Piers Marchant’s take on Monsters University

June 21, 2013

Some folks get second supper. Well, we here at bda occasionally like to give you a second review.Here’s Piers Marchant’s take on this week’s Pixar entry.

By Piers Marchant for bda

It’s hard not to feel a little bit sorry for the supremely talented artists, directors and writers at Pixar. Heavy indeed must be the weight of expectations from the studio — owned by the monolithic Disney Corp. lo these past few years — who once absolutely dominated children’s animated fare with a style and verve that was once entirely its own.

It was because of Pixar and their stable of critically acclaimed megahits like the Toy Story trilogy, Wall-E, and The Incredibles, that Hollywood animated films — once a dismal display of commercial tie-in decadence, started to put greater faith in kids’ imaginations and the glory that can only come from superior storytelling and truly compelling characters.

But that was before other studios stepped up their game and joined in on the fun. Suddenly, Dreamworks (with their Madagascar series), Fox (Ice Age franchise), Universal (Despicable Me 1 & 2) and even Disney (Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph) began putting serious effort into their stories. No longer could you get away with a few lazy songs and a chirpy couple of stock characters (well, outside the utterly inexplicable success of the Alvin and the Chipmunks franchise). Pixar had trained its young audience well. They expected — nay, demanded! — better from their animated fare, and so it came to pass.

Meanwhile, the studio that helped start it all had started to run ever so slightly adrift. First, there was the less-than-stellar Cars sequel (a film that many people felt shouldn’t have been given the honor of a further adventure in the first place), which earned the studio its first real critical backlash. Then, last year’s Brave, while not a complete slouch, didn’t make half the cultural or box office impact for which the studio had been hoping.

Their latest effort, the prequel to the extremely popular Monsters Inc. title, doesn’t exactly signify a return to their glory years just yet, but it’s hardly as drab and disappointingly bland as Cars 2, and should return them to significant prominence. They might not be all the way back, but it’s a solid step in the right direction.

This film begins with a school-boy Mike (voice of Billy Crystal) and his first visit to the giant Scare Factory that eventually will make his career. He immediately falls in love with the place and decides on his life’s calling, but, alas, there remains a significant obstacle in his way. Mike is many things, smart, industrious, incredibly hard working but scary, alas, is not one of them. Years later, he enrolls at Monsters U. in their Scare program, but doesn’t get very far before he’s drummed out of the by the terrifying dean of the department, the dragon winged Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren).

In the world of the Monsters, you see, the reverence and awe reserved for the physically gorgeous or athletically superior is transferred to a monster’s fearsomeness and their ability to be terrifying. It’s a fun conceit, one of those things that makes perfect sense in context of the film’s morphology and hierarchy. Because Mike is small and particularly inoffensive, he’s derided and ignored as if he were an acne-spouting, concave-chested RPG aficionado. What his detractors fail to take into account, however, is his fighting spirit.

Upset but far from giving up, Mike embarks on a radical scheme to get himself reinstated — win the annual campus-wide Scare Games with a crew of fellow misfits — and earn his way back into the fold. Amongst the team, he also adds the reluctant Sullivan (John Goodman), a furry mass of natural fear-stirring talent, whose father is a scaring legend, but whose slovenly ways and inattention to detail has also derailed his college career.

Thus ensues your usual college movie plot, straight out of Revenge of the Nerds: Misfits get harassed, misfits band together, misfits overcome all obstacles and win the endearment and respect of their fellow students.

Well, at least at first. It turns out, things don’t run quite as smoothly as all that (and a good thing too) and therein lies the secret to Pixar’s tremendous appeal: They go above and beyond to entertain you, willing to make every effort to confound your expectations, at least up to a point, and thrill you in the process.

When it really comes together — and here Toy Story 2 comes to mind — the plot keeps unfolding and taking you on ever more fanciful and satisfying swoops. We never get to that level of sophistication here, but the producers at least clear the most necessary hurdle: The film works hard to build you up, let you down, and then resurrect your hope. Given that we already know the outcome from the first film (Mike and Sullivan go on to form an incredibly successful scare team), the fact that this prequel still manages to put all of that in doubt is a significant victory.

It’s far from a complete triumph — there’s nothing as emotionally satisfying as Toy Story, nor as wildly effervescent as Up or Ratatouille — but the production team, lead by director Dan Scanlon, can rest easy knowing they didn’t let down the franchise. Now, all that being said, is it too much to ask for a sequel to the film that would seem the best candidate in the first place? We will just have to cross our fingers and hope somewhere, sometime, The Return of the Incredibles will be placed in Pixar’s magic pipeline.

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