Sunday, June 30, 2013

Movie Review: MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (Disney/Pixar, 2013)... plus Some "Get Off My Lawn" style grousing about Pop-Culture Predictability

Reactions to Disney/Pixar's prequel to the highly successful Monsters Inc. (2001) seem to be falling into three distinct categories:

1.  "Another Pixar Triumph!!!" hosannas from those for whom Pixar has never, and can never, do wrong.

2.  "A Cold-Blooded and Aesthetically Lame Attempt to Cash In!" from disillusioned Pixar fans who are still recovering from the disappointment of Cars 2 and are worried that the huge success Pixar enjoyed with the Toy Story trilogy is leading it in the wrong, overly derivative direction.

3.  "Hey, It's Revenge of the Nerds With Monsters!  Cool!" from casual moviegoers.

I consider myself a Pixar fan, though not a blindly supportive one (I disliked the highly illogical Cars and have no interest whatsoever in seeing either Cars 2 or the upcoming Planes).  Despite the company's high batting average when it comes to the crafting of imaginative, "Heart"-filled movies, I must admit to initially being a little skeptical about the idea of Monsters Inc.'s Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) in a "college frat movie" setting, simply because the track record of such movies in the human world is so notoriously mixed (to put it charitably).  I've never been a huge fan of such movies and worried that Monsters University, thanks to the "extreme non-humanness" of the cast, would try to be even more loud, obnoxious, and gross than the norm, perhaps in an attempt to compete with the cruder, more pop-culture-saturated tone of many other recent animated releases (more about those later).  Thankfully, MU eschews cheap laughs for the most part and sticks staunchly to the basics -- character development, the maturation of relationships, and even some sly commentary about social class.  The result is a highly enjoyable film that I found myself liking even more than Monsters Inc.


The key to the movie's success, I think, lies in the decision to bring Mike and Sully to MU from two different social and psychological worlds.  Mike, who's not really THAT scary on the surface, is the ambitious nerd who seeks to get through the School of Scaring by sheer force of effort and will.  Sully, the shaggy scion of what appears to pass for "nobility" in the monster world, expects to glide through school on the strength of his family name alone -- and we learn rather late in the game that this is an elaborate cover to hide some legitimate insecurity about his own scare-abilities.  The approach ensures that character will take precedence in this narrative, first and foremost, and that we will be full partners in the long, strange (even for a couple of monsters) journey that will end with Mike and Sully as best friends.  All the frat gags and pranks in the world won't be able to obscure those simple facts.  It goes without saying that the casting of Crystal and Sullivan, who clicked so well in the original movie, made the social-class aspects of MU much easier to believe.

Ultimately thrown together in an unwilling alliance with each other -- plus a friendly, much-put-upon fraternity of "geeks and feebs" who hold initiation ceremonies in a member's mother's basement -- Mike and Sully must prove their true mettle in the Scare Games, a fraternity event to determine which society is the scariest.  I was a little nervous when the storyline narrowed down to this pursuit; it reminded me all too much of the contrived X-Games competition in An Extremely Goofy Movie (2000), in which Max and PJ's campus seemed to all but shut down academic activities to focus on extreme sports.  We literally never saw Mike and Sully in class for the entire second half of the movie.  In the case of the Scare Games, however, a version of official sanction was present in the forbidding form of the legendary Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), so I imagine that the monsters must have gotten co-curricular credit, or something similar, for participating.  The Scare Games proceed as you might expect, and the finish seems eminently predictable, but then the narrative takes a clever swerve that carries us through to a somewhat unexpected, but emotionally satisfying, conclusion.  Suffice it to say that Mike and Sully learn that you can achieve your lifelong ambition -- you just may have to take a different path than you originally anticipated.

The Blue Umbrella, the Pixar short that preceded MU, turned out to be a rarity -- a Pixar short that I found myself disliking intensely.  The "animate inanimate objects fall in love, are separated, yet come back together in a contrived manner" plot has so been done, of course, but what made Umbrella particularly creepy was the fact that EVERYTHING in the city was alive -- drainpipes, walk signals, mailboxes, storefronts, you name it.  Some might call this imaginative and whimsical; I call it something that might give an impressionable kid (the kind of kid who tiptoes past portraits at night because he or she is convinced that the eyes are moving) serious nightmares for weeks. 




