Monday, June 24, 2013

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY Best Graded On A Pass/Fail Scale

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (directed by Dan Scanlon, 2013)

Of all the movies for "Monsters University" to ape, who know among the most blatant would be a Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson comedy released two weeks ago?

Not to say the comparisons to their movie "The Internship" approach a "Deep Impact"/"Armageddon" level. But lets break it down. Slobs vs. snobs conceit? Check. Movie-length competition determining the characters' fate? Check. Antagonistic supervisor secretly rooting for the heroes? Check. Two teammates bucking a system that casts them aside? Major check.

My point isn't that Pixar consciously ripped from the same well as the latest Frat Pack smarm-fest. And I'm certainly not suggesting this movie (which is actually quite charming) holds equal artistic value to Vaughn and Wilson begging you to like them. Instead I'm making the point so factual, you can etch it in granite, tattoo it over your heart: Pixar at its peak represents the best mass entertainment of the day. Their's is a self-imposed standard almost impossible to vault.

Watching "Up" or "WALL-E" or "Ratatouille" for the first time was to be absorbed in the moment. I wasn't aware of the movies' ancestors. They were movies that arrived fully-formed, risen from their own mist. As the closing credits rolled, they carried the thrilling weight of movies I couldn't bear to never see again.

Such a standard is impossible, unfair even, to expect every time. And now here we are at "Monsters University," an entry in Pixar's third franchise. Lets not get too cynical - this is an utterly pleasant movie, witty and confident, colorful and entertaining. I just felt like I had seen this before. I sat there disappointingly aware of the cloth from which this movie was cut.

If Pixar's best movies represented a bold leap forward, "Monsters University" is an agreeable circle around the block. This is family entertainment as babysitting. A reasonable alternative to sweating outside in the heat. 

There. The unpleasantness is out of the way, and now instead of talking about what the movie isn't, we can talk about what it is. As a prequel to 2001's "Monsters Inc.," maybe it isn't entirely necessary. But you know what, we also live in a world with a prequel to the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" remake, so lets just deal with it. We meet Mike (Billy Crystal, thankfully not doing anachronistic jokes about old people trying to text) on his first day at Monsters University, dreaming of one day becoming a "scarer" at the factory from the first movie. Despite an ingrained knowledge of every scare textbook there is, he's still a silly looking green eyeball. 

Enter Sully (John Goodman), who comes from a long family line of scarers, but lacks the discipline to learn the basics. With these inadequacies threatening to get them kicked out of the scaring program, their only chance is to band together and win the Scaring Games, an epic competition designed to impress the Crotchety Old Dean  (a mainstay of any campus comedy). 

Peak Pixar felt like adult movies posing in family entertainment clothing, but this is a children's movie through and through. The colors are bright and inviting. The jokes are pitched with a fast and zany effort. While the usual bones are thrown to parents to make them laugh, too, they often hit with a pleasant, surprising force (witness one monster shrieking, "I can't go back to jail!" when security catches them breaking into a building). When the emotional payoff arrives, it does so without the usual heft that accompanies Pixar if only because the stakes feel lower. 

Family animation is by and large predictable. The trick is to temporarily fool you into thinking it isn't, and "Monsters University" isn't quite up to the task. Still, just because we can see Point C coming 'round the bend from Point B doesn't mean we can't appreciate the effort it takes to get there. Sure, the stakes feel low. But the movie deserves credit for dodging its easier message of, "You can be anything you set your mind to" for a more complicated, "Accept that you might not have what it takes," all delivered in a commendably understated manner.

Kids aren't clobbered over the head with the moral. Instead "Monsters University" comes off with an agreeable lack of self-congratulation. It knows what it wants to say, and it trusts its audience enough to absorb it through osmosis. Some movies confuse "dark" with "edgy," and "Monsters University" opts for a path that feels almost courageous today: pure, unfiltered decency.

Losing the Best Animated Feature Oscar to "Shrek" (a movie that spawned its own more embarrassing franchise), the original "Monsters Inc" doesn't get the credit it deserves. Its premise gave Pixar animators full freedom to push their imaginations and, from there, technical abilities (remember what a wow-factor something as simple as Sully's fur had back then?). More importantly, it arrived after Pixar produced only two original features and a sequel. It set them on the path of creative discovery that led to further classics.

This new one won't stand as a shining beacon leading the way. But it doesn't tarnish its own history either. If other Pixar works earned hallowed spots in my DVD collection, this one earns the right as pleasant background noise on inevitable Disney Channel airings. 

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