Director: Dan Scanlon / Screenplay: Dan Scanlon, Daniel Gerson, Robert L. Baird / Editing: Greg Snyder / Production Designer: Ricky Nierva / Music: Randy Newman
Cast: Billy Crystal / John Goodman / Steve Buscemi / Helen Mirren / Peter Sohn / Joel Murray / Alfred Molina / Nathan Fillion / Aubrey Plaza / Noah Johnston / Bonnie Hunt / John Krasinski / Bill Hader
A Monstrous Monstrosity of a Monster Movie…
I am experiencing deja-vu, having been here already with Finding Dory (2016): a decent, original picture, lumbered with a disappointing sequel that no-one had asked for. That is, until Pixar’s new masters at Disney saw a gap in the Studio’s release schedule and asked: ‘Who’s got Ellen’s number?’ I ended my review with this question: What is Pixar for these days?
In this review, I hope to get close to a more definitive answer…
Let’s start then, at the very beginning; before Pixar went from plucky, scrappy outsider to part of the same establishment its founders had originally vowed to avoid. The studio’s original focus on the quality of its stories & scripts was once-paramount. Under the unforgiving eyes of original creative genii John Lasseter, Ed Catmull & Steve Jobs, Pixar generated a slew of original material that formed an enviable bedrock on which the company could grow. Lasseter brought-in talent (i.e. Brad Bird, fresh from his adaptation of Ted Hughes’ The Iron Giant (1999)) as well as promoting from within (i.e. Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter & others).
However, following the unfortunate passing of ‘eminence gris’ Jobs and the upward trajectory of Lasseter (until recently, at least), the studio’s shotgun-marriage with Disney has led to a softening of that iron-rule. These days, Pixar’s morphed gently into alternating a string of ‘pick&mix’ original titles, with a stifling diet of sequels to its original breakout IP. The one ‘Gold Standard’ exception to this, has been Toy Story (1995) and its two creatively elegant and emotional sucker-punching sequels; by the way, there’s a third sequel due in 2019, in case you hadn’t heard.
Give it time. You will soon…
Everything else? ‘Dory was a cynically undercooked rehash. Cars (2006) was an average, frenetically-enfeebled movie to begin with, yet has already racked-up its own pair of tepid sequels, thanks to an aggressive drive on merchandising. Just this year, we’ve seen Incredibles 2, but at least Brad Bird had the decency to wait fourteen years: time enough to come up with something worthy of the original. It’s made a ton of money into the bargain; thanks, I’d imagine, to a wave of nostalgia from newly-minted parents, who grew-up with the original and who now want their own kids to live in Bird’s world. It can’t have hurt that, in the intervening period, we’ve seen an endless swathe of superhero movies to keep interest in the genre pump-primed.
Which brings us finally, to Monsters University: an origin story for a beloved, mis-matched comedy duo in the spirit of Laurel and Hardy that, compared to Incredibles 2, came an indecorous twelve years after the original. Whereas Dory went with a secondary character, Director Dan Scanlon and his team of SIX other writers merely copped-out and cobbled-up an origin story, seemingly for lack of anything more inspiring.
To keep the hardcore faithful, there’s at least a beautiful, pared-down short to kick things off: The Blue Umbrella. A work of crystalline purity lacking an ounce of fat, the tragedy is I could watch a whole feature about two star-crossed umbrellas instead of the movie it was shackled to… As well as invoking the old Tex Avery / Looney Tunes shorts that used to preface theatrical screenings, Pixar’s goal for its own shorts, was to double as test-beds for new animation techniques. Now that technology’s brought us to a point where we can no longer distinguish fiction from reality, these shorts have instead become the last vestiges of true creative expression in the company. They’re refuges, in which animators can purge themselves of the shite they’re otherwise churning-out in supplicating tired franchises.
Before we get to the film proper, I’ve one last point. Advancing technology now affords film-makers the opportunity – the luxury – of treating their world-building as a blank-slate where anything is now possible; where the only limit is their imagination. In the case of MU, that turns-out to be a riot of saccharine, candy-colours, ‘over-designed’ fixtures & fittings and a puppyish enthusiasm to look just the same as every other feature intended for, y’know, Kids!
