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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Monsters University

Here we are again with Fishing in the Discount Bin, where I watch a movie I own and blog about it because why not?  I'm a little distressed that we're not getting a Pixar movie this year, so it seems like a good opportunity to revisit their animated hit from last year, Monsters University.  This appears in my notes at November 16, 2013.

Monsters University Poster

As previously blogged, I am a Pixar junkie.  Love just about everything they do.  Emphasis on the "just about."  I'm starting to think that their stretch in the final half of the 00s -- that would be Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3 -- is going to go down in history as their prime.  It'll be analogous to Disney in the early 1990s, when their movies dominated the field of animation and they could do no wrong.  And then...they started to stumble.  We got the truly abysmal Cars 2, followed by the mixed and muddled Brave.  So, then, what can we expect from the latest in the Pixar cannon, Monsters University

Another thing that distressed me about Pixar lately is how they've begun turning everything into franchises.  Everything seems to be getting a sequel now, and I wasn't too sure that Monsters, Inc. was the one universe I wanted to see more of.  So, I guess I was in luck.  We didn't get a Monsters, Inc sequel, we got a Monsters, Inc prequel!  This goes back in time to see how our heroes of Mike and Sully first met and became friends in college.  I will admit, when I went into the theatre back during the summer, my expectations were pretty low.  Franchising + run of mediocre films = just more of the same. 

But, as is the Pixar way, the story wound up taking a few unexpected twists. 

Quick recap, for those unfamiliar with the Pixar Monsters universe.  Monsters live in a parallel universe.  Their primary form of energy is the screams of humans.  So elite monsters come into the human world through magic doors, take the form of monsters in the closet and under the bed and such, and frighten children. 

And the film opens with a field trip to a power plant, where the children, including our hero, Mike Waszowski, are enamored with the scarers...those brave monsters who venture into the human world.  When Mike accidentally accompanies a scarer into the human world, and sees a scarer in action, he decides then and there that he's going to be a scarer when he grows up.  One flashy opening credit sequence later, and Mike is off to college...he's gotten into the Ivy League Monsters University, and their prestigious scare program. 

Early on in his scholastic career, Mike crosses paths with James P. Sullivan.  Sully is a legacy...his father was an acclaimed scarer, and it looks like Sully is going to be coasting through on his good looks, charm, natural talent, and family name.  So, of course, a rivalry instantly develops between Mike and Sully.  And the stakes are pretty high right away.  If you fail the first semester's final exam,  you'll flunk out of the scare program.  When the final exam does roll around, do they put their differences aside, work together, and pass?

Nope.  Because they can't stop fighting they get graded by the dean herself.  Sully learns that natural talent and a family name aren't enough, and he flunks out.  Mike is told that, despite all his book smarts, he's just not scary, and he flunks out.  Needless to say, the rivalry deepens.

But, there is a loophole.  The college's Scare Games are coming up, a competition between fraternities and sororities to determine the best scarers on campus.  Mike joins the frat Oozma Kappa (OK) and makes a wager with the Dean:  if OK wins the Scare Games, they get back into the scare program.  When he hears about this opportunity, Sully joins OK, too.  And the Games begin!

At the start, it's not so good for our heroes, as the rivalry between Sully and Mike occasionally threatens to sabotage the team.  But they eventually learn that they will have to put their differences aside and work together if they're to pull this off.  So they start working together.  And the Mike/Sully friendship begins to form.  So they work together, win the Games, and get back into the program, right? 

No!  Another twist.  It turns out Sully rigged the final competition so they would win.  And this is where Mike has to start learning some cold, hard truths.  Despite all his hard work and studying, nothing changes the fact that he's a big green beach ball.  He's just not a scary monster.  Refusing to accept this, Mike breaks into the door lab to use a door to get into the human world, and prove once and for all to everyone that  he's a scary monster. 

And...he can't do it.  The door deposits him into a summer camp full of little girls, and despite applying all his knowledge, Mike just can't get the little girls to scream.  The most he can illicit are giggles and curious stares.  And his world is crushed.

And THIS is what makes the movie good for me.  THIS is some of that old Pixar charm...the dealing with some grown-up and adult themes in their films.  It's often been written that not every little boy who dreams of being an astronaut becomes one when he grows up.  This film perfectly captures that heartbreaking moment in a person's life when you realize that, despite all your hard work and effort, that one dream will just always be out of your grasp.  And in this silly little prequel, Pixar captures that moment perfectly. 

Sully ventures into the human world to save Mike, where Mike confesses the realization he just made about himself.  Sully then reveals his own fears and insecurities about how he's letting his family's legacy down.  But now, trapped in the human world, they have to work together to get back home.  And it's here that they discover they're an unstoppable team. 

For some reason, watching this, I couldn't help but think of Django Unchained.  Tarantino explained its long and protracted ending stemmed from a desire to do something different.  And it just felt like padding.  Monsters University also has a somewhat long and protracted ending stemming from a desire to be different, but it doesn't feel like padding.  It keeps doing interesting things.  The characters keep evolving and doing stuff. 

After Cars 2 and Brave, Monsters University felt like a step back in the right direction.  Maybe it's because these characters resonated with me more than I thought, maybe Pixar's exulted Brain Trust had a little more to do with this than their last two films.  But it was better than I thought.

A lot of effort went into this film, and it shows.  It's not back up to those late 00s standards yet, but it truly feels like a step in the right direction. 

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