Monday, June 24, 2013

The Cinema File #205: “Monsters University” Review


A few years ago John Lasseter, one of the fathers of Pixar and producer of many of its most classic films was heralded as a hero in the industry for making a point of stopping production on the string of Straight To DVD Disney sequels that had plagued the marketplace since the release of Aladdin: The Return Of Jafar. This decision now falls somewhere in between irony and straight up hubris, with the once great CG cartoon house going out of its way to tarnish the legacy of its past great films with a series of increasingly terrible sequels, starting with Toy Story 2 and 3 (sorry, not better than the original, no matter how emphatically people tell me so), then on with Cars 2, and the upcoming Planes (which already has its own sequel due out next year) and Finding Dory, along with today's subject, a prequel to Monsters Inc. Monsters University is not the worst Pixar movie, or even the worst continuation of one (Cars 2 still hits both those counts), but it is definitely somewhere near the bottom of the barrel for this company that we used to think could do no wrong.



Monsters University is the story of how Sully and Mike, the professional scare partners and life long friends first met in college. Its not just a movie about college, its the plot of every college movie you've ever seen, just with the vulgar humor of Animal House and Van Wilder replaced with wacky slapstick and colorful sight gags. I must immediately question the utility of making a college movie for kids too young to even know what college is, let alone have any capacity to relate to the experience, though I suppose having no context for this genre means they won't be as bored by the cliches of movies they've never seen as I was. But then the pointlessness of this movie goes far beyond its setting. The original Monsters Inc. came out in 2001, and I can't imagine the intended audience for this new one is 12 and over, at least if my theater is any indication. Yeah, there's DVD I guess, but with so many new movies for kids coming out every year, I wonder how many of the five or six year olds watching this will have any idea who these characters are and why any of this should matter to them. 


And for that matter, by being a prequel to a movie where the status quo of the entire universe was completely changed in the last act, the whole premise seems to build up to something that means a lot less when you know how it all pans out. The main goal of the characters throughout the movie is to become the next generation of great scary monsters, its the dream we know they will eventually realize, but we also know that scaring as a source of energy in this world becomes obsolete with the discovery of laughter. Its like watching the inspirational story of a man who wants to build the greatest horse drawn carriage and succeeds a few years before the advent of the automobile. Even if you really needed to know how Sully and Mike became friends, which never occurred to me as a story that needed to be told, the reveal is as hackneyed as you would expect: they don't like each other at first, they work together, and then they learn to like each other – The End.


I found myself more interested in the idea that before missions into the human world, apparently these monsters have files on every child before even stepping through the magic door. I want to see a Planes-style spin off for the advance team that apparently needs to do deep recon to find out what each individual child fears. Or what about a story following the many monsters who can't be scary in a society so singularly focused on this one job, which if you believe this film, is the only career that merits any kind of respect. Of course this begs the question of how such a society functions at all, not to mention how these monsters can do this level of research and not learn for years that kids aren't toxic and laughs work better than screams, but that's the kind of logic you have to just forgive. What I simply can't and shouldn't be expected to forgive is just how unendingly boring and tedious this whole exercise is.


When I saw Brave, one of the things that incensed me so much about that movie was how it came off as trying to milk the cache of goodwill inherent to the Pixar brand so as to not have to work as hard establishing likable characters or engaging situations. Being a prequel, Monsters University is arguably much more obvious in its efforts to do this same thing, but ironically, because the familiarity is the only thing the movie has going for it, it didn't make me nearly as angry. John Goodman and Billy Crystal are still fun to be around, even if the movie isn't nearly as good as the last time you heard them bring these characters to life. I just wish the rest of the cast was anywhere near as endearing. The new characters are an endless parade of suck, each more annoying then the last, the closest this company has ever come to the kind of terrible comic-relief side characters that used to be in every cartoon movie before Pixar showed us there could be a better way. I really wanted to like the film's sort of antagonist voiced by Helen Mirren, but for a Dean in a college movie, she was much too frustratingly reasonable and even handed. Her's is also the only new monster design that's even remotely interesting, which is something that's taken a real step backwards since the last movie, with most looking even more like muppets and less like real scary monsters than ever before. 


At the same time, there is one major theme of the movie that is potentially quite novel, and might have earned my respect if it too was not hampered by the status of this movie as a prequel to a much more entertaining film. Too many movies like this, animated films targeted at younger audiences, always fall back on the simplistic notion of following your dreams as a guarentee of future success. As long as you dream big and want it hard enough, you'll always get what you want in the end, or at least that's the case in most fictional cartoon worlds, especially those overseen by Disney. And yet here, that isn't the case. Mike wants to achieve his dream of being a scarer harder than anyone has ever wanted to achieve a dream, and yet by the end, he doesn't, and has to accept settling for less (though it isn't obviously phrased like that). This would be a refreshing change of pace if it weren't for the essential problem that also allows me to spell this out here without spoiling anything, because we know he can never succeed. We've seen the future in this instance, so the fact that he fails at his essential driving motivation is already established from the first time he expresses the interest. As a result, its as depressing as it should be, but only half as clever and groundbreaking.


Its not just that the college set up is unrelatable to its prepubescent audience, but even accepting that, there aren't really all that many jokes of any kind in this movie, for adults, kids, or anyone. Its not like The Hangover III, which went so far out of comedy that it became a movie of a different genre entirely, but its just so lackluster and devoid of energy and charm, and I can't see how this script passed by the people who were creative and funny enough to produce the first Monsters Inc., thinking this was a fitting tribute to their work. That sounds like an odd standard, but Pixar has earned a lot of trust and respect over the years, and they seem to be doing everything they can lately to throw both away for reasons that I can't really fathom. Cars seemed like a momentary mis-step at the time, especially in light of WALL-E and Up so soon after, and even as terrible as Brave was, it didn't make me question the continued capacity of this studio to produce quality entertainment. Now, I'm not so sure.
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