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MULAN – Harry Gregson-Williams

September 11, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The latest Walt Disney animated film to be re-imagined as a live action motion picture is Mulan, directed by Niki Caro and written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, and Elizabeth Martin. Like its 1998 predecessor, it is loosely based on the Chinese folklore tale The Ballad of Mulan, and stars Chinese actress Yifei Liu in the title role. In Imperial China, Mongol hordes led by the warlord Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and the witch Xianniang (Gong Li) are invading the borders of the empire, leading the Emperor (Jet Li) to call for conscripts – one man from each family – to bolster his troops. Despite being the eldest child in her family, Mulan is forbidden from joining the army due to her being female; her war veteran father, despite being old and frail, volunteers to represent his family instead. To save her father from almost certain death in battle, Mulan disguises herself as a man and enlists, eventually joining the platoon of Commander Tung (Donnie Yen). Despite having very little training, Mulan is soon thrust into conflict with Böri Khan’s troops, and must fight to save her homeland – without revealing her gender, or bringing dishonor to her family.

The new Mulan is a very different film when compared to the well-loved animated original. All the musical numbers have been cut, Eddie Murphy’s dragon sidekick Mushu is excised completely, and much more emphasis is placed on the serious dramatic story arc, which follows Mulan’s journey from being a quiet village girl on the verge of an arranged marriage, to being an accomplished warrior in the Emperor’s army. It’s also a visual spectacular, featuring massive colorful sets, flamboyant costume design, and epic battle sequences featuring a cast of thousands. It was originally intended to be one of Disney’s tentpole releases for 2020 but, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, its American theatrical release was cancelled, and it premiered domestically on Disney+ in September 2020. Since then the movie has been dogged by controversies, ranging from lead actress Liu’s apparent support for the Hong Kong government in the face of pro-democracy protests, to accusations that the production team received logistical support from the government of Xinjiang province, despite those same officials being apparently involved in the systematic internment and ‘forced indoctrination’ of the region’s Uyghur people. Whether this will ultimately hurt the film’s reception remains to be seen.

With the great Jerry Goldsmith, who scored the original Mulan, having died in 2004, the producers needed to find a new composer to fill his not inconsiderable musical shoes. The job eventually went to English composer Harry Gregson-Williams, who scored director Caro’s film The Zookeeper’s Wife in 2017. Prior to the film being released Caro revealed that the remake wouldn’t feature any songs from the original film, as she felt that having them would not “fit with her realistic vision of the film” as “people do not break out into song as they enter war, and so the film should not either”. Producer Jason T. Reed later clarified the statement by saying that the songs would be featured “in a slightly different way” in the remake, and that the film would instead feature instrumental versions of the original film’s songs.

As such, considering the more serious and action-oriented nature of the film, Gregson-Williams’s score for the new Mulan is a massive epic for genuinely enormous forces, a massive orchestra recorded in Los Angeles, several different choirs, an array of specialist Chinese instruments, and some judicious use of electronics, all of which combine to convey several recurring main themes, as well as multiple allusions to the song melodies from the first movie’s score. I suppose, if one was to try to describe Mulan in shorthand, you could say it was a Chinese version of the scores for the first two Chronicles of Narnia films, with a little bit of Kingdom of Heaven and Prince of Persia thrown in for good measure, with the Arabic and Middle Eastern influences replaced by Chinese ones. Fans of those scores will find much to their liking here, especially those who have been missing the Harry Gregson-Williams epic action style.

The score’s new main theme is introduced in the first cue, “Ancestors,” a pretty and wistful melody that builds from an exotic dizi flute solo performed by the incomparable Richard Harvey, and which eventually grows to encompass the entire orchestra. The theme does have a distracting similarity to Rachel Portman’s 1993 score The Joy Luck Club, which is something of an irony as Portman was originally supposed to score Mulan in 1998 but had to leave the project due to her being pregnant; maybe we were destined to have a Portman melody in a Mulan film all along. It also does come across as a tiny bit generic, which is a little disappointing considering how unique and memorable Goldsmith’s theme for the same character was.

The subsequent statement of the main theme in “Tulou Courtyard” is much more traditionally Chinese, and makes use of a whole host of ethnic instruments including more flutes, erhu cellos, suona oboes, pipa and ruan lutes, and guzheng and guqin zithers, all of which combine with the expansiveness of the western orchestra to provide a rich and respectful reflection of imperial China’s musical culture. Later, both “Honor to Us All” and “The Matchmaker” offer additional sequences of dutiful Chinese pastiche, blended with hints of the main theme, and some somewhat peculiar electronic ideas. Gregson-Williams worked with a number of regional music experts, including fellow composer Chad Cannon, to get the ethnic instrumentation right, and in the end it comes across as a respectful homage to the culture, especially as it relates to the traditional expectations of Mulan’s family, who assume she will find a husband and settle down, rather than head off to war. This choice between traditional roles and progressive female empowerment is a key theme of the movie, and is expressed in the second cue’s surprisingly powerful action finale. The first of those cues, as the title suggests, prominently features the melody of the Wilder/Zippel song “Honor to Us All” from the original movie, arranged in a similar light comedy style.

