Film Score Friday #9: “Up” (2009)

The opening of Pete Docter’s 2009 smash hit Up is arguably the most celebrated ten minutes in the entire Pixar canon, summarising (but never glossing over) the many happy years of friendship, love and marriage that protagonist Carl Fredricksen spends with his beloved childhood sweetheart Ellie. What makes this sequence truly memorable, however, are the two devastating low points that punctuate their otherwise uninterrupted domestic bliss: namely the miscarriage Ellie suffers, and her untimely illness and death just as the two are set to make their long-awaited trip to South America and the mythical Paradise Falls.

Underpinning this passage (and contributing no end to its indelible imprint) is the subtle charm of composer Michael Giacchino’s “Married Life”, effective accompaniment enough for the way in which it follows the ups and downs of Carl and Ellie’s relationship. With a French Old World charm reminiscent of a Django Reinhardt or Stephane Grapelli recording in its trumpet, violin and rhythm combo, a lilting waltz tempo and theme prevails through many of their happier moments, reflecting the shared dream of adventure, travel and exploration that they entertain throughout their lives. When tragedy strikes, however, this previously upbeat optimism not only changes to far more melancholy combinations of clarinet, strings and piano, but also drops dramatically in terms of tempo, as if demonstrating how time slows almost to a standstill for the afflicted couple in their darkest hours. This becomes more poignant still at the end of the sequence, the ensemble fading away to muted solo piano as Carl is left alone and bereft at Ellie’s funeral.

The sense of adventure that previously fired Carl’s joie de vivre seemingly disappears along with his departed wife, and when the viewer is introduced to him in the present day, he is a lonely and embittered shadow of his former self, the remaining half of a life where everything was built and set up for two. Faceless property developers have designs on the house that he and Ellie renovated from dereliction, and with no children or relatives to help fight his corner, he is fighting a stubborn war of attrition single-handed to hand onto it. What is also noticeable, however, is the neurotic compulsion with which he seeks to keep its every detail as it was prior to Ellie’s passing, exhibiting textbook symptoms of a Freudian melancholia that keeps him from processing his grief and loss in the proper manner. Indeed, it is this that sets the film’s events in motion as Carl, desperately protecting their cherished mailbox from being flattened by construction traffic, lashes out against a foreman and is committed by the courts to a retirement home.

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Carl Fredricksen settles in for another day of embittered endurance in Up.

Following the subdued, melancholy conclusion of the “Married Life” segment and cue, the subsequent reappearances of this theme come to function as a classical leitmotif that grows progressively in intensity and volume as Carl’s life begins to take an Up-ward turn in more ways than one. Heard as Carl very much hoists anchor and “sets sail” for Paradise Falls, the instrumentation of “Carl Goes Up” (1:25 below), beginning tentatively in the cellos, implies a sense of liberation as it gradually rises to upper strings and woodwinds the higher he climbs before thinning out once again, in a moment of almost transfigured peace, to delicate classical guitar and strings as it reaches its height. With all visible traces of human civilisation having seemingly vanished beneath the clouds, Carl can finally begin to feel as though his troubles are behind him – a feeling that, as he soon discovers, is short-lived, as Russell, a young member of the local scouting group, has stowed away on board.

As the story progresses, this theme also begins to acquire qualities of intrepidness and even heroism as the spirit of adventure that Carl and Ellie once sought after now increasingly comes looking for him instead. As well as their party picking up two further members – “Kevin”, a large ostrich/dodo/bird-of-paradise hybrid, and Dug, a naively affectionate Labrador – they also attract the attentions of the film’s primary antagonist Charles Muntz, Carl and Ellie’s former childhood hero (more on him later), now living in seclusion near the Falls and resolved to capture a mythical monster which, indeed, turns out to be “Kevin”. A brief flash of the easily recognisable first phrase, for example, is heard during the “Escape from Muntz Mountain” (0:24 below) as the quartet flee (complete with house) from Muntz’s canine hordes, sounding out on solo trumpet as in “Married Life” – notably, unmuted – against the Indiana Jones-esque “chase music” background.

