Monday, September 9, 2013

Monsters University

Look, if you've read this blog at all for very long, you know how I feel about Pixar. If we overlook the tragedy that is Cars 2, they have a flawless track record (and I'll defend A Bug's Life and Cars to the death). Brave was under-rated, I think partly because the misfire of Cars 2 allowed a lot of people room to attack them, and you know there was a pent up eagerness to do so.

So, look, I'm gonna gush.

Best. Prequel. Ever.

Don't believe me? Can you think of a better one? You're wrong. Or lying. Look, here's a Telegraph article on the top 10 prequels of all time. It includes Prometheus and The Phantom Menace, besides being padded out with Batman Begins and Casino Royale (both reboots), Godfather II (not a sequel), and so on. X-Men: First Class was pretty good, granted.

Basically, though, prequels suck. The amount of retconning that must be done because they weren't really thinking about what came before in the original film, combined with the awful tendency to repeat the things that made the original story good until they're no longer good, and destroy the original film in the process is overwhelming.

And yet?

This one is great—and under-rated. The consensus seems to be that the first two thirds are good, if standard kiddie fare, in a college-movie template, with the third act rising hitting it out of the park. And the part about the third act is certainly true.  But the set up to the first two acts far exceeds "standard".

And there are a couple of messages you just never see in kids' movies.

The story is about young Mike Wazowski, an upbeat, chipper little monster that isn't popular, but who gets it in his head that he's going to become a scarer, the most impressive and important job in the Monster World. And he works hard and manages to get into the premiere university to train scarers, too!

But, wait: We know, for a fact, that he's not a scarer. We've seen Monsters, Inc.! Already, you can see that there's a potential retcon catastrophe in the making. How the hell do you make a good kid's movie about failure?

There isn't a lot of overlap between the characters in the original movie and this one. Only Mike, Sully and Randall have prominent roles and they're substantially different. Mike is the hard-working, diligent student, clever and capable, though largely ignored, while Sully is a lazy, arrogant jerk who coasts by on his name and natural talent.

Randall's not even a bad guy! He's more a nerd who wants to be popular.

What we get in this movie is how they came to be the characters from the first movie.

Look, if this were made by Dreamworks (see Madagascar), we'd have seen the 2319! alerts a dozen times, the Academy Award Winning "If I Didn't Have You" would feature prominently, they'd have figured out a way to get a Boo character in there somehow (ruining the original), and above all, the characters would be identical to how they were in the first film.

And I'm not (exactly) picking on Dreamworks, here: If animation has a weakness, it's that the characters tend to be or become caricatures, fixed in amber. Even Pixar, with the Toy Story series, didn't show a lot of character change.

It's actually kind of disturbing to see Sully be a jerk with questionable ethics. And it even enhances the original to see Mike as the more admirable character whose bossiness stems from actually driving the lackadaisical Sully.

And then there's the movie's powerful message: If you want something more than anyone else in the world, and you work very hard at it, you still might not even have a chance at it because you just aren't cut out for it.

This is the dialogue I had with the Barbarienne on the way to the movie:

"I think you can be anything you want to be."
"No, I can't."
"You can't?"
"OK, if I can, I'm going to fly."

Which is kind of the point, in a nutshell. Almost all children's movies assume that what you want is compatible with who you are, and when it's not, well, that's society's fault (see Mulan).

This movie says, "Well, maybe you can't live your dream, but that's all right, because there is lots of good you can do." (There's also another message about college maybe not being the be-all end-all of achieving your dreams, which I've seen exactly never in a kiddie movie.)

It also has Pixar's typical message of teamwork and group dynamic being critical to success. Not just lip service, as in most kid's movies, but woven into the plot.

This may be a better movie than the first, though it's definitely enhanced by knowing the original. If there are any weaknesses, relative to the first movie, it's that the supporting characters aren't quite as strong. (And, as I said, the original movie's supporting characters aren't in this at all.) It's also probably not quite as funny.

The real standout new character in this is Dean Hardscrabble, a dragon/centipede voiced by Helen Mirren. Although she is the foil of the movie (in the time-honored tradition of college movies), she's more interesting and deeper than Mr. Waternoose (James Coburn).

And so far, this is just about the story, which is really the thing. Of course, it's technically breathtaking. The level of detail is staggering to contemplate. There's a scene in the human world (reminiscent, at least to me, of Friday The 13th movies) that looks realer than most non-CGI movies. And they manage to portray humans in a way that's just enough cartoon-like to avoid the Uncanny Valley.

But the things that might make you smile, if you have a chance to notice them, are things like Sully being thinner with darker spots and hair, and Mike being more elliptical than round, and a deeper green.

Well, look, I saw it with The Boy and The Flower at a late night show ('cause they don't like being bugged by the little kids), then again with The Barb a week or so later—and The Boy joined us to re-watch, and was maybe even more taken with it the second time.

We agreed we could see it a third time just to marvel at the technical artistry. But it's not just that, either, because all Pixar films are like that (even Cars 2). It's that there are so many little nods and echoes to the original without using the original as a crutch. The end of Monsters Inc is foreshadowed subtly here, such that  you could watch this and it wouldn't be a spoiler, but you'd go "Oh, of course, that makes complete sense."

It's really one of those movies that, the more you think about it, the better it gets. Given the number of movies for grownups that practically require you to turn off your brain, it's pretty cool to have a kid movie that makes you think.

1 comment:

  1. The ads didn't really grab me but I'll have to give it a try sometime. I did like the original movie and I do tend to really like Pixar movies in general... Brave and The Incredibles are probably my favorites so far.


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