Disney Pixar's Up: Ellie and the Music
Disney Pixar’s Up has a reputation of being quite the tearjerker, but the movie is more than an emotional rollercoaster. Its soundtrack is catchy and well-integrated into the film. The original score was composed by Michael Giacchino, who is responsible for some pretty epic soundtracks, notably Jupiter Ascending, the rebooted Star Trek films, and Jurassic World. However, the soundtrack was not released as a CD until two years after the film’s debut, despite its popularity (it should be noted that the soundtrack was available for digital download prior to this). No other Pixar film has reached the musical critical acclaim that Up has, and I personally do not think that the film’s soundtrack has received the credit it deserves, given its importance in the telling of the story of an old man with a lot of balloons and a need for adventure...
Firstly, there is absolutely no denying that the film’s original score is top-notch material, so to speak. The soundtrack was well-received by music critics, and the music performed well during the 2010 award season, winning an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Original Score, in addition to two Grammys and a BAFTA Award. The BAFTA Award for Best Film Music is significant, since it was the first Disney movie to win said award since the release of Pocahontas. To date, Michael Giacchino has won more awards for his work on Up than for any of his other film compositions combined. One of the causes for the positive reception of the music is the popularity of a certain theme from the movie, a theme that won the Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition: Married Life.
Married Life is the core of the whole musical work (and its success) for many reasons. One reason is that it the theme from Married Life essentially represents the character of Ellie in the film. The late wife of the protagonist, Carl, was only seen in the first six minutes of the film, most notably during a montage at the beginning of the movie. In fact, the adult Ellie is not voiced in the film at all. Her relationship with Carl, as well as her characterization, occurred in the four minutes that the Married Life theme plays in the movie. A summarization of Carl and Ellie’s marriage/partnership, the song is tailored to fit the emotional demands of the scene. The montage is crucial to the film, as it strongly foreshadows the main theme of the movie.
In the film, Carl journeys to a remote area of South America in a floating house (held up with thousands of helium balloons) because it was his childhood promise to take Ellie there. Since Ellie died before the couple had a chance to go to Paradise Falls, Carl is determined to reach his destination, regardless of what obstacles stand in his way. He clings on to the memories he has of Ellie, feeling as if most of the time they had spent together was in vain because they never went on the adventure of their childhood dreams. However, Carl’s companion, a stowaway Wilderness Explorer (Boy Scout equivalent) named Russell, randomly mentions something that relates to Ellie and the theme of the entire movie.
When recalling the times spent with his workaholic (and now practically absent) father, Russell concludes that “the boring stuff is the stuff [that he] remember[s] the most.” Carl was very determined to live out the adventure that he wished that he had shared with his wife. But this comment, as well as another really sad montage, highlight how the concept of adventure that Carl coveted so much is insignificant in comparison to the small moments that he shared with Ellie. This is vocalized further with the lyrics from another theme in the soundtrack. In the song, The Spirit of Adventure, the lyrics state that “my spirit of adventure is you,” cementing the theme that a meaningful adventure with someone is measured in the smaller moments shared as opposed to the grander escapades.
Speaking of small moments, the montage for Married Life is only composed of ordinary moments between Carl and Ellie, such as cleaning their house together or silently reading on their personalized couches. These relatively insignificant moments in Carl and Ellie’s life hold a higher level of importance, as these moments are what characterize Ellie to the audience. Clearly these moments were well-cherished by Ellie as well, as seen in the Stuff We Did montage.
Ellie’s Theme is played in many ways, from a pensive piano solo to an epic orchestral fanfare. Just as the small moments are appreciated in hindsight, the soundtrack features snippets of Ellie’s Theme to aurally represent the small moments that Ellie shared with Carl. Even when Carl is on his wild adventure, Ellie’s theme lingers, along with his memories of her. The iconic theme can be easily distinguished at any moment in the movie because of the nature of the melodic line/distinct chord progressions, as well as the use of the major major dominant seventh chords. The use of the major major dominant seventh chords do not provide a sad or despondent sound. On the contrary, the chords are thoughtful and tender with no obvious sad connotations. To Carl, Ellie is the spirit of adventure, and as he goes on future adventures with his new companions, one can hear her spirit in the music and how she continues to positively influence Carl and his friends.
My golden rule when it comes to judging soundtracks is as follows: the music is doing a good job if it fits seamlessly into the movie and is not noticed, but the music is doing a great job it still fits in seamlessly but can be appreciated without taking away from the movie. There are very few movies that I have seen that fit into the latter category, but when I think about examples for the great movie music category, Up is one of the first examples that come to mind. I would argue that Ellie is portrayed by most of the music heard in the soundtrack; the music is her character. Though I personally wish that the soundtrack was more widely regarded than it currently is, I am pleased that the music will live on alongside the movie to bring out the best in each other, just like Carl and Ellie.