Review: Monsters University 3D

postermuWhen I think of Pixar, I think of some of the finest storytelling to ever grace a movie screen.  I think of the studio not as an animation studio, but as a movie studio that happens to practice animation.  The distinction for me is that the focus is more about the writing first, and as it turns out, these fantastic yarns are best illustrated by the abundant talents of the finest visual artists in the field wielding the best of the best of the best technology.

Pixar has always pushed the envelope in one way or another.  They have always dared to captivate adult audiences as well as children, arguably sometimes favoring the former.  They have pushed the boundaries of how much story a film can contain, how many subplots can be shuffled in between, and how fleshed out and human a character can be, even winning you over by the end after being so unlikeable.

The films of Pixar carry with them a high level of expectations to even the most aloof moviegoer and even ardent fans such as myself are quick to criticize when we feel that threshold has not been met.  Even with such a fearless, focused and dedicated staff of artists an element can sometimes go missing.  Cars 2 was a tremendous experiment in pushing the genre, making it more “spy movie” than “kids movie”, but it did not reach it’s potential to capture the many different settings in a way that would bring as much intrigue to the look of the film as there was in it’s plot.  Brave was the studio’s first foray into folklore, a decidedly more predictable and therefore less interesting form of storytelling without making some key break-throughs and turning points near the end of the script.  Wall-e For all of it’s visual glory and attempt at heart could not really seduce an audience into empathy and really just became an unintentional environmental tale.

If these films had more heart and dimension in their characters, more exciting and daring turns and more ambiance they would easily be among my favorites.  Monsters University is one that has the complete package.  It’s fun, it’s exciting, and while it’s stars already had one hit Pixar film, Monsters University stands alone as a great feature.

The movie is about Mike and Sully’s college days, before they became friends.  First off, I want to address how perfectly college life was depicted while remaining kid friendly.  You won’t see John Belushi chugging a bottle of Jack, but the parties and the cliques, the classroom lectures… well, it’s fun when you don’t have to do it.  The campus is amazing and the rendering really shows off some terrific lighting effects, giving it a very romantic visual appeal.  Don’t think it’s just about frat houses and old buildings, though.  Monsters University is an adventure that takes you to the unexpected.  Dean Hardscrabble is appropriately terrifying, and– true to Pixar tradition– defies the standard good guy bad guy dichotomy, appealing to the notion that however distasteful a character is, there is always potential to go the other way (and vice versa), just like real life people (go figure).

The heart of the story is Mike.  As a wide eyed kid on a field trip, he becomes enamored with the idea of becoming a scarer and devotes his life to that end, working exceptionally hard and finally enrolling in the school of scaring at MU.  Here is where Mike meets all kinds of challenges due to his disadvantage of not being Scary.  At one point he tells Sully he’s worked harder than anyone to get there to which Sully replies “That’s because you don’t belong here.”  Sully, a natural Beast, rides on his fathers name and fails to learn anything.  Of course these two have to work together and when they do, it’s tremendous.  Aside from that the supporting cast of characters are some of the finest and most enjoyable to watch.

Lots of hard work and long computer hours were put into the creation of this monster of a movie, think about all the fur and textures and the massive number of on screen characters at one time.  Think about the hues in the sky and the streetlights, the reflections and the shadows, all working together to create the perfect mood for each scene.  Monsters University didn’t make me cry, but it has it’s touching moments. It is unique, original, entertaining, provocative, cutting edge, state of the art… In short:  It’s a Pixar film.

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2012’s Biggest Let Downs

The 2013 Academy Awards was fun and there was much to celebrate. But 2012 also delivered some great disappointments that should have been mega hits. All of these movies were disappointing, but some had farther to fall. I’ll start with the least disappointing:

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Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Why it should have been great:

The floodgates have opened and comics are taking form on the big screen in exciting ways that were never before possible.  They have gained enormous traction in mainstream appeal and reboots have become commonplace enough that a new take on a familiar favorite can be seen just a few years after the last one.  No comic book franchise needed a fresh vision quite as badly as the underwhelming Ghost Rider.  The sequel, Spirit of Vengeance was Sony’s chance to get it right, especially after they fought so hard to retain the rights to the property.

What went wrong:

The script was rushed to meet Sony’s deadline and the movie didn’t have much going on beneath the special effects.  The lack of inspiration and daring lead to a run of the mill, action flick with a dull climax and a hokey twist of redemption for the tragic hero.

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Total Recall

Why it should have been Great:

Two 80’s classics from the mind of cult sci-fi mastermind Philip K. Dick appeared to have converged when the Schwartzenegger vehicle Total Recall was given a 21st century face lift with a  Blade Runner inspired set design.

