So sorry about the delay in posting – I was going to publish two posts in January, and here we are in March. Let’s just pretend it’s January so I can say it’s still Michael Giacchino month and save any sorry scraps of my personal dignity that remain. ‘Kay? ‘Kay.
Today, we’re talking formulas. How they sometimes fall flat, and how companies such as Pixar Animation Studios can seem to make them work over and over again. I know I’m not the first person to comment on Pixar’s talent for spinning formula into fable. In fact, their employees have already done so. Back in 2012, storyboard artist Emma Coats tweeted twenty-two prompts Pixar uses to formulate plots, such as, “What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them,” and, “Once upon a time, there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ____.”
We see this formula play out time and time again in some of the best animated films ever created, such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles. Every day, Woody and Buzz fight each other for respect until they learn to work together. Marlin is overly protective of his son after his wife’s tragic death until he learns to let Nemo have some independence. The Parr family hides their superpowers until they are given an awesome main theme by Michael Giacchino, and the mix of 1960’s cartoon jazz and futuristic full-bodied orchestral beauty inspires them to don their no-caped suits and sprint, cartwheel, and spontaneously combust their way to kick-butt glory…
Sorry, I got distracted. We’ll get back to Giacchino later.
My point is, Pixar movies click together like puzzle pieces. Each is built on the same foundation, and as such, they almost become their own genre, or their own world. It therefore doesn’t surprise me that, since 2013, YouTubers and bloggers have shown increasing interest in the “Pixar Theory,” a speculation that the events of all Pixar movies occur in the same universe within a timeline that starts with The Good Dinosaur and ends with Monsters University and Monsters, Inc. This theory was started by YouTube comedy show host Dylan O’Brien in his video “Why Pixar Movies Are All Secretly About the Apocalypse,” and was solidified and expanded upon by Jon Negroni, who claims that the closet doors in Monsters, Inc. are actually time travel portals in a post-apocalyptic world where humanity no longer exists. Boo, the little girl who befriends Sully and Mike, two monsters in Monsters, Inc., eventually travels through these portals and becomes the witch from Brave, thus kickstarting most of the events in the Pixar Universe timeline, such as the creation of superpowers via her magic and thereby the birth of sentient toys, cars, and animals. Confusing? Yeah. Unintentional? Absolutely. It’s a completely whacky theory, and one that Pixar itself has denied (albeit indirectly), but it doesn’t feel too forced because each film has such a similar background and basic story structure. One could almost compare Pixar to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where characters and themes play out in similar ways (usually via disposable villain seeking out McGuffin with which to destroy the universe, space portals, and lots of superhero team-ups), or the ever-increasing Star Wars saga, where the battle between the Light and the Dark side of the force never ends, no matter how many characters are thrown into the war zone (also, no matter how many Death Stars. Lots of Death Stars.)
Now, riddle me this: what do Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar have in common?
Disnerds, rejoice! The Mouse rules all.
Pixar was the first of these cinematic giants to be sold to Disney back in 2006, and it seems to have come with a sweet packaged deal: composer Michael Giacchino. Giacchino started his career in Pixar in 2004, and has composed for The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Up, Cars 2, and Inside Out, and is slated to return for The Incredibles 2 in 2018. He’s Randy Newman post-Randy Newman. He is as much a part of the modern iteration of the Pixar formula as Emma Coats’s twenty-two twitter tips. And Disney is proud to have possession of his work. With Giacchino’s reputation for a long-time collaboration with J.J. Abrams, director of the upcoming Star Wars films, and his recent score for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, it’s safe to say that we will hear more of him in a galaxy far, far away. In Marvel territory, he composed for last year’s Doctor Strange and is slated to compose for Spider-Man: Homecoming later this year. Beyond Disney-owned cash cows, Giacchino has been involved in the Star Trek and Mission Impossible reboots. I predict him to become this generation’s John Williams. You just wait. The Oscars are on their way.
