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Pixar Sundays: Monsters University (2013)

Whose bright idea was this?
Monsters Inc. was one of Pixar’s early successes, and their first genuinely good movie that didn’t have Toy Story in the name. But it worked best as a one-off. A sequel would’ve stood the chance of ruining the films’ ambiguous ending, and as entertaining as Mike and Sully are, there wasn’t much more to explore with their characters than what we saw. Why Pixar decided to make a prequel to this movie, rather than a sequel to something like The Incredibles, much better suited for one, is anyone’s guess. And to set said prequel in college is a strange choice too. Of all the avenues to explore in the monsters’ universe, why this one?
On the one hand I gotta admire Pixar for this kind of a risk. A college movie isn’t something relatable or relevant to their overall demographic. I mean, no kid wants to see a movie about a university! And apart from that, it is territory Pixar hasn’t tried before; the general conceit of doing a college movie in this kind of a universe with different material being learnt in a format that’s actually family friendly, is an idea that has some promise. But unfortunately, Monsters University relies on the clichés of the genre a little too much, and despite the world and a pair of proven likeable characters, it doesn’t offer much that’s new.
After an adventurous school field trip to Monsters Incorporated (where an employee apparently works who likes to brag about his university), young Mike Wazowski becomes determined to be a scarer when he grows up. Years later, he enrols in the scaring program at Monsters University where he meets James Sullivan, the cocky son of a well-known scarer. The two butt heads of course, as a series of circumstances forces them to work together with an underdog fraternity to win the campus Scare Games.
Instantly, the most glaring problem with this movie is its story, which is incredibly basic. The trope of two established friends being at odds when they first meet is too typical, especially when one’s the jock and the other’s the nerd. So there’s never any tension to their relationship, because we know where it’s going. Even if Monsters Inc. didn’t exist, the signs are too clear. Add to that every college movie plot point that this kind of film can get away with. The misfit fraternity facing off against the favoured elite fraternity is straight out of Animal House (and yes there’s an obligatory smashed guitar moment); as is the tough Dean predisposed against said underdogs. There’s an instance where the rival school mascot is stolen, an initiation scene, the detail that Sully comes from famous roots, and how an abundance of school jackets and hats are constantly being worn. There’s even a rivalry montage between Mike and Sully when they’re competing for best score in their scaring class (a class which despite being called Scaring 101, seems to cover everything scaring entails). And it’s not like Monsters University is sending these tropes up like Futurama’s “Mars University”, they’re just abiding by them. Nowhere is it a college movie satire, it’s just a standard college movie, complete with insanely predictable direction. Even in moments when something different is happening, the cliché isn’t far off. There’s a scene for instance when Oozma Kappa get invited to a rez party, which looks for a minute like they might be winning popularity, until it becomes really obvious they’re about to be pranked. What’s just as annoying as these clichés is how old-hand they are and how irrelevant they’ve been since the 80’s. Maybe I just went to the wrong universities, but there weren’t elaborate humiliation tactics carried out by cliques of arrogant bullies during my college years.
Following the formula of the Toy Story movies, while Monsters Inc. focussed a little more prominently on Sully, Mike is front and centre of this film. We get the establishment of his interest in scaring as a kid, largely to give John Krasinski a pay-check and because little Mike looks cute. And he’s got the more identifiable character arc, his passion and dedication to scaring, in direct parallel to Sully’s coasting attitude regarding the whole thing. There’s more focus on him as a motivator as we see him work and study hard, as well as train all of Oozma Kappa. I liked Mike a lot in the first film, and Billy Crystal succeeds in reviving the character here for the most part. He’s not as funny of course, but that’s to be expected when he’s meant to carry more dramatic weight. Though it does take some getting used to and a pretty heavy suspension of disbelief that eighteen year old college kids have the voices of Billy Crystal and especially John Goodman. If you can buy it though, Goodman’s still good as Sully too, playing the character with a concealed insecurity due to the pressure of his family name, while sustaining a tough laid-back outer image. His learning that scaring takes more than just a roar is handled decently as well. Indeed the chemistry between Mike and Sully is still there, and they are enjoyable characters to watch, even if their dynamic is a contrivance. The returning character done the least justice is obviously Randall Boggs, who appears in this movie more to remind the audience he exists than anything else, which is a damn shame. Because not only is it a waste of Steve Buscemi, but I’d be far more interested in the story of how a pair of outcast friends in the scaring program grew apart than the rivals-turned-buddies thing. Randall’s a very different character here than the scheming sore loser antagonist he was in the prior film; he’s dweeby, insecure (it was Mike who convinced him to use his camouflage), and early in the film he’s seen getting along with Mike very well. His betrayal by joining Roar Omega Roar doesn’t seem to phase Mike at all, when this movie could’ve explored a deteriorating friendship by the peer pressure to be popular. Instead, Randall appears briefly without much dialogue in the second-half until a scene that feels elbowed in as an afterthought to establish his animosity towards Sully.
This movie also missed a lot of opportunities to give other characters from the first film an appearance, like Celia, Fungus, and especially Waternoose, who I’d have liked to have seen young. It’s worth noting though that Roz gets a half-assed cameo near the end. The film is instead filled with new characters, the intimidating Dean Hardscrabble being the most significant, and as wonderful as it is to hear Helen Mirren voicing her, she’s not much more than a one-dimensional stubborn authority figure. A similarly one-dimensional bully from Roar Omega Roar is voiced by Nathan Fillion, with a more entertaining Bobby Moynihan as his sidekick. Mike and Sully befriend the average gang of comic relief characters at Oozma Kappa, who despite the suggestion they remain lifelong friends afterwards, are neither seen nor mentioned at all in Monsters Inc. Squishy, voiced by animator Peter Sohn, is the most pushed of these characters, though he never quite gets a laugh. Dave Foley went from voicing the lead in a Pixar film to a side character who’s only one of a two-headed being (the other voiced by Sean Hayes). The only funny characters in this group are Joel Murray’s Don, an older tentacled monster returning to school, and Art because he’s voiced by Charlie Day. The cast also includes Alfred Molina as the scaring professor, Aubrey Plaza typecast as a goth girl, Julia Sweeney as Squishy’s mum, and John Ratzenberger in a cameo that implies the Abominable Snowman was Mike and Sully’s boss at one point despite not recognizing them when they meet in Monsters Inc.
There aren’t a lot of creative designs for the monsters in this movie. Most of them have some variation of horns, tentacles, fangs, multiple appendages, and such. Though they tease Mike’s lack of scariness, none of them look like they could scare any better. Monsters Inc. had a few too many slug-like creatures too, but there was a bit more imagination that went into the look of even some of the background monsters. The one exception in this movie is the librarian who I guarantee if she was working the scare floor, the monster civilization would have power to last a century. Like the first movie, this character aside, Monsters University sidesteps any actual scaring.
It tries to a little bit at one point, in the culmination of Mike’s arc. This resolution in the last part of the movie is when it’s at its best. Not only does it avoid cliché at this point, but it addresses something very unconventional. Mike’s dream for most of his life has been to be a scarer, and he’s pursued it in spite of naysayers, from Sully to the bullies to Hardscrabble herself, who’s especially hard on him for a Dean. When he finds out Sully rigged the last round of the Scare Games in his favour, he decides to prove himself by using one of the test doors being built at the school. And when he winds up at a girls’ camp cabin, and is unable to get even a little scream out of them, he’s forced to acknowledge he’s not actually capable of being scary. It’s a rare thing for a movie aimed at kids to be this harshly honest that sometimes your dreams just won’t work out. Even if you dedicate a lot of time and effort, sometimes it does come down to a talent you don’t have. This is what Mike faces when Sully, having gone in to rescue him, finds him down by the river. It’s one of the most powerful scenes in either of these movies, as both Mike and Sully confess their insecurities and reality strikes them. Moments later of course, they prove how good they are as a team, when they manage to scare a group of adult cops in a combination of Sully’s ferociousness and Mike’s skill at building tension. It’s a bit overkill that it causes all the cannisters on the other side to overpower though (I mean they can’t be that scary, come on!). I also appreciate the fact that they both do get expelled from Monsters University, showing that there is such a thing as consequences in this world; and that they have to work their way up through Monsters Inc.
Unfortunately, the last twenty minutes being good doesn’t excuse the rest of the movie. However Monsters University isn’t awfully bad or anything, it’s just dull and forgettable. It wasn’t heinous to sit through like Cars 2, but it wasn’t as funny and adventurous as Monsters Inc. There are a handful of genuinely funny moments, a unique theme at the end, and the main characters are still likeable, they just needed a better-written, more original story to thrive in.

