Monsters University -2013-

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Directed by Dan Scanlon. 103 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen for free at the AMC Promenade 16)

I’m happy to report that Monsters University is not the lazy cash-in that I expected it to be. While it’s not Pixar at its all-time best, it’s my favorite film from the studio since 2010’s Toy Story 3 and is a considerable narrative and visual leap above its predecessor, 2001’s Monsters, Inc.

It’s pretty nutty to think that Pixar is making follow-ups to its films, largely (though, of course, not entirely) aimed at children, after spans of time in which fans of the originals have grown up. Christ, I was eleven when Monster’s, Inc. first hit the scene. I first saw the original Toy Story at age six after a Thanksgiving dinner with my family in Cleveland.

I first saw Toy Story 3 at age 21 after watching Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive while on a movie binge in Berkeley. I don’t know why I remember that specific detail.

Monsters University has enough references to the original to bring back fond memories for franchise fans but stands perfectly well on its own two feet. Billy Crystal and John Goodman (among a few other cast originals) return as Mike and Sulley, and their characters are much more interesting – and more flawed – than in the original installment.

Now that merchandising revenues are pretty much a guarantee, Pixar focuses on the style more than the substance. Monsters, Inc. had flat characters and an incoherent plot – it’s a nice distraction, but anyone who loves the film has poor taste in film (yes, I’m totally comfortable making that sweeping generalization).

Conversely, character development is heavily woven into the action of Monsters University – it’s a surprisingly robust tale about the amorality of life, the fear of failure, the dwindling relevance of institutions of higher education, and how pretty much everyone (yes, even me and you) is an asshole in their freshman year of college.

Aside: “The Blue Umbrella,” the short film preceding MU, is reliably wonderful.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-07-25)

Monsters Inc -2001-

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Original poster by the very talented Tony Enriquez. I didn’t use his permission, so show him some love and click here to visit his site.

Directed by Pete Docter w/ David Silverman and Lee Unkrich. 92 mins.

Worth my time? Yes, but better-suited for kids. (Watched on DVD)

I hadn’t watched this movie since Saddam Hussein was alive, so I decided to give it another run-through in preparation for the upcoming prequel, Monsters University. It falls squarely in the middle of the Pixar filmography bell curve – not Ratatouille amazing, but not Cars bad either.

Monsters, Inc. succeeds where most of its animated peers stumble in that the world feels like more than just a stage for a story to unfold. The protagonists are fantastical, but they have rounded personalities and a clear connection to the world we know (as was the case in the Toy Story trilogy, A Bug’s Life, Wall-E, etc). Cars lacked any internal logic to its setting (why the fuck are there ergonomic machines in a world with no animal life?), and the movie was stillborn as a result. Conversely, this movie takes a common myth of the Western world (monsters in the closet) and builds a novel theory to explain it.

I wish the filmmakers had put in the same time and effort to craft the plot. Its uneven pacing and weak sense of urgency, combined with the ready-for-merchandising character design, leads me to believe that Pixar intended to market this movie to kids even more so than their usual fare. Also, I can’t understand why the villain’s scheme was a villainous scheme. I mean, I understand the conflict once he goes after Mike (an occasionally funny, mostly annoying Billy Crystal) and Sulley (a great John Goodman, per usual) after they find out his scheme. But why did the baddies feel the need to hide the scheme in the first place?

“Because the scheme would have resulted in the kidnapping/death of countless children!”

Why the fuck should we expect Mike, Sulley, or anyone else at Monsters, Inc. to give a shit about kidnapping children? They scare children for a fucking living.

Their job is rooted in fear.

Their economy is dependent on fear.

The lifeblood of their entire goddamn world is FEAR.

Oh shit, I didn’t even pick up on that subtext until just now. The plot’s still underwhelming, though.

– Aside: I appreciate that the name of the sushi restaurant is Harryhausen’s, named after the king of animated monsters.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-06-18)