Monsters University (2013)

Monsters University (2013) movie poster

director Dan Scanlon
viewed: 06/23/2013 at CineArts at the Empire Theater, SF, CA

It’s far too early to be sounding the death knell of quality films from Pixar, but it’s well worth noting an overall downward trend in their output since their purchase by Disney in 2006.  The first sequel they released, Toy Story 2, (1999) had an interesting evolution from a “straight to video” film recognized to be really good enough to be a feature film.  When your own knock-off product is that good, you’ve really got a studio kicking some ass.  The eventual Toy Story 3 (2010) was always planned as a theatrical film and was actually quite good, itself.

Cars (2006) was the studio’s first true dud, in my opinion.  Cars 2 (2011), was the first Pixar film that I actually didn’t bother seeing.  Quality hasn’t stopped the Cars franchise from expanding to theme park rides, oodles of toys and branding, and an incredibly dubious-looking film coming out this summer from Disney called Planes (2013), which rips off (expands on) the world of Cars while not being a Pixar production.  I’ve heard that Cars is a touchy subject at the studio, a pet project of head honcho John Lasseter, though not one commonly appreciated by the rest of the animators.

It is in the wake of the Cars franchise that the studio offers its first prequel, Monsters University, the first revisit to the charming characters and universe of 2001’s Monsters Inc.  Soon too be followed in 2015 by Finding Dory, sequel to Finding Nemo (2003).  The studio has been pumping out a film a year since 2006, seeming to need to keep producing product every year rather than gestating their best ideas only.

They’ve certainly produced some fine films in this time, including Ratatouille (2007), WALL-E (2008), Up (2009) and the aforementioned Toy Story 3.  As I said, I don’t come to bury Pixar, or to praise or not praise them, but to try to keep honest tabs on a venerable studio and its evolution.

That said, Monsters University is rather uninspired.  I think that Monsters Inc. was one of the studio’s top 3 films, great characters, great world, wonderful story.  As for prequels or sequels, I don’t mind seeing Sully (John Goodman) and Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) again.  Putting them in college, riffing on the 1980’s “college movie” like Animal House (1978) or Revenge of the Nerds (1984), et al., isn’t necessarily inspired but seemed to have possibilities.

The film, as all Pixar films are in constant progression, is beautifully designed and rendered.  Unlike the water in Finding Nemo or the curls of Princess Merida in Brave (2012), evolution in computer design and technology isn’t as glaringly advanced.  It certainly seems like the animators and creators had a blast creating more and more of the monsters that comprise the world of the film.  They are legion and part of the package.

The story isn’t overly fascinating.  Mike Wazowski is a small nerd of a monster, not considered scary enough to be a “scarer”, the elite job and college at Monsters University, to which many a monster aspires.  He’s up against Sully this time as a rival, a naturally talented scarer who is has no work ethic.  They end up joining a loser frat house and competing in a scare games competition.  The story’s heart is where Mike and Sully make friends, realizing that they both had been “jerks” and accepting their shortcomings.

It’s diverting enough and moves along at a reasonable pace, but what really struck me while I was watching it was that I didn’t laugh once.  I didn’t find myself smiling throughout, amused by whatever gags or whatever.  For all its designs, inventions, and creativity, it’s just not all that compelling.  And I guess it’s not particularly funny either.

After Clara and I saw Monsters Inc late last year, she was really excited about the characters and the film.  She liked the new one, but by no means as much.  This is not to say it’s a dud exactly.  It’s not Cars or its offspring.  There most certainly are animated feature films that I will avoid if I can and I wouldn’t call Monsters University something to avoid.  It’s just not great.  And for Pixar, that is a real shame.  They’ve established their brand by consistent quality films and the inventiveness, character development, humor, storytelling, filmmaking all are less here than in others.  Last year, I think I wound up liking Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph (2012) more than Pixar’s Brave.  They are not necessarily the digital animation studio elite as they once utterly were.  I sense a trend evolving here, though I would gladly be proven wrong about it.

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