Warner Bros. to release "Tenet"
domestically after a series of delays was widely applauded in
Hollywood, as it was the first high-profile release in months and
theaters are desperate for new films. But sluggish ticket sales
through two weekends signal moviegoers might have a way to go
before they are willing to return to theaters en masse.
Theaters in key U.S. markets remain closed, according to Disney,
such as New York state, Michigan and much of California, including
Los Angeles and San Francisco. Comscore says about 60% of North
American theaters are operating. In locales where cinemas are open,
they are generally required to adhere to government-imposed
capacity restrictions that limit the number of tickets they can
sell at each screening.
--Yin Yijun contributed to this article.
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
September 13, 2020 15:31 ET (19:31 GMT)
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