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Disney's live-action "Mulan" may not be a musical like its predecessor, but it honors a few of the songs through clever nods and an instrumental version of "Reflection" that can be heard during key moments.
If you're upset the film did away with most of the original film's music, that wasn't always the case. Disney considered adding musical montages for some of the film's hits, including "Reflection" and "I'll Make a Man Out of You."
They just couldn't find a way to make them work.
"They were trying to figure out how best to honor the songs from the animated version, but they were struggling," Matthew Wilder, the animated film's composer, told Insider in March.
"They were playing with the idea of creating montages for the movie to include song moments against picture, without the characters breaking into song," Wilder said.
Wilder wrote all of the songs to the 1998 animated film along with lyricist David Zippel. While Harry Gregson-Williams composes the live-action movie, both Wilder and Zippel returned for the 2020 film after pushback from fans at test screenings about the lack of music in the live-action remake.
Wilder said he was invited to collaborate and try to weave some of the film's original songs into the score. Wilder had his first discussions with director Niki Caro and Zippel about the music direction of the film in late summer 2019.
"I was working with Niki, one-on-one primarily to try to land the moments that she was looking for, focusing on 'Reflection' and 'I'll Make a Man Out of You," Wilder said.
Disney has been working on the live-action adaptation since 2015. Before the pandemic, the film was originally scheduled for a November 2018 release before being rescheduled to March 2020.
By the time Wilder had joined, Disney had major successes with "Aladdin" and "The Lion King" back-to-back in May and July 2019. Both of those movies brought in well over $1 billion at the box office worldwide and may have placed an immense amount of pressure on what "Mulan" should be.
Should "Mulan" have more music? Should it have a more serious tone?
"We were there to experiment and [Caro] didn't really know what she wanted," said Wilder. "It was up to me, to a large extent, to try to understand how best to put into play the notes that she was giving me. She knew in her heart of hearts that she just wanted this movie to be different and not necessarily be a rubber-stamped version, if you will, of the animated film."
"The conversations, as you can imagine, were very animated," he continued. "Things are being put up and discarded very quickly. No, that's not it, that's not right. That's not it. It's trial by error. I had my frustrations in that process, but, I was there to serve the film."
Being thrown into the mix in the middle of a "Mulan" production wasn't anything new to Wilder. It was practically déjà vu.
More than 20 years earlier, when he was hired to take over as composer on the animated "Mulan," Wilder says he was almost immediately ushered into a staff meeting with the film's creative team where he and Zippel were asked to pinpoint which moments in the film may be best to turn into songs.
When he and Zippel wrote the first iteration of "Reflection" and played it for former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, Wilder was told the song was something that had to stand the test of time.
"You have to break the glass ceiling," Wilder remembered Eisner telling him.
In 2020, here was Wilder again, working on music for "Mulan" that would hopefully do the same.
"I didn't know that," Wilder said, noting that the version of the film he saw when he first joined was different from where it wound up. "David rewrote the lyrics to 'I'll Make a Man Out of You' and rewrote the lyrics to 'Reflection' to try to accommodate this updated version and the context in which the song needed to exist."
Wilder said, similar to the 1998 film, "I'll Make a Man Out of You" would have played along with the training sequence. Mulan and her comrades are seen fighting, shooting arrows, and in formation.
"Then there's a very long scene with Mulan doing the sword training by the water and then carrying the pails up the mountain. We were using 'Reflection,' with lyric as scoring," Wilder said.
"The collective decision was that it wasn't working in the film that [Walt Disney Studios motion picture president of production] Sean Bailey and Niki Caro really wanted to make," he added.
Wilder said they made several demos of the songs that were never utilized in the live-action movie.
They also pitched an all-female version of "I'll Make a Man Out of You" for a possible end title to the film.
"They didn't go for it. They felt it was not part of the fabric of what they wanted to convey in the mood of the new Mulan," Wilder said, adding, "And it kicks ass. I'll tell you."
The final version of the film, uses the "Reflection" theme in a few different moments, including the bucket scene. "I'll Make a Man Out of You" is referenced in a moment of dialogue. "Honor to Us All" can be heard when Mulan prepares to visit the matchmaker.
"You can imagine after all of that work, the songs being placed in that context with no lyric and just melody, it had a very different impact for us as songwriters and the way that it plays in the movie," Wilder said of how the songs exist in the live-action film.
When asked how he felt, knowing only the melodies for some songs would appear in the movie, Wilder took a moment to respond.
"I don't want to imbue this interview with any kind of negativity, but emotionally, it's difficult because we worked so hard on the '98 version," Wilder said.
Wilder added, "For me to tell you that I wasn't disappointed that we didn't get the opportunity to really fly our flag, if you will, as songwriters, I'd be lying if I told you that there wasn't an element of disappointment there."
Wilder didn't see the final cut of the movie until its world premiere on March 9, 2020, in Los Angeles. Stepping back and trying looking at the film objectively, Wilder acknowledges it works as a whole.
"When the melodies do come into play in the score it does make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. So there's something working there, obviously," Wilder said.
While the new versions of "Reflection" and "I'll Make a Man Out of You" didn't make it into the live-action film, Wilder did work with the film's star, Liu Yifei, on the Mandarin version of "Reflection" that's featured in the credits.
"Yifei is a light and she wanted to work so hard to make that version as perfect as it possibly could be," Wilder said of working with the actress. "I had the privilege of being able to be in the room with her on several occasions, and I could not have enjoyed the experience more."
Ultimately, Wilder said he's happy to have been associated with both movies. The animated picture played a turning point in his career as his first major project and informed it moving forward. Wilder recently scored Eiji Han Shimizu's feature animation, "True North," about North Korea and he and his producing partner, Jared Faber, helped artist Oskar O release her first single, "Sleep It Off."
It meant a lot to revisit "Mulan" more than 20 years later.
"There are things that I could have been critical about, but not enough to walk away disgruntled and feeling that they blew it," Wilder said of the live-action film as a whole. "I think that they were true to the vision that they eventually came to embrace."