Sunday, June 23, 2013

Monsters University

I guess its time that we come to accept the fact that Pixar really isn't going to go back to their groundbreaking high-art movies any time soon.  Once upon a time Pixar unleashed a one-two-three knock-out combo of "WALL-E", "Up", and "Toy Story 3", exploding the world of animated films and smashing every previous standard of children's entertainment to a new realm of quality and possibilities.  The world was left stunned, gasping for more of this genius.  This was a company that made a post-apocalyptic film about the decay of human society into glutenous orbs obsessed with the Internet, then a movie about an old man overcoming the loss of his beloved wife and fighting his psychopathic childhood hero, and then a film about toys facing the inevitability of their own demise and traveling down to TOY HELL, and somehow managed to make all three of these films massively entertaining for the whole family and some of the greatest movies ever made.  Then came "Cars 2"...

"Monsters University" is not going to be another pyrotechnics display of groundbreaking children's writing, and before you decide its a terrible soulless easy sequel to feed the mighty Mickey Mouse's endless greed for ticket sales, you need to make peace with the fact that Pixar today just wants to make fun movies.  I can't imagine the pressure that would come just trying to top "WALL-E", let alone two Best Picture nominees.  If you had made movies that triumphant, wouldn't you rather go back to simpler fun kinds of movies rather than pushing ahead and succumbing to inevitable hubris?  "Toy Story 3" was pretty grim, obviously if you're a company specializing in children's entertainment, you probably don't want to go much further than that.  So why not just make a movie based on college film cliches featuring some beloved characters from a previous production?  Does every movie need to shatter the Earth?

So now that I've excused this movie's existence, I guess I can actually appreciate it for what it is:  not a bad movie.  Actually, "Monsters University" is pretty much a lot of fun, and despite being a sequel, it still has some elements of classic Pixar boldness within it.  Its more than the story of how the two main heroes of "Monsters, Inc." met, though that is the primary focus of the film, its also a compelling story about ambition, dreams, that really does not take any easy paths.  "Monsters University" despite its trappings of following elements from "Animal House" and "Revenge of the Nerds" is actually a film with some very hard truths for its audience.  But luckily, it never becomes bleak or depressing, its still a very fun movie with some great humorous moments, I have to give this one a solid recommendation.

Every Disney release now seems to have a short film before it, and following the line of success of "La Luna" and "Paperman", two of the most beautiful moments I've ever had in a theater, the new short had a lot of live up to.  This one is a live-action short, in fact, taking place in a city street where just about every object is in fact a living face.  So a drain pipe is really a mouth with its screws being eyes.  The actual plot is a red umbrella with a cute little emoticon face falling in love with a red umbrella.  It goes on a short journey after its owner walks away from the red umbrella's owner, and eventually the two umbrellas meet while their masters have a date in a coffee show.  Its a short little sweet film, the pure essence of movie magic.  At this point all Pixar releases are worth the price of admission even before the main Disney logo comes on screen due to their short films alone.  These are all simply fantastic.

The story here focuses again on Mike Wazowski, this time a bright-eyed ambitious student looking to overcome his diminutive stature and appearance by becoming the Greatest Scarer There Ever Was*.  Unfortunately, Mike is a little pee-shaped cyclops who is more suited for slapstick than horror, and has to overcome the endless scorn and difficulties he's suffered his entire life to prove he belongs in the Scaring School.  Meanwhile, Sully is a natural talent, but is so suited for Scaring that he's lazy and complacent.  Inevitably the weaknesses of both performance but no knowledge and knowledge but no performance cause the character to first become rivals, and then once their individual incompetences destroy their academic dreams, begrudging allies.  They have to pool their talents to overcome their weaknesses... and also join up with the nerdiest frat on campus to defeat the jocks in a school-wide competition to get their places back.