What went wrong:

Everything.  The movie was not only flat, but the echos of the vibrant pulse of the 80’s original still spikes over the bland re-creation of every plot point.  Without at least an interesting new twist at the end, there is literally no reason to watch it.

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The Raven

Why it should have been great:

John Cusack stars as Edgar Allan Poe in a Sherlock Holmes style thriller based on Poe’s numerous tales.  Seriously, what part of that sentence doesn’t sound awesome?

What went wrong:

Edgar Allan Poe is a literary giant.  Screenwriter Hannah Shakespeare, despite her name, is not.  Though the visuals were pretty on target the story consisted of finding clues and arriving too late and finding clues… after a while it feels like a loop and it fails to contribute to or adequately explore Poe’s works, so the promising allure of the premise rises again nevermore.

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Prometheus

Why it should have been great:

Alien Prequel.

What went wrong:

Connecting the film to the highly successful franchise and bringing back the director that started it all gave false hope to many who wanted to see a compelling sci-fi horror film; and instead delivered an elaborately designed, but ill-plotted, quasi-philosophical, highly questionable storyline.  It pretends to explore the chasm between faith and science without taking a leap for true discovery, or at least making a convincing argument for either.

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The Dark Knight Rises

Why it should have been great:

The Dark Knight was a phenomenal achievement on top of the already acclaimed Batman Begins, which turned the genre on its head and delivered the Batman fans had been craving.  Audiences demanded a reprise and ceaselessly speculated about the next installment before Nolan even agreed to do another.  So the bar was set pretty high and the anticipation was palpable.

What went wrong:

Since I won’t review a film I haven’t seen in its entirety, this is my one chance to explain why I hate TDKR so much and forever hold my peace.  For starters, the decision to turn the series into a trilogy was near-sighted, and selfish.  I hate that TDKR is referred to as the final chapter of the Dark Knight trilogy, because that implies that the three films have more connective tissue than they do.  TDKR is not a natural conclusion to Batman Begins and there was no need for such an abrupt ending to the series.  I realize that there is a Ra’s Al Ghul connection and the Scarecrow even makes his third appearance, but these elements were contrived to bookend a series that artificially truncates the Dark Knight’s story. The forced conclusion effectively makes future installments by other directors extremely difficult and all but eliminates the possibility of continuing Batman films in the same vein.  It’s also worth noting that M.Night Shyamalan already did what Nolan gets so much credit for when he made Unbreakable, which was in essense the first installment of a trilogy that never happened, because it was too problematic.

The story chosen, taking Gotham under siege and revolting against its wealthy class (Occupy Gotham), lacks the layers and depth that the first two films had and simply piles scene upon scene, tenuously linking these separate characters and ideas together when they could have all been better used under different circumstances.  Rather than reinforce the story by reiterating a solid theme, Nolan pulls from three separate storylines in the Batman universe and files them down in order to force pieces together that don’t belong. The scenes were shallow and lacked the showmanship of the previous films that made it possible; serving as little more than bullet points to an over-reaching plot.  If they dropped the Dent angle and the Bane escape in the beginning, and hit Wayne harder when he was in his prime, not pissing away his inheritance in solitude.  They could have had a solid opening.  I would have liked to see an intro that finds Batman at war with the police possibly discovering “Robin” to be a worthy adversary/potiential apprentice.

Also, if they weren’t going to have Batman for most of the movie, they should have introduced Azrael, his temporary replacement, rather than setting up a Robin. I love Robin and JGL, but why use screen time setting something up when you are concluding your “trilogy”.  When Batman is in the movie, the action is a joke.  I think history will tell that people would rather forget about this film. It basically spits on the success of the franchise and gives its audience the finger. Bottom line is, if Nolan didn’t want to do the movie, he should have left it alone and let someone else take a crack at it.  Still, I had seen enough warning signs to diminish my expectations, so it wasn’t my biggest let down of the year.

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Brave

Why it should have been great:

It’s Pixar, first of all, and it was in development for a really long time.  It was going to be the first folk/fairy tale by the studio, effectively trading places with Walt Disney Animation Studios which made the much more Pixar sounding Wreck-it Ralph.  When it was titled The Bear and the Bow, the early artwork was gorgeous and the original story description read like and Mulan meets The Little Mermaid.

What went wrong:

They changed writers and dropped the title in an attempt to make the Bear element a surprise.  The quality of the animation slipped by Pixar standards, apparently putting everyone on staff on “hair duty” and letting everything else slide.”  The story was slow, way too simple for its running time and it did little to distinguish itself from the previous Disney disappointment Brother Bear.