Speaking of Oscars, Giacchino won his one and only for Pixar’s Up in 2010. Up is notorious for having one of the saddest openings of any animated film, as it includes a montage of our protagonist, Carl, walking through life with his wife, Ellie, starting with their marriage and ending in her death. You may watch the scene here, but be sure to have a box of tissues ready. “Married Life” is the piece that plays throughout this scene, and it functions as a reoccurring theme in the movie, whenever Carl thinks of Ellie, or themes of family are introduced. Many have examined why “Married Life” has such emotional power (just see “How Pixar uses Music to make you Cry” by YouTuber “Sideways,” though be warned, he is wrong about how many times the theme is revisited in the film), but today, I want to talk about another aspect of it. I want to talk about how it shows Giacchino’s versatility as a film composer, how that plays into his success in the world of franchise, and what advantages and disadvantages this poses for the future of Pixar and the concept of cinematic universes in general.
“Married Life” is built around an F major 7th chord, which Giacchino says he chose because it contains just a “tinge of sadness” and “reaches back.” This chord, woven into a simple, music-box type melody, forms an ostinato, or a repeating motif or phrase that can change based on emotional shifts. The entire movie stands on this ostinato, but the remarkable thing about “Married Life” is how many shifts are contained within the piece itself – not only is it used in the rest of the film for different purposes, but the piece uses the same few notes repeatedly to show the emotional arc of Carl and Ellie’s life. The same notes that are joyful and bouncy in the beginning of the tune turn to lonely and regretful piano in the end. It’s at least half of what makes the montage such a powerful and tragic love story.
It’s also exactly what franchises require to become successful. Constant variation within the same reoccurring theme keeps things interesting and consistent at the same time. We look forward to movies such as Spider-Man: Homecoming with certain expectations, as we are familiar with previous iterations of the work and the character. As it is another retelling of Spider-Man’s origin story, we expect the inclusion of Spidey’s web-slingers, Uncle Ben and Aunt May, and possibly a version of the “with great power comes great responsibility” speech. But we also want the movie to have its own twists and turns. We wouldn’t pay ten bucks for a theater ticket and fifty bucks for popcorn and soda to see something unoriginal.
Thus the recent rise in “what-if” movies in franchise – what if there was a rebel team that stole the plans to the Death Star? What if we pulled these superheroes together into the Avengers, like they were in the comics? What if we revisit Woody, Buzz, and the gang when Andy goes to college? Film scores are just as important a contribution to this movement of adding novelty to nostalgia as direction and storyboarding. Themes are revisited and retouched based on how they’re used in the spin-off films and reboots. For example, Giacchino’s version of “The Imperial March” never completes itself in Rogue One because he instead chooses to hint at greater things to come for Darth Vader in Episode IV (see my previous post.)
Unfortunately, the “what-if” movie craze sometimes goes wrong. We know “what-if” bad guys from DC comics team up in some kind of “Suicide Squad.” We know “what-if” Batman and Superman go toe to toe and their moms just happen to have the same first name. A decade ago, we found out “what-if” Tim Burton gets ahold of Planet of the Apes and turns the Lincoln Memorial into a giant monkey. And it ain’t pretty.
Nerdwritter1, one of my favorite YouTubers, recently produced a video on serialization that addresses the question of whether or not reboots and remakes are going to kill themselves through unoriginality. He goes back to the root of the serial, Charles Dickens, and argues that just as the form of the periodical changed over time into franchise, franchise today could be on the cusp of changing into something else entirely. I share his optimism for the future of “what-ifs” and formula in franchise, but with caution. Yes, I too am very tired of the stream of perfectly average movies that seem to be coming out of the largest corporations at present. I’ve found the MCU consistently sub-par since Guardians of the Galaxy, and even Pixar is taking a dive. Right now, they’re only producing sequels, a blow to a company that was previously driven by John Lasseter, one of the most innovative minds in animation. However, Star Wars is making a comeback. Though I found both Rogue One and The Force Awakens to be somewhat lackluster, the passion of the people working on both projects shows. They are an improvement on the prequels. These are movies that want to play, to have fun, and I think as long as their creators do, too, they will learn to adapt.
In terms of film scoring, Michael Giacchino is the best guy to have around if you want to rejuvenate your franchise because of his mastery of this ability to adapt. His music evolves, not just throughout his movies, but within a single piece. Yes, he has participated in his fair share of flops (looking at you, Cars 2), but franchise films must have creative minds bring new ideas and moods to the table in order to survive. Giacchino has already proven that he can be that mind. Now that he’s got his fingers in Disney, and thereby, all the things, maybe he’ll be able to change the face of franchise as easily as he’s able to turn a chord.
All hail the Mouse. All hail Giacchino.