Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Review: "Monsters University" is a Great Welcome Back to the Fun Side of Pixar

If forced to poll a random group of people what their favorite Pixar movie was, there would be little doubt that Monsters Inc. ranked near the top. Its whimsical look into a world of monsters who scare for a living has become one of the studio's most successful both with audiences as well as tonally. It made Billy Crystal a star to a whole new generation and created a universe of wonderment. It only seemed logical that 12 years later they would want to revisit the characters with a trip to Monsters University: a film that saw these characters meet and even bond over their love of scaring. With the voice talents who made the first successful, is it possible that they managed to create another hit?

Given Pixar's recent rocky track record, it would be surprising if some wouldn't consider this film a retread of sorts. There is nothing too essential about making a college comedy about two beloved characters, especially without the support of the first film's most enduring character: Boo. So what does the film do? It puts Mike (Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) as college freshman that are out to become scarers for Monsters Inc. There's plenty of fraternities and the normal corral of college comedy tropes all toned down for kids movies, but most of all, it feels almost fitting to what the story is going for.

This is largely thanks to the music of the universe. Composer Randy Newman gives the film its academic feel with a score the imbibes marching bands and sweeping sounds that almost serve as a whimsical, emotional undertone to the whole experience. The music isn't so much an accompaniment as it is the film's strongest character. While many of the Newman pieces feel somewhat borrowed in structure, they all feel distinct enough in personality to give each scene a sense of emotion and purpose. It helps that within the universe, none of it feels out of place and never overpowers the actions. Newman's score is phenomenal and enough reason to see the film.

If one thing seems different about the characters in this universe, it is that they are more distinct. Whereas the monsters had limited character design in the first film, this one outdoes itself in both design and texture. While fewer are created as mere sight gags, more are impressively established to the point that they fit into this universe. True, most of them seem secondary, but there are a ton of characters presented throughout that have bizarre traits that at least show that the writers of this film didn't skimp on great character designs. If there can be a positive aspect of Pixar that isn't necessarily true of their competition, it is the subtle way that they have improved in their techniques. Even Sully's fur in the film seems to have a more defined appearance.

The story itself isn't all that great. Where Monsters Inc. had numerous undertones and plot beats, the tale of Mike and Sully in college is basically to not get kicked out and win the Scare Games, which is a collegiate competition between various fraternities. These are all familiar concepts to anyone who has watched a TV show with age appropriate characters. In fact, the general arch is very much expected up until the final act. It almost feels like a cheat, as these characters are more destructive and imminent on creating property damage. There's little sympathetic about it. They are sheer jerks, even if they are not as jerky as Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), who serves as the film's biggest threat. This is kind of confusing, as she is actually the voice of reason considering that these aren't the most effective students.

The Scare Games itself is a fascinating look into the Monsters University world. With a cast of new characters that includes Art (Charlie Day), Don (Joel Murray), and the two headed Terri (Sean Hayes) and Terry (Dave Foley), this film is at its best when it sets everything into action with creative set pieces and races that teach everyone about teamwork. While the film falls into an obvious formula and it almost feels like Revenge of the Nerds but with an actual story, it is those small interactive moments where everything just clicks.

In fact, while the film is severely less comical or interesting as its predecessor, it does manage to make the time spent with these characters worthwhile. Art in particular is a fascinating character who is flexible beyond reason and always says stuff that is absurd but lovable. This world may be tarnished a little, but as these characters grow to like each other, the film finds its niche and you begin to wish that the story wasn't so much about emotional growth, but the group working together to bond over classes and adversity. These monsters are losers with something to prove. Sadly, the ending feels contradictory to it, but at very least shows Pixar trying to do something unique, which may be problematic, but a sign of a great, ambitious studio not entirely fine with the normality.

Monsters University isn't quite the classic that its predecessor was, but it definitely captures a lot of what made the first one a joy to watch. While it is true I would have loved to just see Mike pulling pranks for the run time, the story was solid and enjoyable enough to receive a great grade. It may at times be too redundant and lacking the fun of the first in some areas, but at the end of the day, it works as its own film, and that is one great achievement. It won't change too many people on Pixar, but it proves that the studio still has some muster in them.