The two antagonists, Böri Khan and Xianniang, have a set of instrumental textures representing them. Böri Khan’s motif features a mixture of heavy percussion, heavy brass, vocal ideas that include Mongolian throat singing, and a number of aggressive electronic textures – including a prominent electric cello – which seems to speak to his otherworldly, alien nature, as he would seem to the traditional Chinese. Xianniang, on the other hand, is most usually accompanied by a wailing, howling motif that switches between an erhu and a suona, and cuts through the orchestra like a banshee to announce her malevolent presence. Interestingly, the Xianniang motif has a similar feel to the White Witch theme from the first Chronicles of Narnia score, which may indicate that Gregson-Williams was pulling a James Horner by carrying over a motivic idea from score to score when the dramatic inspirations are the same. Their music is most prominent in the cues “The Desert Garrison,” “Böri Khan & Xianniang,” and “The Witch,” the latter of which inserts her motif into a piece of quite modern-sounding action.

The primary identity for Mulan appears frequently throughout the score, receiving significant statements later in the meditative and ethereal “The Lesson of the Phoenix,” the dramatic and emotional “Mulan Leaves Home,” the gentle and bittersweet “Honghui,” and as an action motif in several of the film’s action sequences. Mulan’s secondary identity is, of course, the Matthew Wilder/David Zippel song “Reflection,” arguably the most recognizable melody from the first film. It first appears in the cue “Four Ounces Can Move a Thousand Pounds,” and is initially arranged as a piece of moody electronica, ethereal, distant, wistful, like a siren call. As the cue progresses the Reflection melody moves around within a set of proud wordless vocals, Chinese instruments, and contemporary rhythmic ideas, which give Mulan a sense of destiny, especially as the cue builds to a large scale, anticipatory finale.

The best performance of Reflection comes in “Mulan Rides into Battle,” a massive, epic statement for a huge orchestra, huge percussion, and choir. Some have criticized the arrangement for being a little trailer music-ish, but I loved it from the moment I heard it. As the cue progresses it becomes the first of several massive action sequences, which combine intricate string patterns, brass clusters, and moments of thunderous percussion with additional statements of the Reflection theme and the identities for Böri Khan and Xianniang. Interestingly, this cue also contains what appears to be a number of subtle, almost subliminal allusions to the 7-note Mulan Action Motif from Jerry Goldsmith’s score, the first of which can be heard at 2:21 (listen to what the cellos are doing). I hope this is indeed what I think it is, because Goldsmith’s score deserves that respect. I also wish that Gregson-Williams had done it more frequently, because as far as I can tell this is the only time it occurs in the score.

Everything else in the score is action – and it really is quite excellent, from top to bottom. In almost every cue Gregson-Williams combines statements of at least one of the two Mulan themes with the motifs for Böri Khan and Xianniang, amid a helter-skelter set of action music rhythms that really pick up a decent head of steam. This is some of the best fully-orchestral action/battle writing Gregson-Williams has written in years. The depth of the orchestrations, the intelligent use of choirs and Chinese ethnic instruments, and the intricacy of the percussion patterns, are all very impressive, although I do feel that some of the electronica could have been toned down a little to preserve a sense of historical authenticity. They don’t ruin any cues – far from it – but they do make some of the more intense moments seem a little too modern at times, which may put some people off.

Several action cues stand out as being especially noteworthy. The erhu performance of Mulan’s theme in “Mulan Leaves Home” is beautiful, and evocatively expresses a combination of sadness and determination as she heads off to fulfil her destiny. “Training the Men” is a fun and energetic montage sequence that features some especially excellent writing for dizi and guzheng; I spent quite a lot of time trying to hear if Gregson-Williams had worked in any very subtle allisions to “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You,” which was the song that accompanied the similar scene from the original movie, but to my disappointment I couldn’t find any. “Mulan & Honghui Fight,” on the other hand, was not disappointing at all, and is noteworthy for its intensely rhythmic, rapid pace, as well as for containing the first instance of Mulan’s theme being arranged as an action motif.

