Saturday, November 9, 2013

Regrading "Monsters University"

Monsters University was perhaps a film that didn't really need to be made, or even thought up… But you could say the same about the Toy Story sequels. We often look at sequels or prequels as unnecessary, especially to things that aren't broke, Pixar's films being prime examples. Far too often, sequels only exist to cash in on the success of the original and thus don't function as good companion pieces to the originals.

There are some fine exceptions. Pixar happened to make two, Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3

It's also worth noting that both were films that they pretty much had to make. The former was commissioned as a direct-to-video production by the higher ups at Disney, during their DTV sequel binge. It ran into the wall, and John Lasseter and crew had to literally retool it in less than year as it went from video-only release to big budget theatrical production. It's a miracle that Toy Story 2 turned out to be as good as it was, even under such circumstances.

Toy Story 3 on the other hand started life as blackmail, Disney was going to make it along with a Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo sequel, and afterwards, sequels to other Pixar's films without Pixar's involvement. Pixar and Disney were close to splitting in 2004, Pixar was definitely planning to break away from the Mouse House given how the power really had gone to then-CEO Michael Eisner's head. The Circle 7 fiasco it was, but luckily Eisner resigned in late 2005 and Bob Iger took the reigns. Knowing how badly Eisner had messed up the company, he sought to get Pixar back and he did. With the studio under Disney, Toy Story 3 was redone and Pixar made the Toy Story 3 that they wanted to make. (Yes, Pixar had ideas for a third Toy Story as far back as 2002.)

But why did Pixar resume production on a third Toy Story after the acquisition took place? They had to…

Toy Story 3 and two more sequels - Monsters, Inc. 2 where Sulley and Mike get lost in the human world looking for Boo, and a Finding Nemo 2 - were far along by 2005. Scripts were prepared and copyrighted, now Pixar had to overwrite all three. This explains the sequel trio of Toy Story 3, Monsters University and Finding Dory. These films had to be made, no matter what… Plus, with such a huge empire owning Pixar, nudging did happen. Andrew Stanton himself even said this when interviewed about Finding Dory.

As for that other sequel? Disney cattle-prodded Pixar into making that one, obviously. $5 billion worth of merchandise sales speaks volumes…

A Monsters, Inc. follow-up could've gone many ways… Many, many ways. Pixar could've possibly blemished the original and its perfect ending by continuing Mike and Sulley's adventures. They also could've taken a very risky path and introduced a whole new cast for the sequel that was set in a different part of the monster world (this would've been great, if you ask me) with a story that had nothing to do with Mike and Sulley. Then there's the prequel route…

You could say it was a pretty safe bet, considering that it gave them a reason to bring Mike and Sulley back to the big screen. One upside was that they weren't going to taint that ending, the downside is that we know the outcome and we know several things. One fine example being the belief that humans are toxic is false… We'll get there!

Monsters University goes for a classic story that is simple and can easily resonate. We love Mike and Sulley in the first film, so a story of how they met makes perfect sense. We know they'll become the best of friends… But how? Why were Mike and Sulley at odd ends with each other in the past?

Mike is ambitious, Mike is a dreamer, Mike is dedicated. When he was a child on a field trip to Monsters, Inc., he followed a scarer into a kid's bedroom and watched him do his work - his fearlessness and desire to be a scarer is all laid out in the first five minutes. He wants to be a master scarer, but he's simply not scary. By contrast, Sulley comes from a long line of scarers and is scary much like his ancestry, terrifying even. He makes others around him jump, from Waternoose in the first film to the students on the first day of class. Unlike Mike, Sulley has no ambition and prefers to coast, thinking that his natural scariness will do everything. Because of this, Sulley is something of a jerk and is incredibly cocky. It's a good dynamic they build up, and it's never handled badly. The emotions and beats are all there from the minute they first meet up until the final seconds. Sulley also wants to get into the Roar Omega Roar fraternity, all the rich, respected and frightening monsters who are also jock-like. Problem is, his grades are shoddy and they don't let those kinds of students in - scary or not.

