Friday, 6 September 2013

Monsters University (2013)


Monsters University (2013)
Directed by Dan Scanlon; Starring Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi

Rating: 4/5

It’s a much maligned fact that every other cinematic offering these days seems to be a reboot or sequel. If it’s for kids, it’s probably computer animated too. As a result, a medium that once blew us away with its revolutionary freshness has now become bland and uninspiring in its ubiquity. This is something that Disney has noticed with their decision to shake things up and get back to basics with a revival of traditional animation in the excellent The Princess and the Frog (2009).

Nevertheless, there have been computer animated gems over the years, and Pixar has always led the field, rejecting the safe and lucrative sequels market with a string of trailblazing stand alone features that have truly been works of art, animation quality improving with each release. So it’s a little troubling to see this giant of animation begin succumbing to sequelitis, starting with the release of the tepidly received Cars 2 (2011). Now, they’ve elected to give us Monsters University, which is, to their credit, a prequel.

The film is preceded by the traditional short, this time The Blue Umbrella. This piece alone is enough to prove that the guys at Pixar have still got it. It’s an exercise in cutting edge computer design, a showcase of stunning photorealistic animation, with just the right tug on the heartstrings. Without spoiling too much, it features heavy rain in an anthropomorphic urban environment.

As for the main feature, the idea is simple: the story of the first meeting between Monsters, Inc.’s Mike Wazowski and James P. “Sulley” Sullivan, chronicling their development from bitter rivals to the firm friends we see at the start of the first film. Billy Crystal and John Goodman return for the lead roles, as does Steve Buscemi to chronicle the development of the loathsome Randall Boggs, but aside from a few brief cameos, the rest of the cast and characters are new.

Plot-wise, on the face of it at least, there is little particularly new or innovative, other than the placing of these established characters in a university environment. To prove themselves, Mike and Sulley must join an underdog team of misfits and compete in a big sporting event, the Scare Games, or they’ll be kicked out of university. Then, two thirds of the way through, the inevitable spanner is thrown in the works of the duo’s newly blossoming camaraderie. The morals of acceptance and the realisation of ambition are nevertheless noble; Monsters University is also honest about failure. Notably, the final act moves the plot in an unexpected and welcome direction.

Original director Pete Docter, who gave us the sublime Up (2009), hands the reigns to rising storyboard artist Dan Scanlon. This is Scanlon’s directorial debut, so perhaps he has incentive to play it safe. Docter’s next project will be Inside Out, slated for a 2015 release, which looks to be more traditionally groundbreaking Pixar fare.

The university itself is everything that has come to define American higher education since National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978). There are American football games, fraternity rivalries (with delightfully ghoulish names, from Oozma Kappa to Roar Omega Roar), cheerleaders, big frat house parties and initiations, the Goth kids, the preppies with popped collars, and the theft of a rival establishment’s prized mascot pig. There’s even a crusty old Dean, voiced by Helen Mirren: the truly terrifying veteran scarer Ms. Hardscrabble, who sounds like a character in a Charles Dickens novel about board games.

Despite this, the character development is well handled, characters new and old are memorable, and above all, it is extremely funny, full of great jokes and hilarious sight gags. It would be a challenge to watch this film without having a good time. The concept is well realised, from the unique designs of individual monsters to the other worldly blend of Ivy League architecture adorned with monster-inspired horns and spines.

As a prequel, the worldview that was challenged as the central theme of Monsters, Inc. is here taken for granted. This is a world where monsters still harvest power from scaring humans, and fear their toxicity. To scare is the monster’s prime directive, enshrined in the hallowed traditions of families and Greek letter organisations, highlighting what must have been the total upheaval of their culture after the revelation at the end of the first film.

A kids’ film in a university environment is a hard balance to manage. It’s hard to notice any particularly knowing winks to an adult audience beyond the obvious university clich├ęs, and the potentially rowdy university environment has understandably been whitewashed to remove any suggestion of debauchery. At the same time, I wonder how many younger children can relate to, or appreciate such a setting. But perhaps they don’t need to. I don’t know how most kids will react to the film, but the young lad behind me in the cinema seemed to be having a good time, clapping along enthusiastically with the crowd at the Scare Games. Visually, it’s bright, colourful, and still stunning.

As ever, the appeal is still wide reaching. Monsters University is not just a kids’ film. It can be no coincidence that the children who first enjoyed Monsters, Inc. (and indeed, the 90s renaissance of Disney animation) are now just about heading off to university themselves. With good Pixar characters being what they are, it’s a treat to revisit these much loved characters once more. Somehow, it was easy to forget that there were eleven years between Toy Story 2 (1999) and Toy Story 3 (2010), and here, a full twelve since Monsters, Inc. (2001).

Monsters University is not Pixar’s best, but it certainly shows they’re still kicking. The film appears to be cut above a lot of the similar kids fare out there, none of which I’ve bothered with this summer.

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