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Monsters University Review

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Mr. Wazowski, what you lack simply cannot be taught. You’re just not scary.

by Chris McEneany Jul 18, 2013 at 7:23 PM

  • Movies review

    Monsters University Review
    Whereas it was a cinch that the Toy Story crew would garner further adventures, and that people would demand another plunge into the undersea fantasia of gimpy little clownfish Nemo, I always thought it would be The Incredibles that best deserved the blessing of another movie and not Monsters Inc. With Pete Docter’s 2001 classic, which is actually my second favourite of the Pixar pack, right after that glorious superhero ode to the “family dynamic”, there didn’t seem as though there was anything further to be told with regards to the big fluffy ogre, James P. Sullivan, and his cyclopean motor-mouth sidekick, Mike Wazowski, the hotshot maverick superstars of the titular scream-packing company. The original movie was pretty much opened and closed with the revelation about children’s laughter being a more potent energy source for Monstropolis, fuelling a cultural revolution in the world beyond the bedroom door of innocence. It was complete. It was lyrical. And with that heartwarming climax, it spoke of a beatific longevity that didn’t need to be realized onscreen.
    So where else could you go with these guys?

    But then the notion of taking us back and showing us how Mike and Sully first met, worked out their initial differences and forged the bond that would see them emerge as the greatest scare-team in Monsters Inc. is actually quite an appealing one. And, thus, Pixar’s 14th feature arrives in 3D, replete with a new accompanying short entitled The Blue Umbrella (which really didn’t do a thing for me), and wisely doesn’t try to outdo its clever forebear, nor cling too slavishly to its glossy, incandescent shirt-tails.

    Both furry-voiced John Goodman and the wily word-wrangler of Billy Crystal clearly relish the opportunity to spar with one another once more, and their bantering repartee is, once again, sparklingly fresh and frothy and highly engaging. It has to be said right from the start, however, that as much as this film allows the duo to fall back into a pair of very comfortable, if monstrous slippers, it is very much Mike’s show, and Crystal has no trouble in stealing it. Whereas, in the original caper, the emotional plight stemmed mostly from Sully’s growing attachment to Boo, the thrust this time around hails predominantly from the little green freshman, whose personal odyssey this really is.

    Conveniently ignoring that line from Inc. about Sully being jealous of Mike’s good looks “since the Fourth Grade,” (which makes a mockery of the timeline) Monsters University is like a more garish and trippy version of Harry Potter’s first steps into a wider world of Hogworts. After a school-trip to the famous scare floor, young Mikey (this eye-agog younger incarnation voiced by Noah Johnston) becomes smitten with the dream of one day working there as one of the top scream-catchers. Single-mindedly determined to make this dream come true, the teenage Mike then enrolls in the prestigious MU’s unique Scare Program, hoping to prove that he has what it takes to compete with the best of the best. It’s Top Gun for wannabe tot-traumatisers! But, of course, Mike’s ambition is a long shot, especially as he is going to have to butt heads/claws/horns/tentacles/whatever with a whole host of monsters all far more suitably skilled in the art of scaring than he is. It is constantly rammed home to him that all the expertise and technical know-how in the Monster World is not going to help him if he simply … isn’t actually scary enough to earn a whimper, let alone a scream. Even a certain turquoise and purple fuzz-bucket proves himself a natural at the game, although he really is something of a slacker who is just hoping that his illustrious family name will carry him through with honours.

    Finding themselves flung together in the nerdy, under-achieving Oozma Kappa fraternity, Mike and the arrogantly non-academic Sully are forced not only to work together in order to prove themselves, but to help their deadbeat cohorts make the grade as well … or get kicked off the program. Unsurprisingly, things don’t go so smoothly and the OK’s become the regular victims of pranks and ridicule, especially from the champion ROR fraternity (Roar Omega Roar) led by macho uber-monster Johnny Worthington (Nathan Fillion). But when the opportunity to redeem themselves comes with the last-chance challenge of the Scare Games, Mike make a concerted effort to whip his boys into shape and to beat the other teams at their own scare game.

    Naturally, there are numerous hurdles to overcome.

