An Ode to My Childhood: A Review of the Mulan Soundtrack

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When I was younger, I didn’t see that many Asian heroes in mainstream culture, besides stereotypical characters played by Jackie Chan or Jet Li. Then I watched Mulan when I was 5 years old and it felt great seeing an Asian girl kick butt in a Disney film. Revisiting the songs from this Walt Disney movie’s soundtrack is always a great, nostalgic experience. Also, Disney knows how to move its audiences with great soundtracks; most recently, Frozen’s soundtrack made its lasting impressions on the world and toddlers in the backseats of minivans are probably performing their own rendition of Let It Go right now. A healthy serving of at least 4 famous songs per movie is Disney’s ritual for entering their list of most influential movies. Usually, some good ol’ character development can’t happen without them.

Without a doubt, the soundtrack of Mulan is one of the most distinct Disney soundtracks simply because the setting of the story shows through the music. Although historically inaccurate, Disney’s story of Fa Mulan, a tomboyish Chinese girl who fights in her aging father’s stead to shield him from war, takes place during China’s Han dynasty. With a distinct setting for a Disney film, the sounds of old China are mimicked with the inclusion of traditional Chinese instruments, like Chinese zithers, fiddles, bamboo flutes, and chimes. There is incorporation of Western musical components like xylophones, pianos, trumpets, and jazz drums.

Unfortunately, as much as the soundtrack is remarkable in its overall sound, the same cannot be said for the lyrics. Most of the lyrics are typical Disney-esque: corny lyrics that lack real substance and are riddled with sexist undertones, aggravated by traditional Chinese views on women.

Here are some of the highlights and lowlights of the soundtrack:

Highlights:

“Reflection” by Lea Salonga: The most famous song of the entire soundtrack (it was nominated for a Golden Globe and Grammy), “Reflection” is a song about the struggle to find one’s self while in the midst of a sea of expectations. The song is reflective of Mulan’s struggle to meet her parent’s expectations to “pass for a perfect bride, or a perfect daughter.” Lea Salonga’s smooth and stylistic musical voice produces a sincere ballad, and the incorporation of the bamboo flute and zither towards the beginning and end is one of the most distinguishable aspects of the song.

 

“I’ll Make a Man Out of You” by Donny Osmond and Chorus: If Disney had a workout playlist, this song would most definitely make it. The use of marching band-style percussion is effective in portraying the military training scene. And it surprised me that Donny Osmond was behind the musical voice of Shang, as he is usually famous for sappy love ballads. Osmond’s voice held the perfect balance of a smooth musical voice with the assertiveness of Shang’s character. Although the voices of the other characters can be kind of annoying, the incorporation of additional voices is kept at a bearable minimum in this song.

 

Lowlights:

“Honor to Us All” by Beth Fowler, Lea Salonga and Marni Nixon: Oh my goodness, where does one start? Well, here’s the thing: out of all the songs in the soundtrack, this one uses the most ethnic instrumentation and it’s done pretty well. But that’s pretty much the only compliment I’ll give this song. The most cringe-worthy aspects about this song are the incredibly sexist lyrics. As if the best thing Mulan can do for her life is to focus on her looks, become an obedient housewife, and score a husband based on those two traits so that her husband can do some real work and fight the Huns and serve China’s emperor. The characters in the song even exclaim their favoritism of their sons over girls! I understand that traditional Chinese views on women put them at such a position, but Disney still could’ve done better by not sugarcoating such a bad message with a pretty-sounding song.

“A Girl Worth Fighting For” by Harvey Fierstein, James Hong, Jerry Tondo, Lea Salonga and Matthew Wilder: Yet another corny song with sexist undertones. Musically, the use of marching-band style percussion is similar to “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” which again is very effective in portraying the scenes involving the soldiers. However, the incorporation of the voices of Yao, Ling and Chien Po (aka Mulan‘s version of the Three Stooges) is just horrible; when people have annoying speaking voices, they also tend to have annoying singing voices. Maybe the soundtrack’s producers totally forgot that.

Overall: 3 out of 5 stars

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