Thursday, September 5, 2013

Thoughts on "Monsters University"

I didn't see Monsters University while it was in the cinemas, making it the second Pixar movie in a row that I've missed (after last year's Brave). But I finally got around to it on a plane trip a few days ago (ermahgerd i was on a plane), and was suitably impressed.

Of course, I have a soft spot for Pixar movies, but no wonder — their script writing has been solid for as long as I can remember... and of course, their visuals have always been artful as well as cutting-edge. (Maybe Cars 2 was crap? I've never seen it; I think it was a direct-to-DVD release.)

Still frame from Monsters University.

In any case, the movie was a lot of fun. Here are a few things I was thinking immediately after seeing it.

Prequels are a tricky business, of course. Stray too far from the feel of the original and you risk annoying the audience. Try too hard to connect all the characters' backstories, and even if you avoid retconning anything to death, there's a good chance you'll cheapen the character development of the original. (A non-prequel example would be 2007's Spiderman 3, wherein the protagonist's uncle was actually killed by a different person to who we'd been told for the preceding two movies, thus completely robbing the emotional potency of the previous films.)

Monsters University is, by and large, a prequel done correctly. It shares the same zany world and delightful character design as the original, but shies away from pulling in every single member of the original cast. (There are cameos here and there, but nothing that requires suspension of disbelief.) Most importantly, none of the references to the original — save, perhaps, the ominous framing of Mike's roommate's introduction — were prerequisites for understanding what was going on.

The stories of Inc. and University complement each other without relying upon one another for context. Impressively, it seems like you could watch the two in either order and not lose too much enjoyment.

(Which, hey, is better than one can say for the Star Wars new trilogy...)

It's hard to tell what the movie's target demographic was: on the one hand, the story and worldbuilding was definitely pitched at people who’ve been through the uni experience; the language of exams and Greeks and droll instructors would be inscrutable to an under-12 audience. Yet Monsters University also has its fair share of bright and colourful slapstick for the little ones — the scene with the slug-monster running to class comes to mind, as do many other little visual gags playing off the various monsters' appearances.

...that said, I guess older viewers can enjoy slapstick, too. Disregard me!

I want to note that I was slightly sad that none of the protagonists were female (as if compensating for Brave), but, hey, if the story called for a frat house, that’s already a half dozen character slots taken, and there's only so much screen time to go around... But considering all the fantastical elements of the world Pixar created here, it wouldn't have been that much of a stretch to have Greek houses that don't just come in frater and soror.

The couple getting engaged at the end was a really sweet touch. It's nice to see love between not-traditionally-attractive characters played straight, not for laughs. Real people do romance, too!

Also I know we were meant to feel sorry for the new stepson but it was just far too adorable to feel bad about.

Mike’s climatic scare: brilliant. In many respects it was a hilarious deconstruction of horror movie tropes. Heartwarming. The book-smarts win that the whole movie had been setting us up for.

On a vague cinematographical note, it’s interesting that we never see adult human faces on screen... until they're scared and screaming. It's a clever artistic decision; while they're torch-waving silhouettes they evoke a classic fear of the unknown; once that's symbolically broken there's a palpable sense of relief at how unintimidating they actually are.

Holy shit, that was Helen Mirren!? Niiiiiiice.

In many respects this was one of the more adult Pixar movies, and not just because of the setting. Much like The Incredibles, another darkly jaded film, viewing Monsters University through the lens of real-world experiences with rat races and broken idealism brings out themes that might otherwise escape a less jaded viewer.

Anyway: great movie; would recommend! It's good to see that Disney-Pixar has the capability to revisit its fictional universes without turning them into cash cow franchises, and hopefully

this will continue well into the future oh for fuck's sake

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