Monsters University was, of course, accompanied by a raft of "coming attractions" previews for various 3-D animated projects, some of which looked reasonably good (Despicable Me 2) and some of which... did not (The Smurfs 2, which is probably two too many).  The thing that struck me about all of them was the utter SAMENESS of their approaches.  No matter what sorts of creatures were involved, you saw the same kind of smart-ass humor, the same non-stop references to pop culture, the same wild physical action.  Just as the immense success of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast locked the "Hollywood Musical" template in place for a decade, the Shrek movies unquestionably inspired the aesthetic directions of many of the subsequent 3-D animated films.  (One could argue that Aladdin anticipated the trend, but that was more of a "Hollywood Musical" with contemporary throw-ins, most of which were confined to the Genie and Iago.)

By my reckoning, the Shrek cycle should have just about run its course.  The problem is that the movie industry is even more aesthetically reactionary now than it was in the late 1980s and 1990s, and so it will take an even bolder creator to buck the play-it-safe mentality.  Even Disney's own 3-D division seems to have joined the herd (though Wreck-it Ralph was certainly a high-quality example of the genre), leaving Pixar as the one 3-D animation factory that seems to be making an effort to keep its output somewhat diverse.  (This, I think, is why Pixar's increased reliance on sequels and prequels has elicited such a negative reaction, even from those who have tended to like the results.) Also tempering the drive for innovation is the fact that, thanks to the omnipresent use of CGI, many of today's "big" movies are, in essence, mixtures of live-action and animation.  This leaves precious little wiggle room for an animated director to produce something truly different from either a bog-standard, Shrek-style smirkfest or an action/adventure film that simply mimics effects-filled live-action fare without the human element.  Among recent releases, The Adventures of Tintin came the closest to splitting this difference, and that movie's disappointing American b.o. is a cause for concern.

The "predictability factor" in animated films is, if possible, even more pronounced in newspaper comic strips.  Nicky and I don't get a daily paper, so I hadn't glanced through a daily comics page for quite some time before perusing the KANSAS CITY STAR at breakfast during the AP Statistics Reading.  Remember the old gags about Ernie Bushmiller preparing his comic strip NANCY using a rubber stamp and a joke book?  Well, reading all of those "badly drawn domestic sitcom strips featuring badly drawn humans and/or sentient animals performing more or less funny verbal gags" made me think that Bushmiller was ahead of his time.  There wasn't a SINGLE truly innovative strip -- and by "innovative," I mean in the narrow sense of simply not BEING one of the aforementioned offerings -- in the bunch.  I knew that newspaper strips were in trouble, but I was unaware as to just how rotten things had gotten.  The vast chasm between these space-fillers and the old strips in the book collections I've been enjoying and blogging about would give even Nik Wallenda pause before he attempted a crossing.

Unlike animated films, newspaper strips are probably not making an aesthetic comeback.  The inability of syndicates to even comprehend a different "universe" is probably inherent at this point. The newspaper industry is in parlous shape (it's hard not to be so when half of the country thinks you're biased against it and the other half is busy texting, tweeting, and so forth), and so the most likely location for outstanding strips in the future will probably be the Internet.  (Indeed, I think so highly of KEVIN AND KELL and DAY BY DAY that I have links to them on my Web site.)  We are more likely to see renewed innovation on the large screen, provided that the creators can negotiate the corporate boardrooms, ethical back alleys, and sociopolitical prejudices that have made it so difficult for modern Hollywood to produce anything truly lasting.


Joe Torcivia said...

Chris writes: “Among recent releases, The Adventures of Tintin came the closest to splitting this difference, and that movie's disappointing American b.o. is a cause for concern.”

As I’ve been telling you for years, the name “Tintin” simply does not work for an American audience.

Is he a DOG (like “Rin Tintin”)? Is he a ROBOT (made of Tin)? Is it just some random bell-like noise (like “tintin”-nabulation)? Your average civilian don’t know, and doesn’t have time to figure it out because he or she is too busy feeling that newspapers are against them – or texting and tweeting! Call him something like “Johnny Venture” (at least in the States) and be done with it!

