Mulan (Harry Gregson-Williams)

What is it?

The live action version of Disney’s animation classic Mulan (1998) finally received wide distribution on Disney+ on September 4, 2020, after having been corona-postponed since its theatrical premiere in March, and numerous other development issues. The film is directed by Niki Caro, and features Yifei Lu in the title role, but it also marks the return of 90s star Jason Scott Lee as the antagonist warrior Bori Khan.

I am ideologically opposed to Disney’s whole ‘Live Action Re-animation Project’ (pun intended), wherein classic animated movies are watered out with new live action adaptations. The 2020 version of Mulan is yet another example why: Cleanshaven and texturally void, with stereotypical roles gesturing and speaking in an exaggerated, animated fashion that does not translate well to a live action format. For all its contemporary topicality about female empowerment, it’s constantly undermined by a flat, digital and kitchy staging.

The score is composed by Harry Gregson-Williams (b. 1961), a veteran who grew out of Zimmer’s camp in the 90s, but has since become one of Hollywood’s major players with hits such as Chicken Run (2000), The Martian (2015), the The Chronicles of Narnia movies, and his masterpiece Kingdom of Heaven (2005). Having extensive experience with both animation and Disney productions, he seemed to be a natural choice for this project.

How is it?

It might be unfair to compare this to Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic 1998 score, but it’s an inevitable comparison. Goldsmith infused the original Mulan with broad themes, setpieces driven by his trademark odd meters and a lush, organic mix of western and eastern elements. Plus referencing the snappy song melodies by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel when necessary.

Harry Gregson-Williams’ effort, on the other hand, has few traces of this. I think it’s very telling that the highlights of the album are the fragmented references to the original Wilder/Zippel melodies «Reflection» and «Honor to Us All» in tracks such as «Four Ounces Can Move a Thousand Pounds» and «Fight for the Kingdom». The only new theme of note appears to be a vague, 5-note oriental motif that can be heard most prominently in the first track «Ancestors» , but – as with most of the score – it’s a rather static affair.

Some critics have claimed this is an “Asian variation” of the gorgeous Kingdom of Heaven, but the two are miles apart in terms of quality and consistency, so the comparison makes no sense. While Mulan is certainly a meeting point between western tropes and Chinese instrumentation like the original movie, it comes off more as indistinct colourization – a little bit of erhu here, some bamboo clappers there. Similarly, the action material is trite – based on the same type of ostinato-driven anonymity you’ll find in any contemporary genre film. The best parts of the album are actually the more spiritual and down-tempo cues, like «The Lesson of the Phoenix».

Adding to this problem is the sheer length of the album. At 85 minutes, it’s at least 40 minutes too long – making the shortcomings more evident when padded out to the extreme. It’s a sad symptom of our times when composers pile on their soundtrack albums because they can, while never stopping to ask if they should. This would unquestionably have scored higher, had it been more carefully and succinctly presented.

In short, Harry Gregson-Williams’ Mulan is a disappointment – at least compared to his usual high standard. Even if the film is a mess, the sheer canvas is big enough to inspire a more involved and tactile score than what we ultimately got. But kudos to Christina Aguilera for reprising her pop version of «Reflection» over the end credits – the very song that jumpstarted her career in the 1998 movie.


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  1. Mark Burgess says:

    I have to disagree. This feels like a review written in anger. Dismissive of a beautifully orchestrated collection (and high quality recording available in 24 bit). Apart from the thematic song references, there is one theme which emerges ealry on and sounds like Bear McCreary’s Caprica score, especially with the Chinese “Taiko” drums. Nothing about it is wildly original, but its all very “comfy” and easy to listen to with rich sound palettes. I find it quite enjoyable.

    What’s extraordinary about the Mulan remake is that enormous expense was poured into marketing, recording a version of the song is a dozen languages. Each country release has its own version, recorded by a local legend: Hindi, English, Mandarin, Turkish … extraordinary!

    In some ways, the unity of the music is more consistent than HGW’s Kingdom of Heaven, which borrows from various sources too (like James Horner’s Name of the Rose). Jerry Goldsmith’s wonderful score from the cartoon version stands on its own, but I don’ think there is fair comparison. Disney animation is a genre on its own (totally unrelated to Japanese animé for instance). Nor should any composer be forced to refer to prior art. Concerning length – there were over 60 tracks in the soundtrack to Kingdom of Heaven. Now that’s long! So what did poor Harry do to provoke this ire? 🙂

    The main problems with the Mulan remake, in my view, are that it has an awful script, with cheesy lines and the feel of a “B” movie, and there were historical blips which have annoyed Chinese viewers in particular. For instance, the costumes and makeup were from iconic Tang dynasty, but the Mulan story is much older. That feels a bit racist/ignorant to Chinese. In the West, current anti-China politics have weighed in too, with much finger-pointing around filming in Xinjiang, where the media seem intent to focus on China’s domestic issues to deflect from their own similar issues. All in all, I think it’s a shame to see so much money poured into a film that is let down by a careless script. Oh, but that’s actually more than half of all movies these days. I’m looking at you Tenet! 😉

    1. Thor Joachim Haga says:

      Thank you for a thoughtful response, Mark! It’s refreshing to disagree once in a while. 🙂

      I’m not dismissing the amount of work that has gone into this; in fact, that is one of the reasons why it’s so surprising that the end result didn’t match it.

      The film has really been a trainwreck of terrible decisions and cirumstances. There’s the Xinjang situation, which you mention, Yifei Lu’s support of Hong Kong police, the covid postponements and then – most importantly – the fact that it’s simply not a very good movie. None of the live action remakes have been, really, but this is the worst of them, IMO. So it’s a bit sad that HGW’s score adds to the misery. It’s Murphy’s Law in action!

      To be fair, it’s not terrible music in and of itself. It’s just static, flat, undevelopped and with little in terms of thematic identity. For me, it was a gust from the past, from a time where I didn’t care for HGW’s music – when it felt anonymous and directionless. My appreciation of him has thankfully grown considerably over the years, but this felt like a regression.

      PS. I’m not sure which soundtrack version you refer to in regards to KINGDOM OF HEAVEN? The regular soundtrack, which I have, has 19 tracks and lasts 63 minutes.

      1. Mark Burgess says:

        Kingdom of Heaven – It’s the special edition, complete session recordings version. And BTW, as I was in Hong Kong during the riots last year, I can say that the story we’ve been told in the media here about evil HK police versus innocents protesters is far from a truthful and representative story. We should probable leave the politics aside from the music. Anyway – nice to have some interaction on this.

        1. Thor Joachim Haga says:

          A-ha! Well, that recording sessions thing (a bootleg?) sounds horrible in terms of listening experience. I wouldn’t want it anywhere near my collection.

          1. Mark Burgess says:

            Actually, it’s great. It seems to have been made for release in Asia, where they are very fond of film music. I don’t think it can be a bootleg, as all the recordings are proper, but hard to listen all in one go.
            I can also recommend (unexpectedly) Prince of Persia (The Sands of Time), which is a far superior score than the Narnia (Prince Caspian etc). One og HGW better efforts.

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