However, Monsters University's first act (roughly the first half hour) is a bit sloppy in its execution. Sure we meet the leads again, but the film didn't really give us enough time to sink into the college setting. It goes by very quick, much like the majority of Brave. Reportedly, there *was* a director change but very early on in development, Dan Scanlon apparently replaced Doug Sweetland. (Which could explain his departure from the studio in 2010, when Scanlon was announced as director.) Maybe Sweetland had a longer first act in his version that really explored Monsters University itself and even injected more college elements into the script.

I'm not saying the first act is weak, it just feels like it goes by a little too fast. I didn't quite get all of the college atmosphere, we zip through multiple things from orientation to a brief scene showing the rivalry between the titular university and rival Fear Tech. How about more scenes of Mike and Sulley on campus? Once class begins, we get very little between the first day and the exam. It's true that a good story is lean, and it cuts all of the superfluous stuff… But I think this portion of Monsters University is perhaps a little too lean. Not that it greatly derails it the film, more content just would've added to it and made for an excellent, near-perfect film. I think a longer running time would've been fine, it does inch past the 100-minute mark. Perhaps it should have been somewhere closer to two hours long.

What works in our first act? The characters all get proper introductions, especially Dean Hardscrabble. At least in rushed form, Pixar's crew can still develop characters and bring them into the picture suitably. Mike's dream and his rivalry with Sulley is also very well set up, especially during the thankfully quiet first act's capper where the two inadvertently get themselves shut out of the scare program.

Monsters University begins to click once the second act slowly rolls in, slowly being the key word. The film now takes its time a bit, and it brings out the Oozma Kappa fraternity. This rather ho-hum bunch of non-frightening scarers is socially unsafe to be a part of, but the members are welcoming and mean well. Their disadvantages and how they are perceived do launch the film into Revenge of the Nerds territory, as many have criticized the film for being that film and Animal House rather than a fresh new take on those stories. I felt that they took on the tried-and-true quiet well, much like how they did the story that was told over and over before Cars, or A Bug's Life's new spin on The Magnificent Seven.

Anyways, the Oozma Kappa members are all very likable and brimming with personality. Art would have to be one of my favorites, being the most enigmatic ("I can't go back to jail!") and certainly the weirdest of the bunch. The animators have loads of fun with this character because of what he can do, one of my favorite bits being when he makes himself into a fuzzy purple ring to avoid the fierce and monstrous librarian. Terri and Terry make for a fun two-headed monster with different personalities, Scott "Squishy" Squibbles is fun too - his method of scaring caught me by surprise. (Just staring? You got to admit, that's cool!) Don Carlton boasts a mishmash design (plump body, tentacles and bat beard) but a cool mature student demeanor - of course you have to a student his age in this story! Another fun gag is the fact that Squibbles lives with his mother, who is constantly embarrassing him - she makes for some very funny jokes.

For me, the best new characters would have to be them and Dean Hardscrabble. I love how she's intimidating without actually raising her voice or trying to frighten someone, particularly in the sequence where Mike and Sulley destroy her souvenir of a once-in-a-lifetime record-breaking scare. ("You're taking this remarkably well…") She could snap, but she doesn't. She's authoritative in a quiet but effective way, and she cuts you to the quick. When she tells Mike that he's simply not scary, it's quite a punch in the gut. She's stoic, but not without a personality. Other new additions such as Professor Knight and the two Greek council members are also fun and add to the atmosphere.

The Scare Games sequences make up for it if you ask me. They are inventive, fun and thrilling. The game concerning a roughly 50-foot gargantuan librarian makes for an incredibly fun sequence, the toxicity challenge also brings out the laughs and crazy distortions of the characters' designs. A visit to Monsters, Inc. itself is also a nice, slow and uplifting moment where we see Mike and Sulley starting to bond - then they begin to prepare themselves for the last couple of challenges, despite the odds. (i.e. the ROR members humiliating them and the other OK members by pulling a Carrie-esque plan on them.) The writers do a fine job with developing the Oozma Kappa characters and having their abilities under Mike's stewardship surprise everyone around them and us. Who would've thought they were good and impressed Dean Hardscrabble during the finale of the Scare Games? Meanwhile, the unfortunate reality still looms… Mike is not scary.