And, you’ve just echoed my own thoughts on newspaper strips that I’ve held for years! You need no greater talent than to doodle and toss off marginal gags.

Anonymous said...

Hello, Chris. I've seem "Monster University" and I enjoyed it. I like the way the plot seems to be going in one direction and then takes zig or zag onto a different course. The writers seem to be following the World War Two advice to fighter pilots: Never fly straight and level more than 30 seconds!

The cameo appearances of characters who show up in "Monsters, Inc." is also fun. Of course, Randall is a major character in "Monsters, Inc" but the idea of him being Mike's first room-mate was a nice twist. And one of the members of Roar Omega Road (ROR) is the monster who keeps getting stuck with "Twenty-three nineteen!" in "MI."

At the end of the film we see Mike and Sully working in the mail room at "MI" and who is their boss? The Abominable Snowman!" And the still picture of Mike & Sully's first day as scarers includes Mr. Waternoose.

Incidentally, I agree with you about the nature of the "Shrek" movies. I saw the first one, and found it to be like the curate's egg: "Parts of it are excellent." But as a whole, it wasn't my cup of tea.

Richard Smyers

Regular GeoX said...

I have to ask: how does the idea that "the name 'Tintin' simply does not work for an American audience" jive with the fact that the English versions of the Tintin albums are perennially popular and indeed are, along with Asterix, one of the few well-known European comics around that you can find at just about any bookstore?

If you ask me, we might trace the poor performance of the Tintin movie to the fact that it was, well...kinda bad.

Joe Torcivia said...


Popular though “Tintin” may be, it never truly entered the American mainstream – in such ways that even Uncle Scrooge has. I tend to blame the odd-sounding name as a deterrent for a certain segment of the potential readership. The name has an ambiguous, even childish, ring to it that doesn’t do the product the justice it deserves.

My ages-ago discussion with Chris on the subject went to the place where greater acceptance (from an audience less inclined toward Euro-comics, than we tend to be) could come if he were named “Johnny”-something. Think “Jonny Quest”, “Johnny Storm” (The Human Torch), and heck just for laughs even “Johnny Bravo”. Together (though more “he” than “me”) we came up with the name “Johnny Venture” – and that’s another story from the “Ancient Fannish Discussions Archive”!

Pan Miluś said...

You didn't like the "Tintin" movie GeoX ?
I enjoy it a lot, propably the best animated movie I've seen that year (and being an animation fanatic I see them all)

As for the 'MONSTER UNIVERSITY" I saw it today (it came out this week in Poland) and I while I like it in general I felt it was missing that "special something" older Pixar film had.

I rember how Pixar use to blow-me away each year with their movies getting just better and better and more mature and clever story-wise.

I was madly in love with "THE INCREDIBLES" ,then that love god "top" by "WALL-E" and "Up".I even enjoy "Cars". It was silly but cute.

I rember how shock I was by "Toy Story 3". This was has propably darkest third act I've seen in a "kids" movie and I coudn't belive how far they went...

And then "Brave" came along and I was shock how generic it was ["Cars 2" I didn't mind since it was cute and targeted for younger children plus ad least they had some creative ideas... Heh... the Pope mobile inside the Popemobile joke crack me up] Unlike the previews Pixar movies it didn't try to push the anvil and if anny thing scriptwise it felt like a movie made 10years ago.

Same goes for "Monster University" - this would be great as a Pixar movie made a two or three after the first one but now compering to movies like "Up" or "The Incredibles" it feels like many steps down.

It's still funny (I love the final fate of one of the monsters mom, some funny lines in Polish dubb, the creerleders who where sweeching between cute and demonic was ingenius, few great horror homages in the last act and the bit after the credit crack me up ), creative and sweet (my friend clame she cried near the end) but I wish Pixar would go on making daring movies like "Wall-E" or "Up".

One extra complain I have - and it's a super personal nitpick - is that out-side of the few main characters I never like the desings of the monsters in the first movie and I can say they where much more creative in this one. The head teacher had cool one but that's about it.

BTW -> Here is a photo of me and friends from company where I work during the Pixar Party ad Annecy film festival. Just look who I meet in person :D :