I would say its rather odd that Pixar chose to make an homage to Eighties college movies, considering how those films were really really dirty and I doubt much of the target audience here of pre-preteens will be very familiar with "Animal House".  College life really isn't much of a place for a kid's movie, unless you're living a very boring and very sad college experience.  Obviously we've lost all the rampant sex, controlled-substance use, beer pong, left-wing quasi-socialist ramblings, right-wing quasi-fascist ramblings**, and stoners who left this planet sometime in Freshman year, leaving only a confused husk of a human wandering around campus trying to remember what building their Humanities class met at.  Then there's the huge mass of confused adolescents just trying to figure life out before graduation, and if not by then, before Uncle Sam wants his college loan money back.  Trust me, college is a really weighty time, most kids are not going to have any idea of what it really means.  And is this review getting a little too personal right now?  Luckily none of that really matters since the central point of the movie is a wacky competition involving the revenge of the nerds.

The big twist here, for me at least, is that inbetween the wackiness, is a central problem:  Mike Wazowski is never going to become a real scarer like Sully or any of the other characters.  He simply lacks the physical skill to make it, despite how strong his dreams are and how great his effort may be.  Most films and stories would simply create a loophole or show that ultimate determination can save the day.  "Rudy" wound up on the football fields with Notre Dame, didn't he?  I don't want to give away too many spoilers, though anybody familiar with "Monsters, Inc." would know already where Mike ends up, and its not scaring little kids.  Trust me, real college students every day are going through Mike's very same problem, be them drama students who can't act, education students who realize they just don't have the performance powers to control a classroom, or STEM majors who can't do math.  The world is a hard place, and sometimes even kids movies need a dose of clarity.  This isn't a film that gives away easy solution for its characters, nobody at the last minute is going to just save them simply because Mike and Sully are good guys.  And despite how clearly unreal the computer animation is on the characters, "Monsters University" has a shockingly realistic ending.  Of course, that's not to say the ending here is a downer, its merely a step along these characters' journeys.  They use what they've learned during this story to finally achieve their next stage in life, which leads them directly to "Monsters, Inc.".

Now that's not to say that "Monster's University" still isn't a lot of fun.  From the identical sorority girls to the overly-perky college Ambassadors, this movie is very funny, and had one joke that kept me in tears with laughter.  Very inappropriately too, since everybody else in the theater stopped laughing two minutes before me...   One really great stand-out character, I felt, was Dean Headscrabble, the draconian head of the Scaring School.  By "draconian" I mean she is a dragon, and also a humorless hard-ass played by Helen Mirren to dramatic effect.

Ultimately I'd conclude that "Monsters University" is far more balanced than the pointless "Cars 2" and the ultimately misguided "Brave", creating a fun movie with some great dramatic moments.  I can't say its as good as the original "Monsters, Inc.", this series really can't ever reach high-gear again without a cute little girl being adorable and awesome.  Yet there's no reason at all that you shouldn't be able to enjoy "Monsters University" for being quality entertainment.  Yeah, this isn't revolutionary, but if this is what Pixar can do even with limited ambition, I think we'll have a long happy lifetime as consumers of this studio's creations.

* Make sure to overcome the Inconvenient Truth that scaring children in "Monsters, Inc." was prove to be a boondoggle of an energy source, emotionally destructive to every child alive, and also pointless since it turns out that laughter is way more powerful.  Then again, the fact that Mike is genetically built for the proper form of energy harvesting rather than the evil kind that he dreams of does make his journey in this film somewhat more tolerable.

** Future college students reading this:  Young Republicans never get laid in college.  Pretend to be a liberal at least until your thirties.

1 comment:

  1. Me and my little bro had a great time watching this. Yeah it's nothing groundbreaking, but I when the movie comes out on DVD I'll be sure to pick it up when it's released. And I think they did the Whole College setup, because we were kids when the first film and by now most of us are in college and so they think this will help us relate to the movie. Frankly the only movie that made me relate to college life was Toy Story 3 and that was only because I totally got where Andy was coming from.