    Lording over it all with iron talons is Dean Hardscrabble, voiced with calculating condescension by Helen Mirren, who is an implacably cold character very reminiscent of Zoe Caldwell’s Grand Councilwoman from the superb Lilo & Stitch – in looks, voice and authoritarian mannerism. Serious competition comes in the form of a pink troupe of hissy-bitch femme fatales – the Python Nu Kappa, and Fillion’s antlered jock – like a walnut crossed with a stag-beetle - who keeps reminding me of Colin Farrell. Must be those bushy eyebrows. By comparison, the Oozma Kappa gang are something of a disappointment, if I’m honest. There is a striving to make them diverse – even down to the bat-mustachioed mature student Don, and the multi-eyed mummy’s boy, Squishy – but they are just too bland to figure as valid new entities in this universe. They are hard to sympathise with because we never really feel they have much to lose. I asked my daughter – a Monsters Inc ten times-a-day girl if ever there was one - if she could remember any of them afterwards … and she struggled. (Obviously when MU arrives on Blu, and she consumes it like she does chocolate buttons, this will be rectified.) But for such an important supporting roster, they are merely likeably there in the frame.

    Some nice cameos crop up, as you would expect, but check out the photo montage when one image reveals a certain nefarious crustacean sporting what looks suspiciously like an afro in his younger years! But fans of the purple chameleon, Randall (once again whined by Steve Buscemi), may be disappointed at his lack of screentime and burgeoning badassery, although it is a poke in the devious one’s eye to see his obsession for making cup-cakes.

    The animation is as eyeball-caressing as ever, even in 2D (which is actually how I, and my two little monsters saw the film), that lush colour-scheme smothering you as delightfully as if you had tumbled into a sea of shiny candy. Bright, poppy-out, eye-dazzling rhapsody. There are colours here that haven’t even got names yet, and on some deep, hedonistic level, your spirit feels enriched just by coming into contact with them. In fact, the jaw-dropping smorgasbord of hues, shades, glows and overall glamour is so vastly rainbow-distilled that you could easily trip out just by being placed in front of it. I think the priceless element that makes the two Monsters movies so immediately entrancing, visually, is that these psychedelic Wonka colours are all somewhat sunny and ever-so-slightly fuzzy, and never harsh or clinical. It makes them, and the characters themselves who are, let’s not forget, monsters after all, far cuter and warmer than they should be. People used to go on about the hippy-trippy qualities of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s light and sound show, but Doug Trumball’s celestial dreamboat is, frankly, a grey day in the rain compared to the juiced-up, psyche-infiltrating sensorial-rape of Pixar.

    Finding Nemo has the out-of-body depth that compels you to explore, but the Monsters couplet provides the full-on woozy warp-out that you just want to melt into and slide away with.

    The action is typically inventive, with some kinetic set-piece chases, such as the blitzkrieg pursuit of Archie, the mascot scare-pig, and an exciting commando mission, the Scare Games playing out like a combination of the Tri-Wizard Tournament and Dirty Harry on the combat range pistol championships in Magnum Force, and the movie zips along without a single dull patch. Some great character moments add emotion, with the best being a moonlit confirmation of the Mike and Sully bromance that pulls off the trick of being highly moving yet still remaining brilliantly lighthearted. For my money, it doesn’t quite match the spark or the originality of what we have seen before, the story effervescent but lacking much in the way of the ingenious genre homage and fanboy winks – the stereotypes and tropes of the high school movie are just too obvious - and perhaps playing the whole thing a little too safe. To its credit, though, there is nothing weird about being dropped back into a world in which children are, once again, viewed as toxic dangers, the revelations to come not weighing heavily on the events depicted here. In fact, as an “origin” story, MU acquits itself far more assuredly than many a superhero beginnings saga. A welcome aspect is that the screamplay doesn’t try to ignore the twists and turns of the first film and even wallops us with some hair-trigger human world antics. There is a very brief exposé of the dimensional doors being created, but Scanlon wisely elects to just gloss over this. It would have been a huge mistake to give away too much of what makes the Monster realm tick.

    And it all comes beautifully wrapped up in Randy Newman’s infectious, jazzy score, some of which is an agreeable retooling of themes from the earlier film, but often takes on a whole new brazen jive due to the high school setting. His action cues are terrific – exciting, yet charming and enormously rambunctious at the same time. Without a doubt, his music coats the emotions and the charm like soft melted licorice.