Yet just as this re-entry of this theme serves on some level to remind the viewer as well of its first appearance in the opening sequence, the fact that Carl’s chosen vehicle for his voyage to Paradise Falls is the same house he is seen stubbornly defending at the beginning of the film also indicates the closeness with which adventure becomes interlinked in Up, or at least in much of it, with the theme of memory. Indeed, despite making no further appearances, Ellie’s is arguably the biggest presence in the film, seeming to hang over and influence everything Carl does. The talismanic importance with which he seemingly imbues the house as a vessel for her spirit is enforced, for example, by the numerous instances in which he turns to Ellie for advice or simply to offload his frustration, the subsequent eyeline matches not only pairing him in the classical film editing manner with his “interlocutor”, but also revealing this interlocutor, rather than a potentially hackneyed spectral likeness of his dearly departed wife, to be the house itself. As well as giving us a musical reminder of Ellie and the sense of adventure she inspired within Carl, then, the recurrence of the “Married Life” theme also communicates to some extent how Carl constantly carries the millstone of her memory with him, both psychologically and quite literally in the symbolic form of the house.

Subtler versions or variations on the theme suffice to communicate this idea as well. “Walking the House”, for example, played as Carl and Russell trudge with the house Fitzcarraldo-style across the jungle floor (see below), is based on an almost identical chord sequence to “Married Life”, as is a subsequent, more up-tempo theme for “Kevin”. The instrumentation of the former in particular causes us to sympathise somewhat with Carl’s predicament (and Russell’s), albeit not without drawing a little humour as well. With Latin percussion and syncopated guitar chords suggesting the exotic sounds and rhythms of South America, its contrastingly slow pace not only parallels their actual torturous progress, but also confronts Carl with the difference between his dream and his reality: far from dancing with his wife to upbeat and exotic music, he is instead hauling his house (not to mention a very recalcitrant Russell) through the dense rainforest.

The bossa nova-like melody heard over the top, almost straight out of the Antonio Carlos Jobim songbook, furthermore comes over the course of the film to be associated primarily with Russell, heard, for example, as he prepares to mount his daring (if ill-conceived) improvised rescue of “Kevin” from on board Muntz’s dirigible (“The Small Mailman Returns”). This subsequent denotative property, however, paints its original appearance in “Walking the House” in an entirely new light. If we are to take the floating house as a physical manifestation of Ellie’s enduring memory, and thus the recurring “Married Life” theme as a leitmotif for both her and Carl, Russell’s addition in this scene to the implied “husband and wife” dynamic – and of his theme to Carl and Ellie’s – positions him more definitively as their de facto child. As well as filling the tragic void left in the couple’s lives by Ellie’s miscarriage and the subsequent impossibility of having children of their own, Russell also gains in Carl a father figure, or otherwise a male role model that is otherwise conspicuously lacking in his life: his parents are divorced or separated, rarely available and, even then, often keep him at something of an arm’s length.

While Up deftly avoids the cliché of re-establishing the nuclear family as the solution to all personal woes and strife – Carl, after all, would be much more a grandfather figure – the narrative also implies that Carl in particular undergoes a transformation and even transcendence of sorts once he begins to relinquish his “splendid isolation” and let himself be open to others, a notion again illustrated in the intertwining of adventure and memory through music. As Carl – having allowed Muntz to capture “Kevin”, banished Dug and alienated Russell – leafs through old photo albums and reminisces over his and Ellie’s past experiences (“Stuff We Did”), the muted strains of the “Married Life” theme heard over the top immediately recall the sombre instrumentation from the end of the opening sequence, emphasising Ellie’s palpable absence from the scene over the presence that Carl perhaps wishes for.

As the clip above shows, however, Russell defiantly putting himself in danger and setting off after their captured friend stings Carl out of his inertia, as he frantically lightens the load inside the house in order to go after him (“Memories Can Weigh You Down”). As well as losing obvious physical ballast in ejecting his and Ellie’s old possessions, the viewer also witnesses the psychological catharsis he undergoes in the process, ridding himself of the “Stuff We Did” in the past in order to safeguard the other (living) people he holds dear. It is scarcely any surprise, then, that the music heard as he finally achieves lift-off (0:58) is a far more confident and buoyant iteration of the same “Married Life” theme as previously heard only moments before, seeming, like Carl himself, to have become newly airborne.