[SPOILERS: Another aspect I love about the film is how it treated the final act. When Sully rigged the games for Mike, there was emotional conflict and follow-through. He risked being in the academy in order to give Mike his dignity back. Even when the film turned into an odd horror film when they escaped into the human world, it felt like the Pixar creators having fun. Still, I was almost ready to write off the film until the final moment when Hardscrabble decided to expel them despite being impressed with their work. After all, this film feels shaky on realistic punishments for the characters.

So when they were expelled, I am impressed that they went there. True, many complain about Pixar's track record with dumb plot twists, notably Brave and the bear. For me, teaching the message that despite being a college drop-out, you can follow your dreams is  somewhat the most ambitious message a film has done this year. It doesn't treat these characters as delinquents, but it does manage to do it in a way that works. It may seem like a cop out, but I'll admit, the story wouldn't have worked if they stayed on board. They were just too problematic there.

Also, of the supporting cast, I always felt like they didn't need to be as punished. That is why I am fine with them still remaining at the university and moving on with the scare program. The message that despite your low self-esteem, you can still achieve great things, almost serves as a great payoff to the characters who deserve it. They learned how to be mighty, and that is really what the film is about. Mike and Sully were really only motivators in their lives. However, I don't quite agree with the romance between Don and Ms. Squibbles (Julia Sweeney). That was way too creepy, especially for a kid's movie. END SPOILER]

You better believe that this film is going to do gangbusters at the Oscars. I have my own personal theory on why it will win. It has nothing to do with quality, even if it is looking to be the only quality animated film this year. It is all about the history. Like Martin Scorsese winning Best Director for The Departed in order to apologize for his other losses, this goes back to Monsters Inc. In 2001, the Academy launched the Best Animated Feature category. They were among the nominees. However, Shrek took the prize. It is hard to see that film not synonymous with a pop culture gagfest franchise now, but at the time, its blending of fairy tales and rude humor was exciting. I can see why it won.

Still, Monsters Inc. is easily the winner in terms of longevity. It holds up and remains part of Pixar's golden era. Still, it lost. It didn't happen often, but Pixar losing can now be seen as a big deal to every competitor not done by Studio Ghibli or Laika. I believe that the film will win on the simple fact that these characters are beloved and because of their previous loss, they will win out of sheer apology for the first one. Admittedly, they will win because as Brave unfairly proved, Pixar wins no matter what, as long as the film is halfway decent. Luckily, Monsters University is good enough to be the front runner at this point, so it isn't totally offensive.

Probably even bigger is the contemplation of Best Original Score. I haven't talked too often about music being that good. Maybe Stoker and from little I heard of Cliff Martinez's Only God Forgives score are the only competitors. Of course, those two are almost too niche to stand a chance to the juggernauts that will most likely pop up towards the end of the year. Still, Randy Newman has won twice, including Best Original Song for Monsters Inc.'s "Our Town." It almost seems premeditated based on that that it will make the cut. As it stands, the score is highly addictive and I will probably be praising it for the rest of the year. It is one of the first true Best Original Score front runners. Since there is no original song unfortunately, we will have to leave that up to chance.

I doubt that it will stand much chance in the other categories. Not even Best Adapted Screenplay seems like a shoe-in. Maybe the technical fields will stand a chance, though those tend to go more towards live action films with animated insertions. Monsters University will get recognition, but I don't see it doing too well beyond the categories I have already discussed. Luckily the film is fun enough that I am fine with its chances being high. In fact, I don't feel like too many other films period are as guaranteed an Oscar nomination as this one. Maybe it is just on bias, but it could also just be because it is a Pixar film that has fun without being dumb about it.


The short preceding Monsters University was The Blue Umbrella. It is essentially last year's Paper Man, but with umbrellas. As someone who though that Paper Man hackneyed and lame, I am not entirely blown away by this one. However, I will call this one superior because I was fooled by the animation at first. Despite the unfortunate stories of special effects studios going bankrupt, we are still able to create amazing art. I sincerely believe that the visual style of this short is enough to get it a Best Animated Short nomination. I was mislead and believed that it was a real world for the first 20 seconds. The fact that animation has gotten so good is just a testament to the industry. The story, not so great, but I loved looking at it. 

Is Monsters University really a shoe-in for Best Animated Feature? How fun is that Randy Newman score? Who else wants to see a spin-off with all of the supporting characters, notably Charlie Day's Art?

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