The sequence of cues from “I Believe Hua Mulan” through to “Fight for the Kingdom,” is essentially one long 20-minute sequence of Gregson-Williams action goodness, all of which again blend Mulan’s action theme, Böri Khan’s motif, and Xianniang’s motif with a number of rich and powerfully detailed fight and battle cues. “The Charge” is notable for its especially vivid string writing, and “Imperial City” features a stellar performance of Böri Khan’s motif featuring a bank of ominous throat singers and some crushing electronics. Meanwhile, both “Chasing the Hawk” and “Fight for the Kingdom” feature some superb combination writing for strings and guzheng, and rousing statements of Mulan’s action theme, before concluding with a final performance statement of Reflection at the end of the cue. At last, Mulan’s reflection is someone she does know.

Once the battle is over and Mulan is victorious, she is presented to the monarch in “Mulan & the Emperor,” accompanied by the most rousing and epic statement of her primary theme. She returns home to her family in “Return to the Village” and finally finds “The Fourth Virtue” in a tender reflection of the gentle first cue; there is a pretty and pastoral opening, some moments of heroic buildup, and several statements of Mulan’s theme on ethnic woodwinds, before it all grows to a major conclusive refrain for the full might of the orchestra and chorus, ending the score on an emotional high.

Tacked on to the end of the soundtrack album are three songs. Two of them are versions of “Reflection,” while one is a brand new song written specifically for this film. Yifei Liu’s Mandarin-language version is pleasant enough, but Christina Aguilera – who famously performed the pop version of the song back in 1998 – seemingly cannot help adorning every note she sings with 214 different cadences and runs, making it sound as though she is singing while driving down a bumpy road. The 1998 version is better. The new song is called “Loyal Brave True,” was written by Gregson-Williams with Jamie Hartman, Rosi Golan, and Billy Crabtree, and is again performed by Aguilera. I’ve forgotten it already.

It will be tempting for many to directly compare Harry Gregson-Williams’s score for Mulan with Jerry Goldsmith’s original, which I feel is a touch unfair. 22 years have passed since then, and the expectations and tastes of film music have shifted dramatically in the intervening period. Not only that, I’m sure that Gregson-Williams himself would consider Goldsmith to be a superior composer, so this is the last time I’m going to mention this. Taking that into account, Mulan 2020 does everything it is supposed to do, and does it well. The main theme, while a touch generic, and despite it having a hint of Rachel Portman to it, is nevertheless strong and memorable, and the way Gregson-Williams adapts it into several different action guises is impressive. The tasteful use of Chinese and other regional ethnic instruments alongside the western orchestra is handled well; that sound has always been a favorite of mine, so I’m predisposed to like it. The action music is loud and impressively staged although, again, I do think that some people will react a little negatively to the electronic elements. Finally, the use of the Wilder/Zippel song melodies is done with style and respect, and I have no doubt that many will return to “Mulan Rides into Battle” frequently as a score highlight. Overall, this new score is likely to quickly establish itself as one of the best action-adventure scores of 2020.

Buy the Mulan soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Ancestors (3:21)
  • Tulou Courtyard (3:14)
  • The Desert Garrison (3:27)
  • Böri Khan & Xianniang (1:37)
  • The Lesson of the Phoenix (3:14)
  • Honor to Us All (1:54)
  • The Matchmaker (2:30)
  • Mulan Leaves Home (3:50)
  • Four Ounces Can Move a Thousand Pounds (3:40)
  • Mulan Rides into Battle (5:41)
  • Honghui (1:34)
  • Training the Men (3:02)
  • Mulan & Honghui Fight (1:25)
  • Oath of the Warrior (1:24)
  • The Witch (3:42)
  • I Believe Hua Mulan (3:56)
  • The Charge (5:21)
  • Imperial City (3:36)
  • Chasing the Hawk (2:24)
  • Fight for the Kingdom (5:43)
  • Mulan & the Emperor (0:57)
  • Return to the Village (1:32)
  • The Fourth Virtue (5:41)
  • Loyal Brave True (written by Jamie Hartman, Harry Gregson-Williams, Rosi Golan, and Billy Crabtree, performed by Christina Aguilera) (2:46)
  • Reflection 2020 (written by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel, performed by Christina Aguilera) (3:38)
  • Reflection [Mandarin Version] (written by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel, performed by Yifei Liu) (3:39)

Running Time: 82 minutes 59 seconds

Walt Disney Records (2020)

Music composed and conducted by Harry Gregson-Williams. Orchestrations by Ladd McIntosh, Hal Rosenfeld, Jennifer Hammond and Jim Honeyman. Additional music by Stephanie Economou. Recorded and mixed by Alan Meyerson. Edited by Robin Whittaker and Sherry Whitfield. Album produced by Harry Gregson-Williams and Stephanie Economou.

  1. September 11, 2020 at 9:24 am

    Nice review, encouraged me to take this one more seriously.

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