Tuesday, November 5, 2013

FI: Monsters University

Monsters University
US, 2013
Directed and co-written (with Robert L. Baird and Daniel Gerson) by Dan Scanlon

The thing that so often separates Pixar's animated films from those of their competitors is their ability to craft engaging stories that are exciting and funny, but also have a solid, emotional heart. In the original Monsters, Inc., that heart largely comes through the relationship between our main monsters Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) and the little girl they dub Boo (Mary Gibbs). But Monsters University is a prequel, which means it jettisons all of these existing relationships and asks us to follow a character arc that doesn't move the characters we love forward, instead leaving them more or less where we first met them. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; prequels can work well, regardless of any George Lucas–related evidence. The biggest problem with Monsters University isn't that it shows us how Mike and Sulley met and became friends. The problem is that it melds that story to the extremely familiar tropes of college frat comedies. Given the originality and delight of Monsters Inc., this can only feel like a step back.

The Monsters world is, of course, powered by the screams of young children, and to be a "Scarer" who goes into the human world to collect these screams is a prestigious job. After a childhood encounter sets young Mike on this path, he enters Monsters University with the goal of overcoming his innate non-scariness through dedication and study. This puts him at odds with the naturally scary Sulley, who comes from a line of famous Scarers and expects everything to be handed to him. After an altercation leads to their expulsion from the scare program by the intimidating, insect-like Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), Mike and Sulley are forced to team up with the "loser" frat Oozma Kappa to win their places back through the Scare Games. Their crew of misfits—played by, among others, Charlie Day, Joel Murray, and Dave Foley—seem no match for the rich cool kids led by Nathan Fillion's Johnny Worthington III and Steve Buscemi's returning Randall, unless they learn to work together and... well, you know where we're headed.

In purely visual terms, the film excels. We see a lot of new monster designs, all of whom are interesting and gorgeously animated (perhaps none more so than Day's hairy, flexible Art). The campus is well-rendered in Ivy League architecture and autumnal splendor. Even the challenges in the Scare Games are interesting, clever, and well-handled. It's just not enough to get past the basic problem of the setting's over-familiarity. Even with the curveballs the script throws our way, even with the burgeoning core of friendship and teamwork that we know Mike and Sulley will (eventually) turn into a successful partnership, we've seen this story before. What's worse, while it's fun to see these characters' origin stories, I'm not sure that anything here really contextualizes or deepens the characters we see in Monsters, Inc in any appreciable way. And, worst of all, nothing ever approaches the level of Boo in terms of providing much-needed emotional notes to the film. No matter how funny or diverting Monsters University may be—and it very much is both, at times—very little of it stays with you once the film is over. After the adorable, enduring charm of its predecessor, that's quite a shame indeed.

No comments:

Post a Comment