25 June 2013

BIG MONSTER ON CAMPUS

Monsters University is both cute and charming, and I at least found it to be not in the least ways unenjoyable while I was watching it. This is, apparently, where we are now, with Pixar Animation Studios. And note that I'm of the mind that Brave is a pretty solid movie that got a completely unfair rap, so there'll be no post-mortems here. Pixar has been great before; Pixar will, I suppose, be great again. But with Monsters University, Pixar is merely being good - merely making a film that is cute, full of pleasing but sort of routine character beats, wry without being actually funny, deliriously gorgeous, playfully designed without a surplus of creativity. It is a movie that passes basically any test you would be likely to throw its way, except for the one where it justifies the fact that it exists.

A prequel to the 12-year-old Monsters, Inc., the film shares the unenviable anchor of all such films, which is that we know, in general terms, how things are going to end up, since the idealised audience already knows what happens later. And when I claim that MU's ideal audience is familiar with the first film, I'm underselling it considerably. This is a film in which the entire edifice of not just the plot, but the world in which the plot takes place hinges on the need for monsters to collect children's screams, with the titular university serving as one of the finest institutions where monsters go to learn the art of scaring, and the various technical trades that are part of scare refining and storage. The screams, as we know who watched the first movie, are the monster society's fuel source; a fact that underpins every single event that occurs in either of the movies, and one that MU doesn't bother to clarify except through implication, and even that doesn't come until deep into the movie. That's not even touching on how the film doesn't really build up any reason to like the main characters except that it assumes we're already invested in their lives (fair is fair: Toy Story 3, a near-masterpiece, does the same thing). In short: if you don't have a working knowledge of MI, then MU has no real interest in your sort of person.

That being said, some parts are deeply satisfying on the level of prequeling, beginning with a prologue in which we see future Monsters, Inc. star employee Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal, or Noah Johnston as a child) depicted as a little boy, and thus we learn once more the truth established at least as long ago as the Muppet Babies sequence in The Muppets Take Manhattan, that juvenile versions of familiar characters are hella cute. Some parts are not much satisfying at all, like the great majority of what goes on later, and we find that while Mike has been rewound with his personality mostly intact, James "Sulley" Sullivan" (John Goodman) - whose thinner adolescent redesign was terrifying as hell but that's probably just me - apparently used to be a titanic douchebag, and MU is largely the story of how Mike and Sulley, fiercely competitive students in the university's School of Scaring, end up becoming tight-knit friends as Sulley learns the importance of not being a dick and Mike learns that there's more to life than book-larnin'.

Adopting the shape of a traditional '80s "lame frat vs. cool asshole frat" comedy - the cool asshole frat in this case is lead by a grey bull-like monster voiced by Nathan Fillion, who fills the role's generic requirements exquisitely - MU is light on narrative surprises, until the end comes along and presents a rather surprisingly mature and pragmatic lesson about how to keep moving forward in life; unexpectedly, it doesn't subvert the college hijinks template (except that, as a G-rated movie pitched firmly at kids and secondarily at their parents, it has to be a whole hell of a lot cleaner), but simply presents the best, most efficient version of a standard generic property within the context of a pre-existing universe and several pre-existing characters (a lot of non-speaking, blink-and-miss-it cameos; a slightly more extended role for the first film's main antagonist, the chameleon monster Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi), who starts out as an eager, people-pleasing nerd). It's freakishly unambitious for the studio that but five years ago, like it wasn't no thing, gave the world a galaxy-spanning romance between robots married to an exo-fable, though the film's embellishments of the original film universe feel largely well-considered, and thanks to the new characters, we have an especially well-designed Pixar character voiced by Helen Mirren (a bad-centipede hybrid with an officious attitude), for which I am obliged to be grateful.

