Composer Michael Giacchino Has Become Pixar's Secret Weapon

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When Pixar Animation Studios began making features, they wanted to differentiate themselves in more ways than one from other animation companies. In the mid-1990s, it was daring to make a full-length computer-animated feature, but Pixar knew there was another trend of modern animation that they should boldly sidestep. To quote Monty Python and the Holy Grail: no singing.

The Disney Renaissance of the 1990s was marked by Broadway-style songs in Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, The Lion King and more. For a while, Pixar's filmmakers would compromise with Disney, to the point where a song or two played over the soundtrack in their early films, such as Toy Story and A Bug's Life. Nearly a quarter-century later, Pixar is the standard-bearer of American animation, only slightly delving into the musical genre with last year's Coco. Though Pixar's cautiously utilized songs in their films, they've had a very strong association with music, akin to Disney and its relationship with the late Howard Ashman, even if they intended to avoid such associations. With Pixar, many of their recent films have been defined and enhanced by the work of Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino.

The Incredibles and Incredibles 2

Michael Giacchino didn't get his start with Pixar; he came to renown thanks to his work on the Call of Duty video game series as well as two of JJ Abrams' TV shows, Alias and Lost. (His work on the latter program is among the finest musical work in TV history, bar none.) But as soon as the opening strains of "The Glory Days" are heard in Brad Bird's 2004 superhero film The Incredibles, Giacchino stepped into his own as one of the most important factors in any Pixar film's success.

With the release of Incredibles 2, Giacchino has now composed the score for seven of Pixar's 20 feature films; only Randy Newman, who scored the studio's first four films, has worked more for Pixar with eight features under his belt. Though Giacchino got his start later in Pixar's run, the films he's scored have the studio's most distinctive themes. There's the snappy and swooning sounds of Ratatouille, his vibrant work on Coco, and the two scores he's produced for Pete Docter's Pixar features, Inside Out and Up, the latter of which garnered Giacchino a richly deserved Academy Award.

Starting with The Incredibles, Michael Giacchino was able to both recall the work of past great composers as well as make something uniquely his own. Bird originally wanted John Barry to score the film, in homage to his iconic work on the James Bond sequel On Her Majesty's Secret Service; when Barry passed on the gig, Giacchino stepped in. No doubt, the bombastic, retro-styled score feels indebted to the Bond films of the 1960s as well as other jazzy compositions. However, Giacchino steps beyond simply cribbing from the past by creating his own distinct themes within that recognizable era of music.

The brassy quality of the score not only recalls the era of Bird's youth, but adds an epic quality to the film that's arguably missing from a lot of superhero movies these days. (Is it a hot take to say that most live-action superhero movies are lacking in the music department? Because they are, and there's just no excuse.) Both in depicting the superheroic Parr family at their best — as when paterfamilias Bob's mid-life crisis takes a positive turn in "Life's Incredible Again" — as well as revealing the villain Syndrome and his vicious plan in "Kronos Unveiled", Giacchino's first Pixar score is as exciting and bold a debut as you'll find among modern composers. With just one film, it became clear that this was a musical talent to...well, listen out for.

Unfortunately for us, the Incredibles 2 score has yet to be released to the public; it'll be available for purchase on June 29, two weeks after the film opens. On first blush, hearing it within the context of the overall film, Giacchino is going back to the basics that established him as a composer to watch. Though the setup of the film is reversed — Helen Parr/Elastigirl gets to be the hero, while Bob stays at home — the score feels both distinct to the story as well as dipping into a lot of familiar themes. There's plenty of trumpet-heavy themes, along with more than a — sorry for the pun — dash of saxophones and other woodwinds. It's maybe not Giacchino's best score, but feels like a natural continuation of what made his 2004 work stand out so much.


Though Giacchino worked with Brad Bird for the second of five collaborations on Ratatouille, the 2007 character study is tonally much different from the director's other output. Though there's a chase sequence or two, the action is much more minimal than in either Incredibles film or Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Yet the score for Ratatouille, including Giacchino's song "Le Festin," is symphonically exciting, leaping from high to low emotion deftly.

"Granny Get Your Gun" — one thing that Michael Giacchino has always done is get very clever with the names of the tracks on his scores — starts calmly with almost a rustic charm. That charming, down-home quality, sounding almost like Remy the rat's internal soundtrack, shifts drastically. It builds in intensity, with screeching brass and strings, matching an early scene where an elderly woman discovers that Remy's family lives in her ceiling, and tries to blow them all to bits with a shotgun.

The same mix of excitement and urgency is present in "A Real Gourmet Kitchen," in which Remy finds himself in the middle of the kitchen at Gusteau's Restaurant in Paris, trying to avoid being found out by the humans inside even as every facet of the kitchen cries out to him. In Ratatouille especially, Giacchino can confidently, comfortably move from emotional peak to valley, and back again; we get the sense in the music alone how much the kitchen excites Remy even as its participants terrify him.

The blend hits a fever pitch in "Dinner Rush," when Remy, his human friend Alfredo Linguine, and a whole lot of rats must serve, among others, the fearsome critic Anton Ego. This piece alone shifts from the frantic sense of keeping a Parisian kitchen afloat to the thrill to serving "a peasant dish" to a literal tastemaker, to the winsome triumph of making that critic Remy's fiercest champion. Ratatouille may not be Giacchino's flashiest score, but it's as vital a part of the film's success as any of its other elements.

Up and Inside Out

By 2009, Pixar had become a big enough name in animation that, just like the Disney Renaissance hinted at the studio's favorite tropes, some of its storytelling choices were familiar even in the middle of more distinctive worlds and characters. Their films were often buddy stories, crafted in improbable new settings. But one of those tropes was simple: Pixar movies were almost reverse-engineered to make audiences cry. From the "When She Loved Me" sequence in Toy Story 2 to the climax of WALL-E, Pixar movies were good at making people (especially adults) sob uncontrollably in theaters. But Up, their 2009 film that deservedly received a Best Picture Oscar nomination, pulled on people's heartstrings early and often.

