Friday, June 28, 2013

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY Pits Monster Geeks Vs. Greeks


- Is PIXAR slumping? I don't know. I hope not. Is this one of those late-period Simpsons things, where the argument is brought up that they're not as good as the glory days, but that a only-okay-for-Pixar movie is still better than most of the competition? Maybe. Pixar was so good for so long, churning out original hits like Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, and Wall-E, that everyone sort of wondered when the other shoe would drop. When Toy Story 3 came along and was (improbably) actually the best Toy Story yet (and one of Pixar's best), it was cemented: Pixar really could do no wrong. But lately, the momentum seems to have shifted a bit. Cars 2 was solid, but many were less than impressed. Brave didn't live up to its pre-release hype. And now, Monsters University is, of all things, a prequel. A prequel?! Aren't prequels where good franchises go to die? Isn't a prequel - that most hackneyed and cliched of Hollywood franchise-building tactics - a bit below the high standards of excellence that Pixar is known for? The very idea of it was off-putting.

On paper, Monsters University if not exactly a riveting concept. Was anyone really demanding the "secret origins" of Mike and Sulley from Monsters Inc., told as a send-up of 80's-style geeks vs. greeks college comedies? Not so much. But Pixar does tend to do these things well, and with Pixar you can expect a love and care put into the movie that other studios wouldn't bother with. You can also expect a level of thematic depth that most animated films don't possess. As familiar as the setting and conventions of Monsters U may be, the story undoubtedly takes some unexpected and thematically-complex turns. In short: I don't know that MU's jokey, cutesy, prequel premise was ever going to lend itself to cinematic greatness - but damned if Pixar doesn't aim high.

As mentioned, the movie's plot details the first meeting of Mike and Sulley, when both are just starting out as students at the prestigious MU. Mike is the classic monster underdog - not inherently good at being scary, but determined to succeed anyway thanks to a combination of perseverance, doggedness, hard work, and heart. He's convinced that if he studies hard enough and gives it his all, he'll overcome his deficiencies as a scarer, and become one of the greats. Meanwhile, Sulley arrives at MU with a rep as a gifted scarer, thanks to his family name, and the fact that his dad was a legend. Sulley is practically destined to be a great scarer - a second-generation blue-chipper who may not be much for studying and technique, but who makes up for it with good genetics and natural talent. Mike and Sully start out as rivals, but after getting into some trouble together and facing the wrath of MU's intimidating Dean Hardscrabble, both get kicked out of the scare program, and become desperate for a way back in. Enter the Scare Games - MU's annual inter-fraternity scaring competition. Mike and Sully make a deal with Hardscrabble to let them back into the scare program if they manage to win the games - though they'll face expulsion from MU if they lose. The Dean agrees, but that means that the unlikely pair has to join a fraternity. The only one that will have them is Oozma Kappa (OK!) - a motley crew of losers and rejects. Their chief competition is Roar Omega Roar - a bunch of big-shot frat-monsters with designs on winning the games.

What I quickly realized about Monsters U is that it's really a comedy, and maybe the most overtly comedic movie that Pixar has made. The movie has its roots in things like Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds. There's lots of homage to other college comedy classics, and there are a lot of winking references that movie fans will enjoy. What's more, the script from Dan Scanlon, Daniel Gerson, and Robert Baird is typical Pixar goodness. The dialogue is clever, the jokes (both verbal and visual) are snappy and at times hilarious, and the characters - even the side ones - are sharply defined and creatively conceived.

I'll focus in for a minute on those visuals. While MU doesn't have the scope or scale of Pixar classics like The Incredibles or Wall-E, its comedic elements allow Pixar's crack team of animators to really have some fun. There's all sorts of brilliant little Looney Tunes-esque visual gags (including a great one that pays off in a hilarious post-credits scene). And while there is an old-school, Saturday morning cartoon-style charm to some of the characters and jokes, there are also some undeniably cool action scenes (primarily the competitions from the Scare Games) that have a sleek, videogame-esque sense of dynamism. Finally, there are some moments of unexpected visual beauty in the movie that really wowed me. In particular, scenes in which the monsters travel into the "real" world - where us humans live - have a stunning look and feel to them, as the textures of the animation become grittier and darker, and the cartoonish monsters take on a legitmately-monstrous heft and weight. The character designs, overall, are are really cool. From the winged, demonic Dean Hardscrabble to the oddball members of Oozma Kappa, MU is overflowing with cool characters (loved the punk rock riot grrrls of the HSS sorority). So even if MU doesn't have the big, dazzling, jaw-dropping moments of a Wall-E, it's still got visual flair to spare.

Of course, the voice actors are another big reason as to why the movie succeeds. While it's a little hard to imagine the aging voices of Billy Crystal and John Goodman as belonging to fresh-faced college students, both (particularly the amazing Goodman) are so good in general that that initial weirdness factor soon dissipates. The movie overall though is loaded with smartly-cast voice actors. Helen Mirren shines as Dean Hardscrabble. Steve Buscemi is a lot of fun as Mike's geeky roommate Randy. And Aubrey Plaza has some of the movie's funniest moments as deadpan Scare Games ringleader Claire.

And what's interesting about the movie is that while much of its structure follows the usual college comedy template, it takes an interesting left turn towards the end. It doesn't get uber-dark or anything like that, but things also aren't *quite* as awesome-happy-everyone-is-amazing as you might expect. In the world of Disney, dreams always come true. But in the slightly-more-complex world of Pixar, sometimes it's less about dreams and more about making the best of what you have. It's a unique message - especially for a kids movie. A message that maybe not everyone is going to be a movie star, or a pro basketball player, or President. But maybe there are other things that are just as good, even if they're a little less reach-for-the-stars huge. In an age where kids and teens are constantly made to believe that they are one YouTube viral video away from being a TV star, it's a refreshing, if humbling, message from Pixar.

So what doesn't work? Well, for one thing, there's the line between paying homage and repeating what's come before. Sure, for kids the whole college setting and geeks/greeks rivalry may seem new, but there is something that's at times a little numbing about seeing a movie like this revisit so many tried-and-true genre conventions. Again, some of it may be the whole holding-Pixar-to-a-higher-standard thing. But it does feel a little disappointing to go from such a wholly original and imaginative idea in Monsters Inc. to a much less original and imaginative premise for its prequel. The comedy helps, and like I said, the movie is very sharp and funny. But it also feels relatively lightweight and fluffy as compared to the usual Pixar fare. I'd also chalk that up to the movie's rather mundane college campus setting. Pixar has fun with it, by subverting things to fit the whole monsters motif, but personally I don't think they go far enough. It seems like there is more opportunity for world-building, that isn't fully taken advantage of. And then there's just the usual case of prequelitis. You can't help but feel like it's sort of a stretch to shoehorn in this whole backstory to the world of Monsters Inc.

Overall though, I really enjoyed the film, and I think it will pleasantly surprise those who may have dismissed it offhand. It's funny, clever, a fun remix of college comedy films from back in the day, and has some really eye-popping character art and animation. Not a Pixar classic, but a positive sign that, hey, even when these guys don't hit a home run, they're still among the best in the biz.

My Grade: B+

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