At least on the level of technology and visuals, the film is a dramatic leap forward; it's been some time since Pixar has seriously pushed the envelope - because after Ratatouille and WALL·E, where could they possibly have left to go? - but apparently they've finally decided, "fuck it, time for photorealism", because several of the locations in MU, particularly a forest at night late in the film, look more eerily like the real world that you and I occupy than anything in any computer animated feature I've ever seen (the short attached to MU in its theatrical run, The Blue Umbrella goes even further, looking so realistic that I couldn't convince my brain that I was looking at animation in several shots). I'm not certain that of all projects, the fantasy starring big cutesy monsters was the one to leap over that gulf, but what it leaves us with is a movie of particularly expressive locations and peerlessly subtle and beautiful lighting, far enough beyond the already magnificently tactile WALL·E that I shudder with joy to think of what will happen when the studio commits itself to a story of that depth and resonance again.

Because Monsters University is... not that. It's a very nice family film with powerfully few surprises, even fewer than the prequel framework would seem to have already insisted upon, and first-time feature director Dan Scanlon has not remotely the same facility with these characters that MI director Pete Docter did; they resemble the eminently lovable and emotionally full figures from before, but they don't have the same resonance and complexity. Maybe this is what happens when you take the unendurably adorable human toddler out of the equation; maybe it's what happens when you're not telling a story that ever breaks away from the most obvious channels and clichés, however successfully revived. At any rate, I can't credibly argue that Monsters University is in any way bad or deficient, but it's dreadfully plain and ordinary, and that almost turns out to be worse.

7/10

10 comments:

thorrudebeck.com said...

I haven't seen the film yet, so I can't comment on its content, but I would argue one point: I think that a fantasy starring big cutesy monsters was precisely the one to leap over that gulf. The Uncanny Valley is still a dangerous, lawless place (see Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and Pixar does rather seem to be on a continuing mission to ease humanity down into the canyon so slowly and happily that we hardly notice. It's evidently a lot easier to take something ultra-realistic if it's balanced with things that absolutely are not (see a giant talking eyeball with legs).

hayley said...

It's a weak idea flawlessly executed, which is much preferable to their last two (Brave was a strong idea poorly executed, and Cars 2 was a poor idea poorly executed).

The best thing about this film is that it reaffirms Pixar's powers in Character Animation (maybe even the world leaders now, after Disney recently fired most of their legends).

The Monsters franchise is uniquely suited for this...take a bunch of a characters that can be cute and cuddly in one context and find some way for them to be convincingly scary in another context, using a series of poses and expressions that stay true to the nature of the character (it makes sense that a tentacled character would use his tentacles to menacing effect).

The best parts of the movie showcase this: having monsters training to use different types of scaring tactics (slithery snake! snarly gorilla!) - the characters jumping through creative pose after creative pose in sequences that must have been as fun for the animator to draw as it is for the audience to watch.

Unknown said...

Now, I don't see this film as some manner of Pixar revival (insofar as Pixar actually needs reviving, of course; take the troublesome stain of Cars 2 to one side, and I'd say that Brave and this represent a change of emphasis and variation of styles rather than an inherent loss of quality), but I was rather pleasantly surprised with this. I had it pegged as a tired and stale concept with characters I had fond memories of tossed in as a sweetener, but I enjoyed the adolescent versions of the characters and thought they fitted in to the standard university comedy structure rather well. It must be noted, though, and with the exception of the denouement which genuinely and appealingly subverted my expectations, that this doesn't represent an elevation of the format in the way that The Incredibles elevated the superhero movie, or Ratatouille elevated the talking animal animated comedy. It slotted into position nicely, without noticeably improving the format in any distinct manner.

As for the future of Pixar... I have some hope. I'm not expecting a glory run like we saw between 1995 and 2010 again, because that's frankly implausible to expect of any studio, but a repositioning of the Pixar ethos would be extremely welcome. I'm heartened by the slate of new franchises that they've got on the slate- sure, The Good Dinosaur seems a bit Dreamworks-y on a most basic reading of the scenario, but the Inside Out and Dia de los Muertos sound to me to be concepts full of potential. The Dia de los Muertos picture is probably one of my most anticipated films in the pipeline even with the extremely limited amount we know of it simply because the idea of the visuals that Pixar will bring to bear on that movie absolutely gives me chills.