Pixar just wants to anthropomorphize everything, don’t they?! Blue Umbrella puts faces on everything from mailboxes to traffic lights to sewer grates, and the weirdest thing is, they kinda look real. Which make them look creepy. Using very photorealistic animation, it’s the story of a blue umbrella attracted to a red umbrella he sees during a rainstorm on a busy city street. However in trying to get to her, he gets blown all over the street and into dangerous circumstances before the intervention of various other living objects leads to the red umbrella finding him; and their respective owners, a man and a woman meeting and forming a connection as well. This short is essentially a rip-off of “Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet” from Make Mine Music, but I don’t care because Blue Umbrella’s better -Blue Umbrella even over a shorter period of time, goes through more to reunite with his sweetheart. The animation is wonderful, being very realistic and lifelike but not too much so to convincingly look live-action. All the other umbrellas, and indeed many details of the scene, have muted colours, making the Blue and Red Umbrellas all the more vivid. The music is gorgeous, composed by Jon Brion and featuring Sarah Jaffe, and really gives the short a sweet atmosphere that stirs the senses. The sound editing contributes to this too, particularly that wonderful sound of raindrops hitting umbrellas. It’s also indicative of a great technical achievement by Pixar, and the photorealism would become a part of The Good Dinosaur. Before that disaster though, Blue Umbrella is a charming and atmospheric short to admire.

Next Week: Inside Out (2015)

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