The story is plenty emotional, and the animation is exquisite, but be honest: when you listen to that "Married Life" composition, you get a little teary nearly a decade later. Few pieces of music are so instantly evocative within Pixar's discography. The winsome theme — first played by a trumpeter using a mute on his horn before being echoed by strings, piano, and more — of "Married Life" recurs often throughout all of Up, a largely wonderful film that's heavily enhanced by Giacchino's score. "Married Life," as the title would suggest, underscores a four-minute montage in the opening section that documents the film's core relationship between Carl Fredricksen and his wife Ellie, who passes away by the end of the sequence. Up is still a singular entry for Pixar, if only because it's the only film of theirs that makes audience members cry in the first act, not the third; Giacchino's composition, which manages to use the full orchestra without ever sounding manic or overwhelming, is a big reason why.

But even with the initial heartbreak, Up is an adventure story, with talking dogs, zeppelins, and plenty of chases; Giacchino's score is just as able to capture the sense of daring in Carl Fredricksen's choice to lift his house by balloons in the hopes of traveling to Paradise Falls in South America. Tracks like "Giving Muntz the Bird" (again, Giacchino likes the clever track titles) and "Seizing the Spirit of Adventure" perfectly encapsulate the breathtaking sense of derring-do and peril inherent in Carl's journey as well as the gorgeous South American setting.

But the emotion of "Married Life" recurs in the second half of the soundtrack, in tracks like "Stuff We Did," referencing the back half of the scrapbook Ellie made of her life with Carl, as well as the sweet coda of "It's Just A House," where Carl finally, literally lets the spirit of his wife go. Though Pete Docter's film has many lovely nuances (and is all-around excellent, not just peaking in the first act), a funny script, and some memorably goofy animal characters, it's hard to see Giacchino's compositions as anything less than the true MVP.

Inside Out, Docter's most recent film, boasts another superlative score from Giacchino. (As ridiculous as it is that Inside Out didn't win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, it's doubly so that Giacchino's work on the film didn't even get a nomination for Best Original Score.) There's not a single track on the Inside Out score that quite reaches the same emotional highs of "Married Life," in effect because there's an appropriately consistent undercurrent of emotion throughout the entire set of compositions.

From the opening track, "Bundle of Joy," Giacchino balances both an open-hearted style befitting the birth of a new baby girl, and a slightly more ethereal, initially piano-driven and off-kilter theme to accompany the introduction of baby Riley's five personified emotions. Tracks like "Team Building" are a rush, bookended by the low brass theme of Sadness but with a headlong sense of propulsion thanks to a fast-paced guitar riff, as we learn about the inner workings of Riley's mind.

Yet it's a sense of aching sadness — even in a brief track like "Free Skating," which accompanies the images of Joy mirroring Riley's ice skating in an old memory — that's the overarching presence of Giacchino's Inside Out soundtrack. As much as some of the tracks are either thrilling or goofy, like "Abstract Thought," this soundtrack follows in line with the sadness permeating the story depicting a slight loss of innocence on the human lead's part. As great as this score is, it's telling that what is arguably the film's most heartbreaking moment, in which Amy Poehler's Joy, stuck down at the bottom of the Memory Dump, monologues about Riley's changing personality, is underscored with a light, almost echoing piano theme. Nothing more needs to be said.


Last year's delightful Coco features a lead character who's obsessed with music, in part because the rest of his family despises it so much. Naturally, the score is impressive; Giacchino's presence on the picture solidifies his value to Pixar. Lee Unkrich's previous film, Toy Story 3, featured another Randy Newman score, but not this time. The score is entirely Giacchino's; he also had a hand in composing "Much Needed Advice," one of the film's songs. It's hard (at least for this White writer) to know exactly how authentic Giacchino's compositions are to Mexican culture. However, what is clear is this: Coco sounds vastly different from the other scores discussed here.

From his opening track, "Will He Shoemaker?", Giacchino establishes the aural design as matching the colorful depiction of Mexico, with a composition blending flutes, a guitar, a group of trumpeters, and more. It's both orchestral and recalling a mariachi band. Whatever familiarity there is lies in the sense of shifting from outrageous emotional highs to sweeter, more austere moments all within the same track. It mirrors how so many Pixar films can jump from inspiring tears to laughs to gasps all within the same sequence.

Some of the compositions for Coco are all laughs, such as "The Newbie Skeleton Walk," in which young Miguel, stuck in the Land of the Dead, tries to blend in with his new friend Hector among other skeletal figures. The flip side can be found in literally the next track, "Adios Chicharron," accompanying a scene where Miguel watches one of the skeletons in the Land of the Dead fade away because no one in the Land of the Living remembers him anymore. It's a haunting number, building to a crescendo with trumpets and strings playing a final melody for the forgotten spirit; though the scene somewhat echoes moments in Inside Out in the Memory Dump, Giacchino's musical choices here and elsewhere are wholly singular. Coco specifically sounds — appropriately — nothing like his other Pixar films.

Perhaps that's what makes Michael Giacchino such a special composer, and so important to the last decade-plus of Pixar films. His style is instantly recognizable without being lazy or overly familiar. He's immensely talented, but in no way predictable. What you get with a new Giacchino score is something bursting at the seams with emotion and excitement, mirroring the best that Pixar has to offer. There are plenty of great Pixar films that Giacchino wasn't involved in, such as the Toy Story trilogy. But there are only so many great Pixar film scores, almost all of which have this one great composer in common.