Disney’s ‘Mulan’ is set for a disappointing debut in the market it’s courted most

Dogged by political controversies and hit by piracy and negative reviews, Walt Disney Co.’s $200 million live-action remake “Mulan” is heading for a weak premiere Friday in China, one of its key target markets.

On Thursday, pre-sales for tickets stood at about 8.2 million yuan ($1.2 million), according to Maoyan Entertainment, which operates China’s largest online ticketing platform. That’s less than one-sixth of the opening day local box-office collections for “Tenet,” the Warner Bros. sci-fi thriller that started showing last week in the country.

Disney created “Mulan,” which is based on a Chinese folk song, partly to woo audiences in a country that, prior to the pandemic, had been set to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest film market. But the film has now become a magnet for political attacks, including a boycott by Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists unhappy with lead actress Liu Yifei’s support for the city’s police.

In the U.S., Disney itself has come under fire by China critics in Congress who faulted the entertainment giant for filming in Xinjiang, where the government has detained as many as 1 million ethnic Uighurs in camps called “voluntary education centers.” The region’s authorities were thanked in the movie’s credits.

Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, slammed Disney on Twitter, saying the entertainment giant is “addicted to Chinese cash and will do just about anything to please the Communist Party.” Another Republican senator, Josh Hawley of Missouri, sent Disney Chief Executive Officer Bob Chapek a letter with nine questions, asking whether the company would donate any “Mulan” profits to “organizations dedicated to fighting human trafficking and other atrocities” in China.

Disney released the film in the U.S. Sept. 4 over its Disney+ service, where it’s available for a fee of $30. Downloads of Disney’s streaming app rose 68% to 890,000 over the weekend, a sign that “Mulan” helped drive demand in a market where cinemas are still not fully reopened.

The earlier showings in the U.S. also mean pirated copies have been available to Chinese willing to download them. The availability has also given watchers time to post reviews.

On Douban, China’s largest movie rating platform, there were already more than 35,000 comments on the film as of early Thursday. More than 70% of the posts were negative, while only 13% of the comments were positive.

“Would foreigners really pay $30 to watch this thing?” one user said. “It didn’t get the essence of Chinese culture,” said another.

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