Friday, June 21, 2013

Back to School: MONSTERS UNIVERSITY


The biggest problem Pixar has is an imbalance of expectations. Back five or ten years ago, when they were in the middle of a string of masterpieces – Wall-E, Up, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, among others – they seemed like a studio that could do little wrong. They released one gorgeously animated, surprisingly moving, and hugely satisfying movie after the next and for a while it seemed like that would always be the case. Now, after a string of merely enjoyable entertainments that not only weren’t heartbreaking works of visual inventiveness, but also rarely were working towards that goal, some have started shrugging off Pixar films as somehow less than adequate. As if expertly calibrated mass appeal crowd-pleasers are a thing of which we have an overabundance these days. 

Pixar’s latest is Monsters University, a prequel to their 2001 hit Monsters, Inc. This setting, a world of monsters in which all energy comes from scream power generated by sending creatures through portals in the shape of children’s closet doors, is Pixar’s most colorful and cartoonish. The design features an appealing bunch of candy-colored monsters, likable and vaguely frightening in the right light with the right sound design. They’re more cute than creepy, like smoothly animated Harryhausen characters inspired by one part Hieronymus Bosch, three parts Hanna-Barbera. The first film introduced us to the exceedingly endearing pair of Mike, a one-eyed green ball with the voice of Billy Crystal, and Sully, a furry blue bear with the voice of John Goodman. Together they were the best scarers in the business. Rather than attempting to build further narrative after the events of that film, which has a story that tidily fixes all that world’s major problems, we’ve wandered back in time with a charming prequel. This new film rewinds to find them college freshman.

This proves to be a fruitful move. Though their emotional arc from competitors to best friends is obvious, doubly so by knowing where they must end up, there’s plenty of bright, funny detail to fill up a film that uses the setting to great effect. The simple design details that go into fitting a college campus into this world alone provides plenty of delight. There are all the typical sights, from dorm rooms to classrooms and parties to parks, that you’d find in any college town, which makes the monsters roaming the halls and down the quad so appealingly strange and oddly familiar. They may have tentacles or three heads or breathe fire and are training to burst through your closet door roaring for a scream, but they still have to pass their exams and wonder if they’re cool enough to go to the party down the street. Monsters: they’re just like us.

Intimidating Dean Hardscrabble, Helen Mirren voicing a huge centipede with bat wings and a lizard face, introduces the annual Scare Games, a campus wide competition to prove who is the best student scarer. Mike and Sully both throw themselves into the competition with much to prove. The screenplay from Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson, and Dan Scanlon (who also directs) smartly makes Mike an underdog who has studiously worked his way into the University while Sully got in on a family name and big expectations. You can see their academic approaches in their postures, a nice subtle flourish of animation. There’s an interesting tension between them, but they also both have a lot to lose. To win is to remain in the scaring program. That makes it hard to be saddled with a team of adorable goofballs, the kind of ragtag group that fills out an instantly loveable ensemble: a pudgy middle-aged student with nerdy glasses and a Ron Swanson mustache (Joel Murray), a nice guy (Peter Sohn), a two-headed dance major (Sean Hayes and Dave Foley), and a hairy weirdo (Charlie Day). Why, they’re not as scary as the overconfident frat guys or the hissing sorority sisters. What hope does Team Oozma Kappa (great name) have? Even their team chant - "We're OK!" - leaves something to be desired.

With the competition, a sort of Triwizard Tournament for monsters, effectively turning the whole film into Pixar’s typical mad-scramble racing, chasing climax, the whole thing speeds right along. Through various challenges and obstacles that are cause for fun visual gags and impressive creature design, the zippy energy rarely flags. The film seems to take its cue from the rousing rat-a-tat drumline-driven fight song that Randy Newman has cooked up for the film’s setting, an expert clack of moving percussion parts playing in perfect, driving syncopation that powers the score. Monsters University is a lot of appealing parts played with great skill and falling into place with great precision. It’s a lively, funny G-rated campus comedy that’s been executed with beautifully detailed animation and a great deal of energetic momentum. It’s frame for frame the best-looking American animation since, well, the last Pixar film, and deals lightly and generously with some nice themes about being yourself, studying hard, and remaining honest and kind. The talented team behind the film has cooked up something special, harmonizing with the tone of the earlier film without relying solely upon our memories of it and filling the screen with plenty of visual whimsy to admire.

Monsters University may not match the emotional heights Pixar has proven capable of reaching. It doesn’t even come up with one sequence as good as its predecessor’s madcap chase through a rollercoaster of magic doors, but it’s still a film filled with delights. It has so many moving parts, endearing characters and visual pleasures – and pulls them all off so effortlessly – that it could be easy to scoff, as if such proficiency were easy to come by, as if other family films didn’t struggle to pull off even one of these goals. When a whispering librarian becomes a looming monstrosity when provoked by the slightest noise or an eager monster reveals the scaring techniques he’s studied are what we’d recognize as standard haunted-house horror movie tropes, there’s undeniable appeal. This film’s a two-hour smile and a likable echo of one of the studio’s earliest triumphs. Who’d want to turn down that offer? Even when working with a smaller emotional range and simpler plot, in a film that isn’t necessarily calibrated to make adults cry, Pixar is working with a whole different palate than their closest competitor. I wouldn’t trade one so-called minor Pixar effort for all the Ice Age and Madagascar movies in the world.

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