It's this reality that strengthens everything around what's going on, as we have a feeling that Mike will get the rug pulled out from under him in a very upsetting way. Since it is a prequel, we do know that he's not going to be a scarer, but it's done well because the emotional punch is expectedly strong. This is all thanks to great build-up, Mike's spirits are raised very high. The other Oozmas doing pretty well in the games also adds to it greatly; a lot is riding on Mike for his scare… And then we find out that Sulley rigged the scare simulator for Mike's turn. Mike is hit with a double-whammy of disappointment; finding out that he's not fearsome and that his friend did not really believe in him. Ouch…

This sets up a brilliant third act, which really rockets the film into high gear. Though no one would be afraid of Mike, the cyclops is fearless. He breaks into the door lab and attempts to scare an actual human child, only to realize that he has failed once again and he's now stuck in a cabin in a camp full of kids. The Dean, of course, won't reactivate the door until the CDA shows up. (Nice to see them return for a brief sequence! Plus, a nice Roz cameo!)

Sulley then goes after his friend that he let down, and the two have a brief, quiet and heartwarming conversation. Here, the master scarer reveals how frightened he is deep down inside and how he has a lot to live up to being a Sullivan. But then they find themselves on the run once again…

In fact, this entire third act could've been something of a disaster because we all know that human beings aren't toxic to these monsters, which would greatly lower the stakes. If it was Mike versus one child, then it would be a major letdown because we know he isn't in grave danger, nor is the monster world as a whole. Having him get into a camp full of kids who don't find him to be frightening at all makes things more interesting, plus adults aren't supposed to know of the monsters or the monster world. Add the police getting involved, Pixar successfully raised the stakes. Big time.

Not only are Mike and Sulley in jeopardy, but the monster world could be as well. Pixar pulls a Toy Story on us, having Mike and Sulley work together to scare the adults so that they could power the door themselves - again, all Mike's brilliant idea - and literally get out of the mess. Consequently, they scarred a bunch of human world police officers for life… But they could've made off like Sid, because Toy Story 3 shows that he's apparently A-OK as a garbageman, who seemingly isn't freaking about toys coming to life or telling people about what he experienced without getting the stamp of insanity thrown at him.

Mike's scheme does the impossible (and no, not saving him and Sulley), it impresses the Dean. Unfortunately, Mike and Sulley are expelled because they broke the rules. The seemingly cold Dean bids them a friendly goodbye and wishes them the best of luck; Mike and Sulley restart their adult life in Monsters, Inc.'s mailing room and… Well… You know the rest.

Monsters University's ultimate message was the subject of praise, one of the elements that a lot of its more critical observers had approved of. Like Disney Animation's Wreck-It Ralph before it, it slams the door on the "you can do it if you dream it" mentality that is applied to family films and kids-only films. (Planes and Turbo being good, recent examples.) Mike is repeatedly told that he can't be what he wants to be, regardless of his sheer dedication… And guess what? He doesn't become a scarer!

But what makes Monsters University's ending even better than it is is that Mike ended up succeeding elsewhere, greatly. Mike finds a forte in making children laugh at the end of Monsters, Inc., because laugh is much more powerful than scream - thus effectively ending a crisis and finding out something along with his good friend that no one else in the monster world from elites to scarers did not even know or had the guts to find out about. Monsters University's ending completes Monsters, Inc.

I will say it again… Monsters University's ending completes Monsters, Inc., a film that was already complete… And it does it with a bang, with a strong message to boot that's never hammered onto the audience.

That being said, it's not a high work of excellence like Pixar's best, and that's not a bad thing. Like I've stressed millions of times over, Pixar can't just make masterpiece after masterpiece.

Like I said earlier, Monsters University's first act is too quick and thus it doesn't really immerse one into the college setting. Much more could've been done with the campus itself since it's so massive and sprawling; the first film really set up the factory and the monster world as a whole and didn't rush. This one rushes a bit, and you can't rush art as a fictional chess player-turned-toy cleaner once said fourteen years ago. In fact, the Blu-ray contains a tour of the university… Some of the buildings I didn't even really see or notice in the film!