As for the dreaded Pixar sequels... I have no problem with the concept, provided they're logical and sensitive continuations. The Toy Story sequels are absolutely examples of this, and Cars 2 and (to a lesser extent, perhaps) Monsters University absolutely are not. As much as I crave a sequel to The Incredibles, I love the fact that Pixar are apparently resisting the temptation for doing it without Bird on board, in the same way that the wheels for Finding Dory didn't start turning until Andrew Stanton was released from his John Carter purgatory. Finding Dory, although problematic in terms of being a sequel to a movie that had mostly wrapped up its themes by its conclusion, at least seems to be doing a reasonable job of offering a different perspective on the characters and a different arc, without resorting to "Good lord, we lost Nemo again!".

Most troubling, though, is the spectre of Pixar sequels not developed by Pixar. I sincerely hope that the development of the likes of Planes was part of a deal struck by Pixar to allow them to move away from their established franchises without an overwhelming story need to revisit them, but GOOD GOD does that particular brand of spinoff look like the sort of thing that could damage the Pixar brand. Horrible shades of direct-to-video Disney sequels and Circle 7 are coming flooding back, and I shudder for a point where the money men decide a half-arsed Toy Story 4, Incredibles 2 or Up 2 become just the thing.

Tim said...

Thor- Terrific point. During the big realism showcase scene (which comes late enough that I won't spoil it, but it's one big love-in for horror in-jokes, so I mostly adored it), it was genuinely disorienting to see cartoon monsters in damn-near perfect woods, but it was never for Uncanny Valley reasons; the effect really did feel like Mike and Sulley were in the "real" world. Which is both strange and interesting.

Hayley- I hadn't even thought of the scary poses sequences that way, but you're 100% right. Brilliant observation.

Unknown- Oh, I definitely have hope. Inside Out is a Pete Docter film, for crying out loud, it doesn't get more promising than that. And say what one will about The Good Dinosaur, I'm looking forward to see what Bob Petersan can do in the director's chair.

In re: value-diluting sequels, on the way out of MU, I had a conversation that basically went, "this was okay, but I'm definitely excited for the non-sequel run that Pixar has ahead of them." To which the person I was with furrowed his brow and said, "the one with planes?" Not a good sign.

Dan said...

I pretty much agree with your take and think they did a solid job, even if there was nothing truly spectacular about it. I wasn't very excited to see a prequel and think it overestimates our interest in these characters, but I enjoyed going back to the this universe. The transition to the "real world" was startling but worked for me because it's such a different place from the colorful land of monsters. It's a solid film that hopefully sets us up for greatness with the originals on the way.

Alison said...

There must be something wrong with me, 'cause I never thought the original was any more than adequate, and this is coming from someone who chose to see "Ratatouille" on her 19th birthday.

Regular GeoX said...

I didn't love the original, either. I love Pixar, but this and Finding Nemo are the highly-feted movies that just leave me scratching my head.

ManUtdFan said...

Just went through your whole review catalogue to find prequels (OK I lied, I just clicked on "needless prequels" tag) to find that Monsters University is the only positively reviewed, left-margined movie in this group. Surely that must mean it is not really needless? :)

I don't know man, maybe it's down to personal taste that I actually feel connected to the theme and the morale of the story told here. It doesn't have that much of depth, sure, but I can't call this movie plain or ordinary by a good conscience. I thought it was very well done, very well thought out, and gave the audience a lot of fun without ramming emotions (some would even call it manipulation) down our throats.

StephenM said...

I just went through your reviews with the tag "Pixar" and found that you have reviews for all of them except A Bug's Life. What gives, Tim? Ya gotta find an excuse to review that movie forthwith.

Tim said...

I have one! Keep your eyes open this spring.