Standing in sharp contrast to Carl’s “spirit of adventure” that grows stronger and purer as the story progresses is that of Muntz, whose determination to redeem the disgrace he suffers at the opening of the film soon manifests itself in obsession, mania and murder. The museum-like, almost sepulchral interior of Muntz’s airship, decorated with the skeletons of animals he has successfully captured, is already an ideal visual counterpoint to the manner in which he, to a far more extreme degree than Carl, is trapped inside his own past. This downward spiral, however, is also reflected musically as Giacchino constantly harks back to the tune of Muntz’s own “theme song” “The Spirit of Adventure”, heard over the film’s title card.

The bright optimism of this tune, whose upbeat 1920s dixie orchestration does much to bolster the parallels between Muntz and the aviator Charles Lindbergh, is reprised and even somewhat reinforced in its first reappearance in “The Nickel Tour” as Carl and Russell, having been brought to Muntz’s hideout by his phalanx of vicious guard dogs, are invited inside as his guests. Carl’s evident delight at meeting his childhood hero in the flesh, and seeing the airship in which he conducted his famous exploits, is given extra weight here by the fuller and more expressive orchestration, suggesting both the nobility of Muntz’s stature and the nobility that Carl invests in him through his admiration.

Charles Muntz: a man consumed by shadows.

The subsequent iterations of this theme, however, hint at the dark personality Muntz has since developed in his decades of isolation and at the corruption of the “spirit of adventure” he once represented for Carl and Ellie, with the tune often distorted in terms of melodic shape or underpinned by discordant and dissonant harmonies. This becomes more strikingly apparent in “The Explorer Motel”, heard as Muntz begins to suspect Carl’s true motivations for his arrival in Paradise Falls and reveals the fates (as well as the personal effects he grotesquely seems to have kept as trophies) of other unsuspecting victims unfortunate enough to have crossed his path. Already, the ascending first phrase of the original is heard here in a slightly altered form, the changing even of two intervals creating a more angular and sinister melodic shape far removed from the heroism heard previously.

All of the various themes and variations introduced thus far come together, quite naturally, in “Seizing the Spirit of Adventure”, which accompanies the final climactic battle on board Muntz’s giant dirigible and provides one of the clearest demonstrations so far of their leitmotivic properties. The epic, Miklos Rosza-esque theme heard in the brass and strings as Muntz and Carl duel in the museum hall, for example (1:19 below), is made up of the same notes as Muntz’s “Spirit of Adventure” theme heard previously, reinforcing the upper hand he appears to have over his opponent and growing steadily more discordant the more frenzied he becomes.

Although the re-entry in far stronger and more confident form first of Russell’s theme as he finally succeeds in climbing the hose back towards the house (3:21 above), and then of the “Married Life” theme as the house swoops in Valkyrie-style to spirit Carl and the others away (0:21 below) seems to hint at a change in fortunes, the recurrence of Muntz’s theme in the brass as he pursues his prize around the outside of the airship reminds the viewer that the battle is not yet over. Things come to a head as Muntz scuppers Carl et al’s escape attempt, with the now highly tense- and dramatic-sounding “Married Life” theme in the strings, lending proceedings the air of a Hitchcock thriller as the house teeters perilously over the void below, contrasting with the renewed determination of Muntz’s “Spirit of Adventure” theme as he moves in for the kill (1:06).

It is at this point that Carl’s healing process witnessed throughout the film reaches its natural conclusion, and indeed in spectacular fashion as Muntz snares his footing in the balloons keeping the house afloat and is sent plummeting to his doom below while, in the ensuing chaos, the house itself becomes unmoored and drifts away silently into the clouds. With the associations of Ellie invested in the house both by Carl and, by extension, the viewer, it is hard not to read Muntz’s apparently accidental entanglement in somewhat supernatural terms, a last helping hand lent by Ellie from beyond the grave which allows Carl and the others to make their escape. Far from the compulsive behaviour that marked his attitudes towards it at the film’s opening, however, Carl’s now philosophical reflection that “it’s just a house” succinctly summarises the transformation he has undergone, its disappearing sight a symbolic letting-go of the emotional weight he has carried for years.