Since the first act doesn't really give us the full MU experience, the film feels a bit safe. There's nothing wrong with Pixar going for something conventional or a little safe once in a blue moon (not everything has to be some extravaganza), but I think they could've gone a little more "all out" with the college setting and the monster world in general, but what they do here is alright. More college-related shenanigans would've brought some PG humor to the table too. Not saying that the film needs PG or adult-level humor to be good or mature, it's just that given this film's college setting, it would've been nice to see some of that on display.

Early versions of the film had Mike meeting Sulley briefly in the fourth grade (expanding on that line from the original, before Scanlon essentially said that Mike was exaggerating) before moving, which would've been interesting as well, but that kind of slowed the beginning down a bit. There was also an interesting deleted scene showing flying insect-like monsters going into rooms and getting information on the children that the monsters scare (i.e. what they fear), which explained a few things in the first film and this film as well. Why did they cut that scene? They should've kept it! I'm sure there are other scenes like that where you saw more of the campus and MU's campus life.

Other than the first act, Monsters University has everything else down pat. It may not have all of the inventiveness or cohesiveness of the original, but it's a very worthy follow-up. Its heart is there, it's just not as potent as the other Pixar films. It's a more quiet, subdued emotional badge than anything, one that doesn't make for too many misty-eyed moments, but it does draw reaction from time to time. There's no center like Boo, but the film isn't weak without something like that. Monsters, Inc. was mostly about Sullivan to begin with, this is about Mike and his story arc is the glue that holds most of this together.

The new faces are welcome, too. All of them are fun, funny and well-developed over the course of the second act. Many found fault with the way they handled Randall, but I personally felt that he was handled well enough. Randall was nothing more than a bitter rival at the beginning of Monsters, Inc. before he became diabolical, so simply having him start off as Wazoswki's friend then shedding his geeky sheen in order to be in the "in" crowd to being an actual jerk to getting a deserved comeuppance from Sulley was all good to me. Again, if the first act had been longer, Randall could've gotten more screen time and a little more development. Even though Sulley was the one who ruined his big scare, he was a jerk to Mike… Hence why he is bitter towards both in Monsters, Inc. I was okay with how they used Randall in this film.

Monsters University succeeds on a technical level, being the first Pixar film done using the Global Illumination lighting system. This, to me, took computer animation to a new height. I'm often skeptical of photo-realism in computer animation, as I think that having a film look too real defeats of the purpose of telling a story in the animation medium. Gore Verbinski's Rango was also hyper-realistic, but yet you still knew you were watching an animated film and it didn't feel like it was shot with real cameras; initially some shots threw me off - I was thinking, "Okay… That's a little too realistic!"

Pixar once faced that problem over a decade ago when starting work on Finding Nemo, their initial water renderings were way too realistic and that it had to be toned down to where it felt real but you knew it was a work of art you were looking at. It's why I'm not fond of things like performance capture being used for everything in certain animated films (The Polar Express or other Zemeckis mo-cap films) or animation that tries to be realistic. Might as well make a painting that's essentially a painted photograph. Walt Disney found the right blend of realism and naturalism in his films, of course when we watch something like Bambi or Lady and the Tramp, we know it's an animated movie, but… We feel and connect with those drawings and paintings. In computer animated films, we feel for what is essentially something created on a machine. The power of animation at its finest!

Monsters University is very real-looking, but it never feels like a live action film or something that's actually happening on a set; it's not supposed to of course… But the realism is staggering, jaw-dropping even. This was also pushed in the accompanying short film, The Blue Umbrella, a masterwork of visual artistry that only suffers from having a simplistic storyline. That film has shots that look a little too real. But there are some standout shots in Monsters University, Mike and Sulley at the campsite lake is one, some of the full shots of the university are also amazing. Again, I don't feel like I'm looking at a photograph when I pause it.

Fortunately, this system's look isn't trying to make something look as if it were actual. It's just a leap for computer animation in general, it hits the right spot between photorealism and naturalism. You could say Pixar found what Walt had found back in the 1940s and 1950s with his films. Visually, Monsters University is like their Lady and the Tramp. Now it makes me even more excited for their future films… Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur and Finding Dory in particular are going to look stunning in many new ways that Pixar has not stunned before.

