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?


***

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

The Krishna died of a broken finger? I mean, is that a homicide?

Miami Blues (1990) (SPOILERS) If the ‘90s crime movie formally set out its stall in 1992 with Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs , another movie very quietly got in there first at the beginning of the decade. Miami Blues picked up admiring reviews but went otherwise unnoticed on release, and even now remains under-recognised. The tale of “blithe psychopath” Federick J. Frenger, Jr., the girl whose heart he breaks and the detetive sergeant on his trail, director George Armitage’s adaptation of Charles Willeford’s novel wears a pitch black sense of humour and manages the difficult juggling act of being genuinely touching with it. It’s a little gem of a movie, perfectly formed and concisely told, one that more than deserves to rub shoulders with the better-known entries in its genre. One of the defining characteristics of Willeford’s work, it has been suggested , is that it doesn’t really fit into the crime genre; he comes from an angle of character rather than plot or h

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

You think a monkey knows he’s sitting on top of a rocket that might explode?

The Right Stuff (1983) (SPOILERS) While it certainly more than fulfils the function of a NASA-propaganda picture – as in, it affirms the legitimacy of their activities – The Right Stuff escapes the designation of rote testament reserved for Ron Howard’s later Apollo 13 . Partly because it has such a distinctive personality and attitude. Partly too because of the way it has found its through line, which isn’t so much the “wow” of the Space Race and those picked to be a part of it as it is the personification of that titular quality in someone who wasn’t even in the Mercury programme: Chuck Yaeger (Sam Shephard). I was captivated by The Right Stuff when I first saw it, and even now, with the benefit of knowing-NASA-better – not that the movie is exactly extolling its virtues from the rooftops anyway – I consider it something of a masterpiece, an interrogation of legends that both builds them and tears them down. The latter aspect doubtless not NASA approved.

You tampered with the universe, my friend.

The Music of Chance (1993) (SPOILERS) You won’t find many adaptations of Paul Auster’s novels. Original screenplays, yes, a couple of which he has directed himself. Terry Gilliam has occasionally mentioned Mr. Vertigo as in development. It was in development in 1995 too, when Philip Haas and Auster intended to bring it to the screen. Which means Auster presumably approved of Haas’ work on The Music of Chance (he also cameos). That would be understandable, as it makes for a fine, ambiguous movie, pregnant with meaning yet offering no unequivocal answers, and one that makes several key departures from the book yet crucially maintains a mesmerising, slow-burn lure.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

People still talk about Pandapocalypse 2002.

Turning Red (2022) (SPOILERS) Those wags at Pixar, eh? Yes, the most – actually, the only – impressive thing about Turning Red is the four-tiered wordplay of its title. Thirteen-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang) finds herself turning into a large red panda at emotive moments. She is also, simultaneously, riding the crimson wave for the first time. Further, as a teenager, she characteristically suffers from acute embarrassment (mostly due to the actions of her domineering mother Ming Lee, voiced by Sandra Oh). And finally, of course, Turning Red can be seen diligently spreading communist doctrine left, right and centre. To any political sensibility tuning in to Disney+, basically (so ones with either considerable or zero resistance to woke). Take a guess which of these isn’t getting press in reference to the movie? And by a process of elimination is probably what it it’s really about (you know in the same way most Pixars, as far back as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc . can be given an insi