Skip to main content

Do you think he’s scary?

Monsters University
(2013)

The second biggest animated hit of 2013 (until Frozen overtakes it) was, like the crown prince Despicable Me 2, a sequel. Okay, Monsters University is a prequel, but it’s symptomatic of a malaise one expected from rival DreamWorks but which has now infected Pixar; the relentless plundering of one’s back catalogue instead of striking out in new directions. Monsters University is exactly what you’d expect of the animation house that brought you Cars 2 and Toy Story 3 (admittedly, the latter is a good sequel) over the past couple of years; precision-engineered and immaculately realised, but completely uninspired.


I can’t say I was that enamoured by Monsters, Inc., which arrived way back in 2001. Something about the premise was all together twee, the kind of thing a parent comes up with in order to fit cutesy moppets into a tale when they should realise that gurgling burbling infantilism is the last thing kids need to watch. With all the imaginative possibilities at their disposal, Disney (and increasingly Pixar, albeit one and the same entity now) has fostered an unwholesome ethic of working on the latent sentimentality of those bringing their little ones to the cinema. Rather than, you know, treating everyone with a bit of respect.


So I wasn’t impressed to hear they were making a prequel, about the early days of Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman). How they first met, the tribulations they overcame and the aspirations they nursed in order to become the child-frighteners they are today (or were yesterday). Pixar clearly knew better, since Monsters University has become one of their biggest hits (worldwide, at any rate). It seems the idea that a prequel is never a good idea has been well and truly kiboshed.


To be fair to director Dan Scanlon and his two co-writers (Daniel Gerson and Robert L Baird, both of whom contributed to the original), this is a far superior seq/prequel to Cars 2 (although to be fair to Cars 2, that’s a marginally more involving picture than the rancid original). But, as with the cutesy kids thing, you can hear these geeky animators impressing their lacklustre university experiences on the story. It becomes a hackneyed tale of jocks (Sully) versus nerds (Mike) and how mutual understanding and respect can make us all better people. Noble sentiments, to be sure, but offering nothing new to the campus mix (rarely challenged since Animal House).


There’s a question too of the cluelessness of making a family movie set at university. Perhaps Monsters University is entirely innocuous due to the virginal experiences of the Pixar alumni in their day. There’s no whiff of illegal substances, promiscuous encounters or even a kegger. Yet room is made for the entirely wholesome fraternity initiations, with all the sado-masochistic “harmlessness” they entail. There’s also an incest gag, an indication that Pixar has its priorities right.


The familiarity of Monsters University is what really disappoints. Of course there’s a stern tutor who turns out to mean well. No one here is really bad, not even Buscemi’s Randy (well maybe just a little). Even Mike’s journey of self-acceptance (he may not be scary, but he has other estimable qualities) lacks any bite. Seeing failure of achievement as a learning curve is most commendable, but it is toothless as depicted here. Because that’s what Pixar has become; toothless, unwilling to take risks, always playing it safe. One is left wondering just how Mike and Sully manage to scare all those they do at the climax, because what we see on screen wouldn’t fluster a ferret. This is another problem with making a movie about the fears of little ones for little ones; the makers inevitably have to pull their punches.


And its all accompanied by a relentlessly upbeat Randy Newman score. Newman is a purveyor of dawdling jollity, one whose spectre needs chasing from the land before he further afflicts large populated areas. It’s fortunate that he hasn’t been the composer of every Pixar movie, because one dose of Randy goes a long way and requires regular trips to the doctor.


Still, one thing you can usually rely on Pixar for is scrupulously honed story beats. There has to be a challenge, and Mike is threatened with expulsion by almost as soon as he arrives at Monsters University (by Helen Mirren’s Dean Hardscrabble). The only way to assure his place is to enter the Scare Games (like the Hunger ones, but… no, not really) and prove his worth against the Scare Simulator. So he takes up with the most feckless frat house (Oozma Kappa) on campus and reluctantly allows super-assured Sully, also under duress, along for the ride. And this section works. Of course it does, it’s about the triumph of the little guys. 


