Friday, July 26, 2013

Monsters University

d. Dan Scanlon, 2013 - in theatre

I didn't become a Pixar fan, really and truly, until I had kids in my life.  I enjoyed some Pixar movies, but thought they were a little juvenile for my sophisticated Tarantino-saturated tastes.  The Toy Story films particularly tweaked my interest as a late-teen and 20-something (then still an avid action figure an toy collector) while some time later WALL-E and Ratatouille came along, showing me that Pixar were capable creators of instant story-driven (less merchandise-driven) classics.  But I had glossed over a few of their features, Monsters Inc. being the first, mainly because of my snobby hipster attitude about Billy Crystal.

Shortly after turning two years old my daughter watched Monsters Inc. for the first time, and I'm not even sure if I had seen it prior to that event.  I was nervous that she would find it frightening in parts, but (as I later discovered) she loves being scared, and she loves Monsters Inc.  I too came to appreciate the film immensely upon a second or third viewing, (while she's watched the film about three dozen times, if not more) and when I caught wind of the new Monsters University, her excitement was palpable (about 15 months of "when's new Monsters Inc. coming?").  I, on the other hand, was kind of disappointed with their next feature being yet another franchise-expander (sequel or prequel), the third in four years.  While Toy Story 3 was a surprisingly beautiful swan song for that series, Cars 2 was a merchandise cash grab (by all accounts, I couldn't even bring myself to see it) and last year's Brave was a massive let-down.   Monsters University has a lot to live up to, particularly when the previous film's most beloved character (the human intruder Boo) obviously doesn't make the transition back in time, so while I remained hopeful, expectations were kept pretty low.  It met my expectations.

Monsters University is not a bad film, but it is a lesser entry in the Pixar portfolio.  It's a child-friendly take on 1980's frat comedies, a genre of film that relied heavily on nudity, sex, swearing and drugs to scandalize the old folks and draw a young crowd.  Obviously a Pixar movie can't have any of that (but what a bizarre thing that would be if they did) so what's presented instead is a chaste emulation of Animal House and any of the dozens of frat and camp movies (Ski School, Up the Creek, Meatballs etc.) where the crux of the film is one group squaring off against one or more other groups in a series of challenges.  It's actually kind of clever, since it's a formula that's been generally absent from the screens (or more likely direct-to-video) since the '90's, as a result it captures a nostalgia in parents of the kids in attendance, and at the same time presents to the kids a well-tested and appealing formula which they've not seen before (giving pre-teens and grade-schoolers a goofy and unreal look at their improbable future scholastic life).

Of course, beyond the nostalgia, it is a tired, tired formula, that isn't really given much new life in the way other Pixar films reconstruct genres.  Instead Monsters University tries to distract us from formula with charming characters (their specialty) and a hate-to-love bromance between beloved characters Mike and Sully.  Really they could have done anything for a Monsters Inc. sequel or prequel and as long as it contained Billy Crystal and John Goodman doing their thing, they would succeed.  These are two characters who just click with each other, instantly taking the view to a place of warmth, even when they're fighting on screen.  It's especially that reason, knowing that they become BFFs later on, that the audience invests in them so hard to stop fighting and support one another.

It's slight, sure, but it's got a lot of charm.  With voice talent from Charlie Day, Nathan Fillion, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Helen Mirren, Steve Buscemi and more, there's just a lot of pleasantry going about, even from the characters who are less than pleasant.  It's bright, colourful, inoffensive, and just damn likeable, if not in any way surprising, or innovative the way we would like Pixar to be.  It'll be going on the shelf, it'll be watched dozens of times, but it's a lesser-than, which I guess is better than an also-ran.