Composer Harry Gregson-Williams and team finished mixing their lush score for Disney’s live action remake of Mulan, its beloved 1998 animated classic, around a month before its March Hollywood premiere. The score, a mixture of grand orchestral themes mirrored by authentically Chinese instrumentation, was designed for and begs to be heard within a traditional cinematic environment. After all, Gregson-Williams’ score was recorded by a 90-piece orchestra, a fact that doesn’t traditionally apply to films that premiere on a streaming service.
But life had other plans. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the film premiered to general audiences not in cinemas but on Disney Plus.
“We had finished Mulan, mixed it, and prepared it for a cinematic release, obviously. By March, we had the Los Angeles premiere, and a couple of days later, we’re told that we were the only people who would be seen it in a cinema,” Gregson-Williams explained. “Hopefully, not too many people watched it on iPhones because we definitely mixed it for in a cinematic environment, and it was certainly shot in an epic way. But, you know, such as life.”
Harry Gregson-Williams’ score for Mulan tracks the emotional journey of the character. This is Mulan’s story, fitting as she appears in nearly every frame of the film. From the first scene of the film with young Mulan, Gregson-Williams creates a delicate theme using a simple Chinese flute to reflect her joyful innocence. As Mulan progresses, the same theme resonates throughout, finally appearing with the force of a full symphony orchestra.
What starts as a simple Chinese flute gradually evolves into a battery of 12 French horns and a massive brass section with additional Chinese instruments. This approach was fully backed by Gregson-Williams’ tight partnership with director Niki Caro whose inclusive and authentically Chinese vision for the film merged well with his interests.
“My starting point wasn’t the Chinese instruments. My starting point was the melody and harmony, the emotional punch, that we need the score to deliver, and then to research and experiment with Chinese instruments. And that was really where the joy was in creating the score,” Gregson-Williams remarked.
In addition to creating a memorable and authentic score, the live action Mulan needed to call back to the original songs and score so beloved by fans of the film. While this new version would eschew direct songs within the film (the original animated film is a tradition Disney animated musical), the new score does at times call back to memorable melodies from Matthew Wilder’s original songs.
That means fan-favorite “Reflection” still makes an appearance.
“When Mulan does indeed see her reflection in the water and she’s asking existential questions like, ‘Who am I? When will I be able to see the person I really am?,’ I just quoted Matthew’s melody, but in a very different way,” Gregson-Williams said. “Whereas in the original movie, it was a beautiful ballad with Mulan belting it out. I set this melody, which is quite a hopeful melody, but I set it against a much darker tone with sort of distant drums and a low, dark drone. It seemed to just give the audience what they wanted to feel just a sort of warm and fuzzy moment.”
Also furthering audiences’ sense of nostalgia is the participation of Christina Aguilera. For the 1998 film, Aguilera recorded a pop ballad version of Mulan’s anthem “Reflection.” Here, she re-records an updated version of the same song as well as powerfully singing a new anthem for the updated character of Mulan: “Loyal Brave True.” Co-written by Jamie Hartman, Gregson-Williams, Rosi Golan and Billy Crabtree, the song immediately caught the attention of Caro who added a few lyric changes of her own.
Fortunately, Aguilera still had an emotional connection to the original film and gladly performed the two songs for the live action Mulan.
“All in all, Mulan has been such such a blessing to work on because of its phenomenal team, really. I felt really lucky. You know, I was mentioning to one of my brothers, who is also a composer, that it’s such a disappointment that Mulan will never be seen in the cinema. He said, ‘Well, you know, you’ll probably find that more people will see it on streaming than actually would in cinema.’ He was trying to put a positive spin on it for me, but that may well be the case. That’s what we all do as artists – we want to do good work.”