There are a couple of good characters too; straggly-legged Art (Charlie Day) and Scott Squibbles (Peter Sohn). But the monster design is mostly as undemanding as the basic plot. Only occasionally does something stick out from the crowd; Scott’s mom (Julia Sweeney) listening to Death Metal while she waits in her car, the Scare Pig (which at least is supposed to be unscary). None of the monsters are anything but loveable, so it beggars belief that 99% of kids wouldn’t be as unaffected by them as the ones Mike attempts to scare.


I’m not asking for a Pixar not to be life affirming. It’s part of the correctly so core values of kids’ animation. But it seems like the days where a Wall-E or The Incredibles could come along and surprise with ideas and content seem to be long gone. Now their films consist entirely of stock types and situations but without any real heart; they’re a slightly better quality junk food, in more appetising packaging. It’s understandable; all the animation houses are looking over their shoulders in an increasingly crowded market. These movies aren’t cheap (mostly) so they’re driven by fear of failure rather than a desire to impress or innovate. Maybe the shunting of The Good Dinosaur to 2014 is a good sign. Maybe it just means it isn’t formulaic enough (that’s why they changed Brave, isn’t it?) So this year there will be (shock!) no Pixar, while in 2015 there will be Dinosaur and Inside Out (which initially sounds distinctive, until you realise all the things it reminds you of; anything different there will be ironed out along the way). After that it’s back to the sequels, and Finding Dory. No doubt there’ll be a third Monsters around 2018. And a Cars 3. Branding and merchandising bonanzas, they’re what count most now. Right, Pixar?


***

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

Why don't we go on a picnic, up the hill?

Invaders from Mars (1986) (SPOILERS) One can wax thematical over the number of remakes of ’50s movies in the ’80s – and ’50s SF movies in particular – and of how they represent ever-present Cold War and nuclear threats, and steadily increasing social and familial paranoias and disintegrating values. Really, though, it’s mostly down to the nostalgia of filmmakers for whom such pictures were formative influences (and studios hoping to make an easy buck on a library property). Tobe Hooper’s version of nostalgia, however, is not so readily discernible as a John Carpenter or a David Cronenberg (not that Cronenberg could foment such vibes, any more than a trip to the dental hygienist). Because his directorial qualities are not so readily discernible. Tobe Hooper movies tend to be a bit shit. Which makes it unsurprising that Invaders from Mars is a bit shit.

I hate natural causes!

Body Bags (1993) (SPOILERS) I’m not surprised Showtime didn’t pick this up for an anthology series. Perhaps, if John Carpenter had made Coming Home in a Body Bag (the popular Nam movie series referenced in the same year’s True Romance ), we’d have something to talk about. Tho’ probably not, if Carpenter had retained his by this point firmly glued to his side DP Gary Kibbe, ensuring the proceedings are as flat, lifeless and unatmospheric as possible. Carpenter directed two of the segments here, Tobe Hooper the other one. It may sound absurd, given the quality of Hooper’s career, but by this point, even he was calling the shots better than Carpenter.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

Call me crazy, but I don’t see America coming out in droves to see you puke.

The Hard Way (1991) (SPOILERS) It would probably be fair to suggest that Michael J Fox’s comic talents never quite earned the respect they deserved. Sure, he was the lead in two incredibly popular TV shows, but aside from one phenomenally successful movie franchise, he never quite made himself a home on the big screen. Part of that might have been down to attempts in the late ’80s to carve himself out a niche in more serious roles – Light of Day , Bright Lights, Big City , Casualties of War – roles none of his fanbase had any interest in seeing him essaying. Which makes the part of Nick Lang, in which Fox is at his comic best, rather perfect. After all, as his character, movie star Nick Lang, opines, after smashing in his TV with his People’s Choice Award – the kind of award reserved for those who fail to garner serious critical adoration – “ I’m the only one who wants me to grow up! ”

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.