Sunday, 11 August 2013

Monsters University – plus The Blue Umbrella

The main qualm I heard about Monsters University, the newest of the Pixar follow-ups, was that without being pinned down by the cuteness of a human little girl, it would lose its emotional centre and relatability. But honestly, I don’t quite see how one relates to Boo and if Pixar can make its audience identify with cars, rats and insects, it can certainly do the same with monsters, who after all were the audience’s focal point in the original with Boo arguably one of the studio’s most alien characters in many ways.

The film is Pixar’s first prequel, and and the one with the longest gap since its original at 12 years. As with the purportedly terrible potential Toy Story 3 about Buzz’s being recalled to his Taiwanese factory, originally the Monsters Inc. sequel was to have been taken out of Pixar’s hands, until the famous Steve Jobs-Michael Eisner row over whether Toy Story 2 counted as a contracted feature film or not blew over and everyone accepted that the people to make Pixar sequels were, well, Pixar.

Before the feature came, of course, one of Pixar’s shorts, a rather mawkish story about a world of anthropomorphic faces on inanimate objects (pareidolia is always popular on the Internet, too) observing and finally helping out in the love story between two umbrellas – and of course their shadowy owners. Rather like the envelope short that accompanied Cars 2, while as a narrative and a concept it was rather lacking – the kind of sweet but ineffectual idea Pixar seems to churn out – as a technical experiment it was very interesting. With a focus on replicating shallow depth-of-field effects, surfaces affected by rainwater and distant skies in dim twilight, it managed an absolutely astounding level of realism…but sadly enough the effort felt almost wasted to me, for I knew that most wouldn’t even notice the incredible feat and that the very same film could pretty much be made in live action with a bit of CG to edit the faces in the objects and the little cartoon eyes and mouths of the umbrellas.

The main event was everything a Pixar film ought to be – big-hearted, carefully paced but with a slow final act tying up the loose ends, beautiful to look at while stylised in a tasteful way, and at times bittersweet. Sure, the concept kinda contradicts how Mike says things that suggest he’s known Sulley since they were small kids, but for the sake of a good, solid story that’s worthwhile.

And a good, solid story we get – Mike, inspired by an eventful school trip, is very excited by the prospect of becoming a Scarer. So he goes to Monsters University, meeting brash, overconfident Sulley there – who is riding on his family name and falling back in his natural talents. Of course, hard work begins to match natural ability and the two develop a rivalry – but one that gets them into deep trouble with the fearsome Dean Hardscrabble and eventually leads to them having to team up with a hopeless fraternity in order to prove themselves capable scarers. But Mike is no scary monster – only a master strategist.

There are some very interesting decisions here. Sulley, so much the centre of the second film’s narrative, is presented as so unlikeable that it takes a lot for him to be redeemed – which the writers manage to pull off, but a little late for my tastes. It’s good that dishonesty is shown as being very severely punished, and taking an absurd risk even more so, but I had some issues with that oh-so-American idea that hard workers can enter a company in a very lowly position and rapidly rise up to become its stars – though arguably there’s an element of that in the career of newest Pixar director Dan Scanlon, who has been with Pixar over a decade after storyboard work for the likes of The Little Mermaid II. I also felt like there were notable omissions – what do Sulley’s highly-respected parents think all through the second half of the film? While the fraternity are used to being teased, was there really only that much fall-out when they were mocked on a very large scale?

Once again, the cast here may seem unlikely but provide fantastic spark and are clearly having a lot of fun – though I’m quite amazed they got Steve Buscemi in for about eight lines. Then again, him and Billy Crystal don’t exactly seem overworked just now. Helen Mirren also does what she does best and steals the show over and over, though nothing can quite match up to the return of Roz. New characters don’t come over as quite so instantly memorable as the original’s ensemble, but do the job.

It’s a companion piece to a better film, let’s be clear on that. But it is still very much worth the price of admission. 

And on a side-note, an even better explanation as to why kids not being toxic is set up in the original film was proffered to me: to stop the likes of Randall setting up mass plants to torture kids and harvest their screams. Now that’s a chilling thought. 


  1. I wasn't sure I wanted to see Monsters U at first, since the original trailer made it look kind of silly and I was a bit mad we got second films for Cars and Monsters Inc. but not the sequel I really wanted, The Incredibles. But I decided to see it after all when I heard good things about, and like you, I thought it was quite good ;)

    As you said, a lot of great moments that were suspenseful, bittersweet, funny, clever, and all those Pixar qualities we love. The only couple of issues I had was that I felt they dragged out the part in the human world a tad too long and I would have rather they used that time to show more of how Mike and Sulley eventually moved up in Monsters Inc. instead of a bunch of still pictures in the end credits. I also would have liked to see more punishment for Roar Omega Roar - that cruel prank they pulled on Oozma Kappa went too far (and you're right that such a large scale mocking surprisingly did little to change their standing in the school).

    Before I even saw the movie I read a blog post about it, and the author brought up an interesting point that this is one of the few Disney and similar kids films that seems to offer a different message. In most of these films, the message is that if you do right and work hard, you'll eventually succeed in your dreams. But in Monsters U, that didn't happen - after all that work, Mike didn't succeed in his dream of becoming a scarer. But still, the message was that it was okay. As he said in the end "I'm okay with being okay." Even if he wasn't able to succeed, he found something else, and that's a pretty good lesson in my opinion =)

  2. Well, I don't know - he became the best there is at what he ended up just wasn't the thing he had dreamed of doing.