Meanwhile, Walt Disney Animation Studios is taking computer animation in a different direction. They seek to continue improving the painterly look that was first introduced in Bolt and is currently being used in their computer animated films, and though it has recently been said that Paperman's tech is not quite ready to carry a feature-length film (Moana will be an extension of the painterly CGI that Disney uses), it will be one day and we'll see where Disney brings CGI. Both studios are differentiating their films in the visual department, and from the competition as well. That's good…

As long as Pixar doesn't make what is essentially an animated live action film, I'll be fine. Monsters University isn't anything of the sort, The Blue Umbrella almost is. Other than the realistic coating, Monsters University is pure eye candy like every other Pixar film: Clever architecture, monster world variations of real world things, the character design, Dice Tsutsumi's extraordinary color work… Peerless. Randy Newman's score? It's typical Newman at times, but at other times its appropriately bombastic and energetic. A very good score with hummable parts, that's for sure. The cast also gives it their all, typical for Pixar films. They find the right people, and that talent immerses themselves into the story.

Monsters University doesn't quite sit on the top peak that the best Pixar films occupy, but it's on one that's just a few feet lower. Storytelling and character development win the day here, as Pixar proves, story is king. I know some would rather prefer experimentation and just going for quirkiness, feeling that story restrains too much... But experimenting only gets you so far. Monsters University is not bland, but it isn't anything new since we're revisiting a world that we once had the opportunity to take a trip to. This isn't WALL-E or Up, and it does not have to be. It wasn't trying to be weird or different or unexpected to begin with, so why knock it for not "scaling the heights" of the other Pixar films? A Bug's Life is no WALL-E, and I still think it's an excellent film.

The new saw amongst some is now that story is overrated and whatnot, meanwhile they go praise something like The Croods while knocking this film. The Croods might've been all-out wacky and at times weird, but where was the story? Where was the core? All I saw was a bland tale with bland stereotype characters taking a backseat to constant sight gags and noise, thus I found it forgettable. Story is king, methinks. Many filmmakers would tell you so, story and characters… I think Monsters University nails it in those departments.

It's great to see the new generation at Pixar finally going through with a film they can call their own, though it does have the first generation's stamp. While John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton and all of them certainly aren't Nine "Old Men", they are passing the baton to younger Pixarians who are hungry for challenges and ambition. A more simple tale like this was the perfect place for them to start, as it seems like Pixar is now comfortable with letting new people take shots at directing films. Hopefully the recent director change (Bob Peterson with The Good Dinosaur) is the last one for a long while…

For me, Monsters University was more than a fun little companion piece to Monsters, Inc. It's a well-made and strong effort, with a fine mix of Pixar's brand of heart, humor and thrills. It adds to the monster world quite a bit and it does expand on our characters in a great way...


  1. If your plsns to be an animated film writer/directer do not work out you would be a great critic.

  2. Good article. But why hate on Eisner so much? Saying he 'messed up the company so bad'. Yes he did mess some stuff up creatively but purely as a business man, he did wonders for the company. He re-established Disney as a power house in the entertainment industry. You've probably seen it but try watching 'Waking Sleeping Beauty', the documentary about the 80's animation at Disney. Super good and gives a nice perspective on Eisner.

  3. I don't deny that Eisner relaunched Disney as a company in the mid 1980s to early 1990s and he did some great things, but I feel he did all the good stuff in the first half of his tenure; I was merely commenting on how he screwed up in the later years, and how it affected the company and their relationship with Pixar. No hate here.

  4. I agree with Matthew, you would be awesome as a movie critic, I can probably see you as the next Roger Ebert.

  5. I agree, the first half does feel rushed, but you know, a lot of other recent animated movies suffers from that problem, as well, like The Croods, and Planes. Maybe it's time we cross the 2-hour border, and make longer animated films...

  6. Interesting how you talk people bashing this movie, when it got far better reviews than brave and dreamwork's the croods. I thought Croods had a core (like that bit near the end with Nick cage's character) and it had a perfectly sweet story....when it had one in the 2nd half that is.