All words: Al Moore
Disney-Pixar studios hit a slump last year, with the somewhat unfocused and largely forgettable Brave, but returns to the Dean’s List with their latest project, Monster’s University.
To discuss this movie as its putative offering as a children’s outing, I can say categorically that your kids should see this. The children at the screening were completely transfixed, given to wanton displays of investment and applause throughout. The film’s morality is safe, generally conservative with dashes of “teamwork” and “stick up for the little guy.” It’s hard to understand how kids fed a diet of this stuff could ever turn out to be assholes without being wired that way or trained to such by asshole parents. It’s just magical fifties nostalgia without the racism and sexism.
As usual, when it comes to target demos, Pixar prefers to aim wide and leaves a big hole. Monsters is adult-hilarious throughout, and even its physical slapstick lands for this generally jaded, late twenties reviewer. Its palette is bright and colorful; in contrast to the somewhat industrial and shadowy Monsters, Inc., the movie is lighter, the monsters cuddlier (not to mention, more merchandisable). While Randall and the company boss were legitimately terrifying in the predecessor film, even to this ruggedly handsome, full grown adult, the enemies in University are, generally, tame. Even the “bad frat” is guilty of no more than the social mechanics on display in literally every junior high school in this country: this is a far cry from a global plot to kidnap and murder children at night to provide shareholder (scareholder!?) value. As a result, Monsters University is a genuinely and completely charming work. It is a sweet movie, not saccharine. It’s the product of a studio completely at comfort with itself, that no longer needs to animate every individual strand of fur to remind people it’s playing by a different set of rules than everyone else.
Charming, but formulaic. Monsters follows a paint-by-numbers approach to its story, each beat predictable from the last. The Pixar bread-and-butter is the “unlikely buddies” scheme, which falls a tad flat when the unlikely friendship is mandated to develop based on prior canon, such as it were. The film struggles to build tension: we know Mike and Sullivan eventually become fast friends, and that they achieve their dream and destiny at the scream factory, so it’s largely an exercise of connecting the two points. That said, Monsters, Inc. dropped in 2001, so it’s entirely probable there’s a generation of kids who have no idea who these two are. Maybe the whole purpose of Monsters University is to sell Monsters, Inc. DVDs.
This is not to say the film is artless. The character design is wonderful, and elevates the experience. These are cartoon monsters, yes, but there are timeless archetypes within. The bro-tastic eagle monster is brilliant, and the film’s ancillary details really support a “college” feel, from colorful monster trees down to the school’s alma mater, replete with turn of the century claptrap. The soundtrack is an expert mix of Drumline and The Great Escape, and fits the film well. There really is nothing fundamentally wrong about this movie.
Somewhat of a rarity for these events, 3-D was mandatory for the critics screening. I’ll begin by saying 3-D is an abomination, and should have flunked out long ago, except its daddy is a major donor to the football program. I detest it, and I’m in pretty good company.
That said, while Monsters doesn’t break any major ground in storytelling or animation, its use of the third dimension in both the feature and the opening short The Blue Umbrella deserves a PhD. If 3-D is the future, this movie is the Citizen Kane of the form. Largely eschewing “wow it’s coming right at me!” gimmicks, the film(s) use(s) the Z-axis to guide the eye – its depth is not in the clutter that fills it, but rather, in the space that’s created. A particular tableau, where Mike ogles the Scare Games trophy, flanked on two sides by portraits of the all time greats, comes to mind. The principles of cinematography largely derived from classic art and still photography will, in the future, need to embrace the disciplines of sculpture and architecture. Monsters University is an excellent start. Maybe this is space in which others have played, but given my near categorical refusal to see works in 3-D, I wouldn’t know. All I can say is that if you see Monsters in theaters, seek out the 3D format.
Of course, the formulaic criticism above is more a product of expectations than any error on the studio’s part. If University had dropped in the early 2000s, such criticism would hardly bear mention. In the interim, however, Pixar made a G-rated movie in which not a word of dialog was exchanged for forty-five minutes, a movie good enough to replace the Bible as a morality tale (just imagine if Wall-E hadn’t got back up at the end. I still think that was a missed opportunity). They kicked off another nominal children’s film, Up, by making its audience watch a man grow old with, and then bury, his wife. In Finding Nemo’s opening, a father’s entire family is viciously murdered. The brand has been conflated with the bold, the new, and the unpredictable: they even managed to subvert the Talking Dog trope. In the opening short, the studio flourishes its abilities again. This is a group of people who can get more out of an umbrella with a crude happy face on it than most directors could get from Daniel Day-Lewis. It is against these expectations that Monsters University falls short. It’s not a grand slam, but the ball leaves the park. Monsters University is the natural student, graduating magna cum laude, a few more days in the library away from summa.
A stray observation: Pixar movies have been, with a few exceptions, decidedly “male,” and University is no exception. The lone developed female character in the movie is voiced by Helen Mirren, who so ably dominates her scenes that she makes a case for a voice work Oscar category. All of this is preamble to note that, while generally dominated by male characters, I think every Pixar movie made to date passes the Bechdel test. Good on them.