Ugh. When even Disney is capable of creating a world as rich and diverse as that seen in Zootropolis / Zootopia (2016) – a world that shades the world of MU for its inventiveness and willingness to take visual risks with its palette, etc, then you know something’s off… I watched that film and was astonished that it WASN’T a Pixar joint. Zootropolis’ inventiveness was on-par with what its upstart sibling might once have crowed about: but more powerful tech has levelled the playing field. Now every studio – every kid with a high-end PC in their bedroom – has access to more computing power than Pixar used to make Toy Story!
About the only time MU takes a visual risk, is when the action takes a brief segue into ‘our world’ and for the first and only time in the movie, we see layered, textured shadows & a muted palette and the end result is predictably shocking. Yet, isn’t there an argument for having been braver all along? To do the reverse? To take-off the rose-tinted glasses, see a ‘truly’ monstrous world as it might actually be and have our side as the sugar-coated paradise? Just a thought, for then we’d have an entirely different picture and then…
Oh, but what’s the point? Instead, things begin with a young Michael Wazowski (Noah Johnston) on a school field trip. The green beachball with legs, arms and a single, giant (though expressive) eyeball remains an undeniably iconic character design. Among his almost-generic peer-group of purple puff-balls and bipedal lizards, Wazowski’s an outlier; a touchstone for expressivity, to whom we warm almost sub-consciously. Their destination is then revealed: ‘Monsters Inc.’ itself; the very ‘Screamworks’ in which our coming-heroes will later work. For now though, Wazowski’s just visiting. As the class ogles a new shift of pro-scarers arrive for work, Scanlon has their entrance parody a key scene from Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983), as if to increase their mythologisation by the class (though only someone as sad as me will make such connections).
Excluded by dint of his size, from watching proceedings on the ‘Scare Floor’ and, having been inspired by one of the passing ‘Scaronauts’, Wazowski sneaks his way past all obstacles and follows this many-tentacled ‘blue meanie’ through into a child’s room. From a discreet vantage point, he witnesses the master-at-work, before sneaking out behind him, again unseen. His latent Ninja-skills lead him to think that, maybe, he has a future as a ‘scarer’ too…
As a Prologue, I think it works reasonably well. The writing’s tight and we’re set-up with Michael’s future obsession and the idea that he’s a loner, not through choice but exclusion. It’s only after the (finely-crafted) opening title sequence, with its strident marching-band dub (Randy Newman’s rousing score is one of the film’s few highlights) that things slide-away.
Witness a toothsome Mike (now voiced by Billy Crystal) who arrives on the bus at ‘Monsters University’, though I find it odd that, amongst an ENTIRE busload of new students, he’s the only one to get off… Was it something he said?
What follows, as he acclimatises to MU’s heady atmosphere, is an idealised version of the American University experience: an infantilised world of fraternities & sororities and the pennants of gushing tribalism. It’s populated by characters analogous to trans-Atlantic pop-culture. There’s a dorky one. A ‘trippy-hippy’. ‘The argumentative one’, drumming up support for ‘Debate Club’… The doom-laden goth-girl ‘who’s like, totally bored, by like, everything’. Still, not all is lost: Mike’s new room-mate Randy (Steve Buscemi in a throwaway performance) has an edge. Is it too early to say he’s likely to turn-treacherous later-on? The sting from Howard Shore’s ‘Mordor Theme’ from LOTR, is a weak-knee’d giveaway.
Things duly unfold for Mike and by the time we watch him during class, where he first encounters the deliciously-named Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren on gas-mark 2) we’ve enjoyed a frantic rush of sight-gags that, to the relief of those new parents mentioned earlier, will repay repeated-viewing. Which is just as well, as Hardscrabble’s about to kill the mood and plant a seed that’ll pay-off later: ‘Scariness is the true measure of a monster. If you’re not scary, what kind of monster are you?’
