Monday, June 22, 2009

Review: Up! - Michael Giacchino

The combination of composer Michael Giacchino and Disney/Pixar animation has already proved to be wonderful. Giacchino, an upcoming composer best known for his scores to the video game series Medal Of Honor and the TV show Lost, scored the hit Disney/Pixar animated movies The Incredibles and Ratatouille, in 2004 and 2007 respectively. Both the scores were hailed by film music critics as excellent, and both went on to win numerous awards and nominations, including two Annies and an Oscar nomination for Ratatouille. Therefore, when it was announced that Giacchino would score the latest Disney/Pixar animated directed by Pete Docter, Up!, fans of Giacchino and film scores likewise were excited to hear what would come out of this magical reunion. And, I am glad to say, Giacchino once again lives up to expectations and delivers a heartfelt, warm and fun score that is a pleasure both onscreen and on disc… or rather, on headphones, should I say, since sadly it has no CD release but a download-only one.

The movie is about 78 year old Carl Fredricksen, who remembers his promise to his late wife Ellie about going on an adventure to the wilds of South America. Determined to keep his word, he ties thousands of balloons to his house and lifts off to his journey, accompanied (inadvertently) by young wilderness explorer Russell. Giacchino has been known for his beautiful thematic material in his scores, which he has done here once again. Surprisingly, the theme in the first track Up With Titles is actually of the villain, Muntz. The piece uses swing-like xylophone, muted trumpet, solo violin, bass and low piano to set the mood for the film. It’s remarkable how this rather lazy-sounding theme is fleshed out into a full-blown villainous fanfare later in tracks like Seizing The Spirit Of Adventure, with a rather chilling effect.

We are introduced to the very catchy and lovely main theme, Ellie's Theme, first in We’re In The Club Now, played gently on piano. The story of Up! has its roots in emotion and this theme, which represents the relationship between Carl and Ellie, perfectly captures that. It is rendered in various forms in the next track, Married Life, first on muted trumpet and violin with backing strings in an almost waltz-like way, rather quietly on piano once again, and on strings and acoustic guitar in Carl Goes Up, where the strings and harp rise, marking the beginning of adventure. It could easily represent Carl’s journey through highs and lows in his life, and how he will literally experience these in his real journey for adventure in the film, and does an excellent job at it.

Swirling strings and blaring horns mark the dark aspect of the story in the first action cue of the score, 52 Chachki Pickup. We then have a short but beautiful string-based piece that makes me think of the vista of a beautiful landscape viewed from above, possibly in the film, in Paradise Found, which leads to a track similar in spirit but with a more rhythmic edge, Walkin’ The House, which has what I guess is the House theme. One thing I really like about Giacchino is his choice of track titles – in a running in-joke throughout his Disney scores, here the “dash” scene is titled Three Dog Dash – in the same style as in his aforementioned scores to The Incredibles and Ratatouille, as fans will surely notice. The track is a fast-paced brass feast with supporting strings, leading to Kevin Beak’n where we are introduced to the theme for Kevin the bird, an appropriately ethnic sounding cue with Congo drums, piccolo, low clarinet and staccato strings. The cue is briefly interrupted by an eerie sequence of low brass and trilling strings, which returns in a short while in The Explorer Motel. The percussion and timpani return in the rather threatening Canine Conundrum, giving way to The Nickel Tour, a lovely but short track with Muntz’s theme on French Horn. I guess this is a neat little red herring by Giacchino – perhaps Muntz has not been revealed as an antagonist yet, so you could never guess this is a villian’s theme!

Giacchino proves himself to be an all-rounder as we now move to Escape From Muntz Mountain, one of the most impressive action cues on the album; Ellie's theme is played on high trumpet amidst a storm of timpani, racing strings and blaring horns, twisting and turning appropriately to the action onscreen and yet surprisingly coherent musically and fun to listen to. Kevin’s theme returns in the next track, Giving Kevin The Bird, before continuing into a powerful action track with heavy percussion, where we hear the “other side” of Muntz’s theme for the first time – it’s now dark and sinister on horns, as Muntz’s true intentions become clear. A brief reprise of Ellie's theme on piano in Stuff We Did leads on to probably the best and most exhilarating track in the score. If the lighthearted, upbeat woodwinds in the opening of Memories Can Weigh You Down don’t give enough foreshadowing about what lies ahead, behold, for it is now that the orchestra gets the real workout. Rising higher and higher on strings and lovely horns, we hear Ellie's theme in its full orchestral glory for the first time, on strings and horns, backed by trumpets, virtually guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Notice how the two instruments now play almost side-by-side, complementing each other, rather than solo as before this. The souls of Carl and Ellie are now reunited.

The power set up continues in the upcoming action tracks, The Small Mailman Returns, He’s Got The Bird and Seizing The Spirit Of Adventure – the last of which is one roller coaster ride of an action track with Ellie's theme and Muntz’s theme in furious battle against each other, signifying the struggle between their representative characters themselves, which does not let go till the very end. Somber strings play the House theme in a more gentle way in It's Just A House, before horns victoriously and decisively state Ellie's theme, which returns rendered by piano in The Ellie Badge, marking a happy closure of this emotional journey. And finally, Up With Credits serves as a suite of all the previous themes we heard in the score, ending with a lovely string rendition of Ellie's theme. The song, The Spirit Of Adventure is based on Muntz's theme from the first track, and fun to listen to.

The only problem here is that the score has no proper release on CD. This tactic of depriving Giacchino's score of its CD quality just for a cheaper release by Disney Records is unacceptable, especially in the light of how he won them an Oscar nomination only two years ago. It is understandable for relatively unknown scores like Bedtime Stories, but for one as big and popular of Up!, it is not fair at all. I hope the success and demand for the score will eventually lead to it becoming available on CD in stores, perhaps as an Import version. Otherwise, I guess fans can get ready for those not-really-cheap Academy promo CDs again next year. But till then, let’s be glad there’s been a release at all, and enjoy what we have of this lovely score.

Once again, Michael Giacchino has proved why his reputation as one of the most bright, innovative and talented composers in the film industry is well deserved. The score for Up! is a really charming piece of work that not only enhances the emotions of the film a lot, as expressed by a lot of viewers, but is an extremely coherent, emotional and well structured musical composition in its own right. Tracks like Escape From Muntz Mountain and Memories Can Weigh You Down are guaranteed to stick in your mind and have high replay value, and I won’t be surprised if the majority of the audience leave the theatre humming Ellie's theme.

Maestro Giacchino, now is the time for you to get that long overdue Oscar!

Music Rating – 5 out of 5
Release Rating - 3 out of 5
Album Length - 4 out of 5


  1. I'm with you about that Oscar. It's still early but it's going to be very difficult to find another score this year that I think is more deserving than this one. Let's keep our fingers crossed. :)

  2. Yup, there are quite a few big scores coming later this year, notably James Horner's "Avatar". But still, fingers crossed for Giacchino! :)