The new live-action version of Mulan is finally available to watch (albeit via Disney+ instead of in cinemas) and when tuning in to the ancient tale of secret soldier Hua Mulan fans are sure to have plenty of comparisons with the 1998 animated iteration of the story.
In this new version there’s no Mushu, no hunky Li Shang or even a lucky cricket, Mulan herself gets an interesting new interpretation and the cartoon fun is replaced with breathless wuxia-inspired fight scenes – but perhaps the biggest change is that the animated film’s songs are nowhere to be seen.
“It will not be traditional ‘break into musical’ [songs]. They’re not going to stop their workouts to do a big musical number to camera,” producer Jason Reed told Collider earlier this year of the decision.
“It gets a little easier in animation to keep the tension and the reality in place and still have people break into song and sing to camera. We made the decision that we wanted to keep the world—even though it’s a fantasy—more grounded, more realistic so those emotions really played and the threat is very real. So we are using music in a slightly different way.”
Yep, that’s right – no I’ll Make a Man Out of You, Honor To Us All, A Girl Worth Fighting For or even Reflection, with every singalong left firmly in the hand-drawn second dimension.
Or at least that’s how it appears – because if you listen closely the new film actually has some subtle musical Easter Eggs for most of these classic tunes, hidden within the soundtrack and even the script for the new version of the story.
“There are a number of songs that are iconic for the movie and tell a great version of the story and they are very helpful to us in how we’re putting the movie together,” Todd explained.
Most prominently of all is, appropriately, the 1998 film’s most famous song – Reflection. The instrumental for this song appears several times throughout the movie as Mulan confronts her secret double life posing as a male soldier (at one point, when she’s literally looking at her reflection in a sword), and then swells to a triumphant crescendo when she decides to fight as herself.
Christina Aguilera has also released a new cover of the song (which she sang over the credits of the original Mulan) to promote the new film, along with her new song Loyal Brave True which reflects the specific plot of the live-action story.
But Reflection isn’t the only old song to get a nod. When Mulan is being primped and dressed up to meet the Matchmaker at the start of the film, an instrumental for Honor To Us All – the song that characters sing during this part of the animated film – can be heard in the background. At the film’s close, the song’s title is also hinted at when Mulan’s family express their pride at her actions.
“You have brought honour to us all,” she’s told.
Elsewhere in the live-action film other songs get name-checked in dialogue and other references. Classic training montage I’ll Make a Man Out of You is clearly mirrored by this new Mulan’s extended training sequence, which is bookended by lines that are based on the lyrics to the song.
“We’re going to make men out of every single one of you,” an officer announces to the assembled troops, and later Donnie Yen’s Commander Tung uses a description of connecting with your chi lifted directly from the songbook as well.
“Tranquil as a forest but on fire within,” he says when explaining how the process should feel.
And finally, one of the first Mulan’s less well-known songs – A Girl Worth Fighting For – has probably the most subtle callback, with the discussion between Mulan’s fellow soldiers about their perfect women transposed to a short dialogue scene instead of a barnstorming musical number.
Still, within this short scene there’s still a little dialogue Easter egg with one of Mulan’s comrades commenting “I don’t care what she looks like…I care what she cooks like,” in a paraphrase of a line from the original song.
All together, then, Mulan manages to pay tribute to the original film’s songs without ruining its more downbeat, relatively realistic tone. Just don’t expect to be cracking out the karaoke machine for this version.