The Walt Disney Company was going through the bends after having a renaissance, with movies like Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, and Aladdin. But after Pochahontas was released in 1995, things started to slow down. Michael Eisner's COO, Frank Wells, died in a tragic helicopter crash, Jeffery Katzenberg left the company to create rival studio Dreamworks, along with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, it was a complete mess within the studio.
Following the mixed reception of Disney's Hercules, the music by Alan Menken was not in favor with a lot of critics, either. How can you blame them, when the film revolves around Ancient Greece having gospel music for its songs?
This obviously came during a time where Alan Menken was THE composer in Disney's music department, with The Little Mermaid being his jumping off point. Ever since then, he wrote all the music for all the Disney films, with the exception with The Lion King, which was composed by Hans Zimmer and the songs done by Elton John.
The producers probably thought that it was time to find another composer to compose the score for their next film, Mulan. What better choice than the veteran composer himself, Jerry Goldsmith?
This score is amazing! Yet, it's not the first time that he's composed for an animated movie.
The first score that he's done was The Secret of N.I.M.H., an underrated, nostalgic film by Don Bluth, which has enjoyed a cult following.
The score to that one was great in that Goldsmith wrote it as if as he was writing for a live-action film, having all the action beats that follows the action on screen. He also composed the song, "Flying Dreams", with Paul Williams singing it. I don't mind the song, but I think the orchestral arrangements are wonderful.
With that in mind, it seems like Goldsmith wanted to write Mulan like he was writing a live-action film. The characters have their own themes, there are certain action beats, and any comedic elements are mostly underplayed.
The character theme of Mulan can be heard in two different variants. There's one that is heard in tracks like "The Transformation", where she decides to cut her hair, take her father's armor, and run away to join the army. There, the theme can be heard by the French horns.
Another variant is rather a bridge that leads to that theme, where she lays the doll right next to the sword of the fallen general at the burnt village by the strings. For those who think that for her character, the theme would be a "girly" type theme, but this is Jerry Goldsmith. He respects his characters by giving them themes that represent the character's personality and emotions.
For "The Transformation" track, it actually went through several rewrites before finally ending up with the one that's in the film. When you hear those variants, you understand why he decided on rewriting it. For some reason, they just don't fit, despite being well-written. It's odd that an automated drum pad part would be used in a film that revolves around Ancient China, but I think it benefits to the scene that it's playing.
The theme for Shan Yu is probably my favorite for its low brass and percussion based instrumentation. It gives him a more threatening presence, despite what people might think of him as a character. Whenever he's on screen, his theme plays out with a menacing performance. Before he shows up, and when you see his pet bird, the electronics build up to the point where we see him.
Shang also has his theme as well, moments where he is introduced to Mulan, when he shoots an arrow and makes his men go after it, yet not to degree that Mulan's theme is played in the movie.
Considering that this is China, there are some elements of Asian music placed in the movie. The use of different instruments that relate to that culture are placed perfectly and don't make the score sound stereotypical to the Chinese. However, with all things considered, this is a straight-up orchestral score, even with its Chinese roots.
You listen to all the tracks and most of the material is all played straight, like we're listening to another live-action film score. When the action material plays, it's really pumping action material, something that Goldsmith has great experience with. Total Recall, anyone?
Then there's the songs. They're alright. They're nothing spectacular, but they're alright. Obviously, "Reflections" is the main highlight out of the film. The other songs are okay, though there's nothing really memorable about them. Especially with the track "I'll Make a Man out of You", which sounds like a Rocky song if anything else.
What bums me out is that Goldsmith didn't really have much control on the songs, which is a shame, since he has composed A LOT of songs and managed to wove them into the films (i.e. "It's a Long Road" for Rambo, "Flying Dreams" for Secret of NIMH, "My True Love's Eyes" for Legend, etc.).
Something that irritates me greatly is the albums that are available to the general public. There's a general album released that contains all the songs and some of the score, leaving some of the interesting cues out. I hear, however, that there are ways to get the actual score without the songs, but I can't be certain where to find them.
All I can say is that there were several tracks that I found that were not available and I wonder why they didn't put them in the album, especially where he takes some of the songs from the film and integrates them into a wonderfully written overture.
The last thing I want to mention, and what saddens me is that this was the last Academy Award nomination for Jerry Goldsmith before he died. You know who he lost to? Stephen Warbeck for the score to Shakespeare in Love.
The only thing I remembered from that film was the last ten minutes where we see the performance of Romeo & Juliet. That's it. And this was in high school. We never watched the entire film, given the fact that it was a private, Christian school, so we did not get to see Gwyneth Paltrow's ample bosom.
Joking aside, the score seems pretty underrated by a lot of people who saw the film. I think it helps the film tremendously because it takes itself seriously. It's not pandering to the kids whatsoever. It plays itself straight and one of the best scores that Jerry Goldsmith has written during that decade. You owe it to yourself to give this a listen.