Too true, Dame Helen. I think we’ve ALL stared into the firelight of an evening and pondered that one…
Enter Sullivan – or Sully, as he’ll soon be known. Played by John Goodman with his usual, big-hearted galumption, his undoubted influence on Sully’s animation style (along with Crystal’s impact on Mike) makes these two leads – and their buddy-buddy partnership – the soul of the two films. That said, at this stage of proceedings, Sully’s a lazy, over-entitled ‘Jock’, riding on his family’s name: a quality revealed at the end of a random chase – of a ‘scary pig’, no less – that Sully’s appropriated from a rival fraternity; a pig that, in-turn, has snatched Mike’s lucky cap, bestowed on him by the Blue Meanie all those years prior. Despite capturing it, Mike can only watch as Sully’s invited to join the premier fraternity ‘Roar-Omega-Roar’ (say it loud & fast). Instead, Mike adjusts to life at the shallow-end of unpopularity’s gene-pool, as a reluctant member of ‘Oozma-Kappa’; a title apparently chosen simply for the visual gag of having ‘OK’ emblazoned on team merch…
As if the message wasn’t already plain enough, that life’s about selection & distinctions made between hotness and, err, notness. Deal with it Kids, by playing to your strengths and weaknesses, whatever they might be. Noble sentiments for sure, but they’re couched with such unsophistication here, it’s hard to take them seriously. It’s as if the screenwriters (seven are listed) deliberately shoe-horned it in for lack of anything else, like… A plot?
The rest of the film plays-out with boiler-plate predictability. Oozma-Kappa comes together, over a series of trials, in which they work to maximise their diverse skills. Yawn. The primo-Jocks get to eat humble pie. Mike comes to reap Hardscrabble’s homespun wisdom, when he accepts he’s not scary enough to earn ‘scores-on-the-doors’ (he’s an acid-green walking, talking beachball: of course he’s not scary). Oh, and Sully gets to admit something about his issues of inadequacy & undeserved entitlement; Duh.
Such as it is, the plot of MU follows one of the hallowed templates-of-plot: the one that drops a compelling outsider into a gaggle of misfits, in order to both win redemption AND ‘the prize’. Think: Disney’s own Beauty and the Beast (1991) or, err, Dodgeball (2004) or The Dirty Dozen (1967). Okay, maybe not Dozen, given that most end-up dead, but you get the idea. It’s all I could think of this early in the morning…
Still, our two bozo-heroes did get expelled from MU at the death, so there’s at least some decorum on Hardscrabble’s part. That, by the way, is as dark as things get. Throughout the entire film, I failed to detect anything resembling antagonism, malevolent intent or even a basic sense of threat beyond Mike’s existential funk over whether he’s scary or not…
There’s nothing here to latch onto, which says it all, really. Watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and you’ll recognise that Walt knew better than anyone, the importance of having light AND shade bound-together, for mutual effectiveness. There’s none of that here.
There’s also no exploration of the record-breaking feats they achieve once in ‘our world’; feats that surely might drive plot? Nope. Instead, we get a stirring (albeit cleverly-visualised) montage covering Mike & Sully’s start at the mailroom at Monsters Inc. and how they work their way up the corporate food-chain to, finally, make the Scare Floor. I consider it a further trick missed that, in a movie of clichés such as this, we didn’t have Mike talking to another wild-eyed school-kid at the end, but what do I know?
I’ll leave you with this: As things appear to me, writing this in 2018, it’s as if Disney has allowed Pixar to shuffle into the role of its ‘boutique’ sidekick; the loser in a power-play, in which Disney gets to make the heavy-hitting cash-cows and Pixar’s left to alternate its ‘passion projects’ with ‘franchise maintenance’; a policy that looks shakier with every mis-step (i.e. Brave ((2012)) or The Good Dinosaur (2015)) despite the odd hit (Coco (2017)) or successfully-executed (though commercially-average) artistic statement (Inside Out (2015).
To this writer, it seems that the passion projects which get green-lit, seem unable / unlikely to generate the cash-cow franchises of tomorrow. So, teams are having to revisit old wells and get less with every dip of the bucket. Incredibles 2 might’ve made a skip-full of money, but I’m not talking about money; that always ebbs and flows with the weather.
No, I’m talking about the slow suffocation of the one-time maverick that, despite Disney’s good intentions, is dying in its sleep.
It’s a problem common to creative companies when they lose the visionary talent that built their original legacy. It happened to Disney Animation itself, following Walt’s death in 1966, so the signs are there. The remedy is also simple, but I fear ‘euthanasia-by-absorption’ is easier still. After watching MU, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’d already begun, though statements in 2013, by Studio President Ed Catmull, to the effect that Pixar would be scaling-back its sequels, contradict such perceptions; five years-on, the jury’s still out on whether his good intentions translate to good deeds…
The best scarers use their differences to their advantage.