The music that plays at this point, however, similarly titled “It’s Just a House”, also signifies how important this gesture is for Ellie as well: not only is it a more fully orchestrated reprise of the music previously heard as Carl and Russell catch their first glimpse of Paradise Falls (“Paradise Found”), but this first cue is itself another, slowed-down variation on the “Married Life” theme, again utilising the same chord sequence as before. With the implication this second time around that the house and, by extension, Ellie have successfully made it back, this neatly prefigures the film’s final shot depicting the house in pride of place atop the falls as Carl and Ellie had once envisaged, bringing both their journeys full circle in terms of laying her spirit to rest and of realising the adventure she had always dreamed of experiencing.

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As well, then, as providing effective accompaniment to Carl’s real-life adventures during the course of the film, the growth in strength of the “Married Life” theme heard at the opening also allows the viewer to share in the spiritual renewal he experiences in the process. The extent to which these tie together, however, is not only revealed for the viewer narratively, but also reinforced on a musical level in Giacchino’s score, whose use of themes, as well as drawing the viewer’s attention to the presence on screen of the characters they represent,also serves to remind the viewer of previous associations not always apparent from the immediate context. The final farewell message that Ellie leaves for Carl – “Thanks for the adventure – now go and have a new one!” – would come across as somewhat trite were it not for the sensitivity and nuance with which Up’s story is treated by director Pete Docter and his team.

Among the many things of which the recurrence of Giacchino’s “Married Life” theme reminds us, however, is the fact that, far from feeling denied the promise of adventure as their various plans are frustrated by such seemingly mundane things as hospital bills and blown-out tyres, Ellie instead found it precisely in the day-to-day life and everyday moments that she and Carl spent together. For her, furthermore, the adventure began from when they first met, something Giacchino’s score reinforces as the theme that comes to be associated with the “Married Life” sequence is, in fact, first heard shortly beforehand, namely on a slightly beaten-up and out-of-tune children’s clubhouse piano as Ellie inducts Carl into the “club” (“We’re in the Club Now”) that will eventually comprise the rest of their lives.

Yet the key to Carl’s recovery through his grief is also tied up in the idea that, as Bob Marley once sang, “Live for yourself, you will live in vain/Live for others, you will live again”. Carl’s gruff personality at Up’s outset, described by Docter and producer Jonas Rivera as that of “a disgruntled bear that’s been poked awake during hibernation”, has as much to do with his bereavement as the state of inertia that he has since imposed upon himself, one that entails no risk yet also promises no reward. For all the adventure he might have experienced by himself in realising the promise he and Ellie once made to each other, his life is now arguably more complete thanks to the chance interactions he has made along the way: as well as gaining the opportunity to relive some of the adventure he experienced with Ellie in the course of their marriage, he can now also provide this same opportunity for Russell.

As if to illustrate this point, the orchestration of the final “Up with End Credits” not only hints at the emotional high-point of the film’s conclusion, but also reintroduces some of the naïve, child-like charm of the opening, with the melody on solo piccolo evoking the memory of rustic summer camps and Scout marching bands. The importance (in the film, at least) of finding adventure with and in other people, however, is left for the very end in the full vocal version of “The Spirit of Adventure”, restoring to Muntz’s theme the nobility and humanity it had previously lost and reminding the viewer of just what adventure in Up really means: “To say that I’ve travelled is far too mundane/My spirit of adventure is you!”

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One thought on “Film Score Friday #9: “Up” (2009)

  1. I loved this film, a friend lent it to me after Gran died and Papa was moving in with Shirley, and all that emotional stuff was rolling on, so I really enjoyed your blog and understood most of it!! I’m going to send it on to Rosie, who lent it to me, and also to Papa, if that’s ok with you? Well done! Xx

    http://Www.cardsfrommiranda.co.uk – an independent Flamingo Paperie Partner.

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