Monday, June 24, 2013

Monsters University

By Dan Scanlon

                At their best, Pixar films are marked by a commitment to stories that flow from the neuroses and passions of their characters (yes, toys, fish, bugs, robots, and rats can have such things).  In recent years, however, they have moved toward more formulaic yarns, with archetypal characters urged forward by generic plot devices.  Monsters University falls into this latter category.  Yet, it must be stated, even with this more “minor” approach, Pixar’s quick wit and attention to detail shine through.  The film may not be an essential addition to the Pixar oeuvre, but it is nevertheless a brisk and enjoyable experience.
                The film tells the origin story of the unlikely duo of monsters Mike and Sully (Billy Crystal and John Goodman).  It turns out they met in college while studying to work as scarers, whose skilled work of creeping and roaring provide the scream energy needed to power their world.  Predictably, due to their own faults, institutional hurdles, and the social hazards of higher education, this proves to be a thorny venture.  Drawing from the shared experiences and broad stereotypes of academia, the film operates as an extended series of clever jokes and wacky visual gags.  Much of this works due to the aid of gorgeous and highly detailed animation, which talented Pixar animators utilize to produce a variety of bizarre monsters and absurd scenarios, with truly comical results.
                The formulaic story employs the overused trope of a rag-tag group of underdogs learning to be a team in order to win a high-stakes multi-week competition.  This narrative familiarity, unfortunately, does provide some slight lulls that feel a bit bland (a sin Pixar once would have never committed).  Yet, even these plot devices manage to provide some opportunities for effective bits, and there is enough humor and energy in fast order to create a fun, light, and eminently watchable adventure.

A strong *** out of ****

Just riding a monster pig, per usual.
                If nothing else, Monsters University will keep you smiling.  It is a feel-good movie with a bright palate and enough silliness to keep the kids entertained, but also has enough heart to bring simple joy to the adults in the theater.  Mike and Sully are fun and charming characters in the Pixar universe, and it was welcome to spend some time with them and discover where they came from, even if that was a question few were asking.  While the characters may be simple character “types,” they are still rather “human” in that they have conflicting feelings and motivations, as well as a complicated relationship with one another.
                With the story taking place over a series of competitive events, it is fortunate that one of the strengths of Monsters University is these inventive set pieces.  Each one, from a tunnel filled with poisonous glowing orbs, to a library policed by a fifty-foot octopus-like librarian, is imaginative and well realized – full of embellishment and fitting to the strange monsters’ world.
                This all culminates in a final set piece at a human summer camp, where Sully and Mike finally realize and encourage the greatest strengths in one another.  It is a well-executed sequence that relies on the characters creating a creepy atmosphere and using their imaginations as a team to frighten.  Although Monsters University certainly isn’t on par with the peak of Pixar greatness, it is nonetheless a fun and heartwarming film for the whole family.

A very strong *** out of ****

Ready for college!
                I found this to be a good example of how even the simplest and most familiar of formula narratives can nevertheless be effective.  The film wisely does not take the conventionality of its characters for granted, instead allowing them to grow over the course of the film.  Even though their growth pattern is a well-worn path, it works here because Mike and Sully are given back stories that make sense.  Rather than simply providing types, the film takes the time to explain why Mike and Sully have become who they are, and while who they are isn’t anything new, it nevertheless builds an understanding and connection to the characters.  As a result, their predicaments are engaging despite the fact that we know where it is all headed.  Like most Pixar productions, the film doesn’t take shortcuts, even though it could have easily done so due to viewer’s previous knowledge of the characters.

                I also admired that the writers refused to take short-cuts or easy ways out.  So frequently in children’s films or in any films trying to reach a wide audience, the film will put on a pat happy ending with an easy (and improbable) solution. However, in three different situations in the movie, the writers refused to do this, instead allowing the characters to grow and change through difficulty and heartache.

                I enjoyed the misdirection – Pixar seemed to recognize the formula nature of the plot and played off our expectations with a couple meaningful twists.  There are several times in which I fully expected a deus ex machina due to this misdirection and was happily surprised to see the film go in another direction.  Happy resolutions are, after all, more endearing when they do not feel contrived.

Some of the other newbies!  
                This film also introduced a few new and memorable characters to the monster universe, most noticeably the frightening dean of MU, voiced by the great Helen Mirren.  I thought Mirren did excellent voice-work here, and although the character was broadly written, she provided a formidable threat to our protagonists.

                From a purely visual standpoint, Dean Hardscrabble is an impressive piece of character design.  Her centipede-like limbs and bat-like wings are striking, if not only because they are such a stark contrast to their much cheerier surroundings.  With that said, I was not enamored with her as much as you.  She seemed to fit squarely in the common role of a harsh disciplinarian, sometimes to the point in which her character seemed a bit too one-dimensional.  I don’t demand a lot from secondary characters in formula films, as they are mainly there to provide a counterpoint to the leads, but here it felt a little too obvious.  As a result, I have a feeling this villain will not be remembered as strongly as many previous Disney villains.

                I think the main reason I like her is her impressive design.  She is extremely creepy.  I think, perhaps, the reason I didn’t much mind that she was an archetype was because I felt like she wasn’t so much a “villain” as a peripheral threat.  She didn’t actively go out of her way to harm the protagonists, she was mostly reacting.

                Of course, none of this negates how very terrifying she was.  In fact, there are a couple sequences in this film which are, perhaps, a bit too scary for the intended audience.  Mainly some sequences with Hardscrabble, and the climactic camp sequence in which Mike and Sully find themselves with the particular challenge of scaring adults.  As an adult myself, I have no doubt that I would be scared witless by their efforts - do you think it was too much for kids?

                I think that, generally, Monsters University may be too scary for a lot of very small children.  The thing is, the movie is about monsters, and we cheer for them to scare humans.  That puts us squarely on the side of rooting for the monsters to be more frightening.  In that way, it softens the blow of frightening sequences because we more or less know what will happen and want the monsters to be scary.

                The premise does take away from the scariness in some ways, but you can feel the filmmakers walking a fine line – they had to make something both understandably frightening and enjoyably light for the story to work.
Just because it scares David. :)
                Generally, I do not think about “intended audiences” when assessing a film, but with a film so clearly intended for family viewing, I couldn’t help but wonder how the children sitting near us in the theater would react.  I had flashbacks to watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as a child – to this day, that experience has stuck with me and I consider Oompa Loompas to be some of the most horrifying of movie creatures.  If one of them showed up in my room, pretty sure my scream could power ten monster cities.
                In any case, I am no longer a child and can only provide my own assessment of Monsters University as an adult, and as an adult viewer, I had a great time.

                Lovely readers, you may find me cruel when I admit that one of my favorite things to do is change our browser’s homepage to YouTube videos of Oompa Loompas.  David is not exaggerating the breadth of his terror.  This, to me, is rather amusing.
                I also had a wonderful time at Monsters University, and I think most (slightly older) kids will too.  As long as you keep the smaller kiddos home, it is easily accessible fun for all.

Two-as-One Rating: *** out of ****


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