“What if Mulan had to travel to the underworld?”
Let’s get down to business; Mulan’s epic journey to saving her family and country has taken a side trip, and Elizabeth Lim’s latest novel from Disney Press is the key to finding out what would happen if the happy ending we have all grown to love and adore decided to become a bit more complicated.
The story we all know follows Fa Mulan and her quest to save her father from the war against the invading Huns in China. She poses as a male, Fa Ping, racing off to fight for her family’s honor and to find her place in a world who won’t accept her for who she is. Yet, as we get closer to the climax of the story, something unexpected shifts the narrative. Mulan’s daring battle on the mountain side against Shan Yu doesn’t reveal her identity. As Shan Yu goes to attack Ping, Captain Li Shang jumps in front of her and takes a fatal blow.
The scene twists away from the original reveal and takes a darker turn, creating higher stakes and putting Li Shang’s very life in the balance. On the verge of death, Mulan sees a vision of Shang’s father, General Li, and is warned the captain will die by morning. Not wanting to accept his fate, Mulan is given the chance to venture into the realm of the Chinese underworld, Diyu. Defying the balance of life and death, she risks everything to rescue his soul and bring him back with her to the land of the living.
Mulan is accompanied by the Li Family Guardian, ShiShi, a towering stone lion that is arrogant, headstrong, and iron willed. His character, one of the many new characters introduced by the story, is nicely balanced, providing fun where it is needed, and a level of seriousness in others. He’s a bold character, and someone who isn’t afraid to speak his mind.
Another new character, King Yama, is the ruler of the underworld and makes a deal with Mulan to save Shang. The catch being that they have one night to find him and return him to the living world, otherwise she will be faced with an eternal punishment. Yama; however, doesn’t pull the strings in this story and instead hands the reigns over to another villain, Meng Po. Known as the “Lady of Forgetfulness”, Meng Po will be the biggest adversary preventing Mulan from her goal.
Meng Po, like many other elements of the story shift constantly, focusing entirely on deception and confusion. For readers, it does create an interesting shift in tide throughout the story, but is not unpredictable given the circumstances Mulan and company find themselves in. The entire story leads Mulan and the reader to not trust anything they come across. Meng Po pops up more than a few times with the same tricks up her sleeve. As a result, her schemes become very repetitive in nature and a bit exhausting. Though each illusion is different, Mulan and the audience aren’t fooled for a second. Because of that, the smoke and mirrors can be spotted a mile away.
Nevertheless, the book brings you closer into Mulan and Shang’s world, molding a more somber and insightful glimpse into their personas. The extra pages do a great job at filling in the gaps and giving you a stronger appreciation for the relationship building between these two. You learn more about Shang’s backstory, his relationship with his father, and his challenge in overcoming Mulan’s deception as Ping. He still has that tough exterior, but we get to add more dimensions to him.
Meanwhile, more attention is given to the struggle Mulan faces with her self doubt. Her actions have a greater weight to them, really giving readers the opportunity to watch her battle with her inner demons, find harmony in her emotions, and come out with a better grip on what’s really important. Fitting in with the theme of the film, family and self acceptance are everything. Yet, by placing both characters in the underworld, Lim gave herself plenty of room for constructing beyond the established story. The underworld becomes a perfect setting for their personal journey.
The premise of the afterlife and Diyu is a very serious undertaking, one that could easily detract from the overall hopeful and joyful theme Disney is so well known for. Very few properties have touched the concept, and though the tagline for the book may turn some heads in confusion, the details and elements of this dark and mysterious realm round out a beautifully painted picture. It creates a middle ground of maturity and youthful optimism that is unexpected and fitting.
It’s also a terrific way for younger audiences to learn more about Chinese culture and mythology. A lot of elements in the story, such as the levels of Diyu, the locations, and challenges, come directly from real Chinese texts and teachings. Given the importance of historical and cultural accuracy, it’s a subtle and creative approach to bring more of the world of the ancient Chinese into the world of Disney. Similar to Hercules, its inclusively playful without feeling like a history lesson.
The novel overall is a fun and unique addition to the “Twisted Tales” series. Young adults and the young at heart will have plenty of entertaining moments to pour into. You can read a preview except via the recent post below featured on “Oh My Disney”
Reflection: A Twisted Tale will be available on March 27th.