Casual Cadenza: When Pixar becomes painful

Photo courtesy of Luca Upper via Unsplash

What is the world’s most effective psychopath test? An online quiz? A conversation with a specialist? To me, it’s watching the montage of Carl and Ellie growing old together in “Up.” I find it hard to believe that any person, unless they genuinely lack the ability to garner empathy, would not emotionally respond to its ending through the shedding of tears or at least feeling like they got stabbed in the heart repeatedly. 

The “Up” montage is yet another reminder of the fact that Pixar is no stranger to pain. For a studio known for distributing children’s movies, they seem to love delivering heart-wrenching anecdotes within their stories. I guess that’s why their demographics have never truly been kid-exclusive. Those who grew up watching films like “Toy Story” and “Monsters Inc.” are the same people who were first in line to watch “Coco” and “Soul” upon their releases. That’s the beauty of Pixar: their work is tough to outgrow. 

It’s difficult to choose which particular Pixar moment should be considered the most poignant. There’s the scene from “WALL-E” when EVE tries to restore a memory-ridden WALL-E back into his curious personality, or in “Brave” when Merida finally reconciles with her mother. The decision eventually came down to two winners for me: when Jessie reminisces about her old owner Emily in “Toy Story 2” and of course, Carl and Ellie’s montage. 

Was five-year-old me prepared for what I was about to go through when queen-of-emotional-ballads Sarah McLachlan started singing “When She Loved Me” as Jessie’s memories of Emily were being played back? No, my little soul was completely annihilated. And as if tormenting my childhood wasn’t enough for them, Pixar’s release of “Up” would bring me the same feeling years later. 

Sheriff Woody, movie character. Photo courtesy of Melanie THESE via Unsplash

The most interesting aspect of these moments is not only their soul-crushing messages, but also how those messages are translated to audiences. There’s no audible dialogue, no words are being said — instead, the lives and memories of each character are portrayed almost like a music video, with songs from their designated soundtracks being played as non-diegetic sounds. Thus, these tracks were directly placed by “Toy Story 2” director John Lasseter and “Up” director Pete Docter to specifically tell audiences, “Hey! Watch this to become absolutely devastated.” Despite how negative that may be, Pixar deserves credit for its method of using music to make people cry — a method that’s so evilly genius, it turns out to be successful. 

Critics have been quick to agree with the emotional capacity of Pixar’s music. “When She Loved Me” ended up winning the 2001 Grammy Award for Best Song Written for Visual Media, while Michael Giacchino’s score for “Up” earned the Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media in 2010. “Married Life,” the track played during the montage scene, also won the Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition. 

To this day, I still lose it after seeing Jessie peering out the donation box or Carl holding a blue balloon at Ellie’s funeral — to the point where every orifice in my eye socket protrudes in salty tears. If there is a bright side to watching either of these moments, it means I passed the psychopath test with flying colors. On the down side, I’ll be depressed for a good majority of the day. But as much as I’d like to give Lasseter and Docter a good punch in the face for all the sorrow they’ve inflicted, I can’t deny how important those painful anecdotes are in storytelling. Music is a powerful medium and clearly Pixar uses it to their meaningful advantage. 

Leave a Reply