    Pixar’s messages are always pretty obvious, but the gift that their productions tend to have that truly elevates them far above most family fare is in disguising such Disney-sermonising deep within genuinely affecting characters whose issues resonate with us all without ever seeming saccharine-coated or patronizing. They are also brave enough to tackle the more complex emotional dilemmas that afflict us all. Yes, most material of this nature reveals a cloying, clammy and juvenile approach to moralizing, but Pixar’s life lessons are dealt with a much more mature hand. On the surface, MU is all rather cozy. There really isn’t any full-on jeopardy, or tangible danger.

    No villainous skullduggery afoot and no bad guy to shudder from, unless you count Dean Hardscrabble’s stern face and dragon wings.

    But dig a little deeper and Scanlon’s screenplay (co-written with Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird, who both helped pen the original film) makes a subtle commentary upon the go-getting drive of today’s career-minded, and the detriments that such a hunger for super-achievement can bring about. Being a touch too wary, you could assume that the theme is about learning how to accept defeat with humility and how valuable it might be to drop your aspirational sights a little lower. Yet the strength of this admittedly unorthodox concept was already born out of Bob Parr’s (or Mr. Incredible’s) decision to keep his super family’s powers under wraps for the greater good of the society around them. His son Dash can outrun anyone or anything, but it is better all round not to show-off on the school sport’s day. The spirit of friendship and accepting others no matter what their hang-ups might be is the essence of Toy Story and, of course, Finding Nemo. Pixar really isn’t breaking any new ground here, although the ethics of personal dream-readjustment do carry a more refreshing tang than the usual believe-in-yourself-and-you’re-a-winner patter that a typical Disney offering would be instilling.

    Although the plot is nothing new, Scanlon and Co. should be commended for coming up with something that doesn’t just ape what has gone before. It adds to the Monster Mythos by creating a fascinating university environment, and fills in a lot of (arguably unwarranted) background. Essentially, it gives us more time in the company of two of Pixar’s, and modern fantasy’s most loveable characters. And that’s no bad thing.

    So, overall, this is exactly how you would expect a Post-Monsters Inc. Monsters movie to be. It has not been dumbed-down simply because the characters are younger and far less cynical. And the lack of genuine villainy and threat is only vaguely missed, replaced by a whirligig of temporarily important scenarios. But despite all the fun and the fine notes of poignancy, there is a faint whiff of redundancy about the whole affair. Sure it’s cute and clever and full of rich asides and observations about the nature of camaraderie, dedication, self-belief and acceptance, yet I couldn’t help but feel reminded of all those straight-to-video Disney cash-in sequels. This is nowhere near as hollow, or as mercenary and you can tell that a whole lot of heart has gone into it … but this doesn’t do enough new to really spellbind in the same way as its illustrious predecessor. There is definitely a swathe of the typical Pixar exuberance, wit and style here, and it is impossible for fans and newcomers not to just kick back and savour the good-time visuals, but somehow the old magic feels drier, less wowing and altogether more predictable.

    Still, it does what it sets out to do … and sure looks good doing it. I'm being generous here, but it's getting 7 out of 10.

    Verdict

    “You don’t study scaring. You just do it.”

    Great fun it may be, but MU has the feel and vibe of a cheaper straight-to-DVD cash-in than a full-on extension of the original. That said, there is much to enjoy and never a dull moment in the retina-seducing Pixar combination of Animal House meets Top Gun. A couple of poignant scenes and a generally likeable ensemble help get the message across that it is better to understand and to accept one’s limitations, rather than to strive for the unattainable.

    Very definitely recommended as a colourful treat …but, once Pixar’s magic dust has settled, Monsters University may well begin to lose its lustre. The original has a timeless beauty and values that really seep into your adult consciousness, but this can’t quite eclipse the feeling that it is merely a luxurious add-on.

    So ... the Litmus Test results for two kids (boy of 12, girl of 6) and one dad (aged ... whatever) , and all Monsters devotees – MU is entertaining and a charming diversion, but sadly all very forgettable.


    The Rundown


    7
    AVForumsSCORE
    OUT OF
    10

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