**/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras A
screenplay by Daniel Gerson & Robert L. Baird, Dan Scanlon
directed by Dan Scanlon
by Bill Chambers On a school trip to Monsters, Incorporated, young cyclops Mike Wazowski, the kind of pipsqueak who gets saddled with the teacher when his classmates choose partners, sneaks onto the scaring platform and follows an octopus-like creature through one of the closet-door terminals. Rather than reprimand him, the monster tells Mike he might have what it takes to become a scarer and gives him his cap, Mean Joe Green-style. That hat bears the logo of the Scarer's alma mater, Monsters University (better than Fear Tech!); an undergrad is born.
The deceptively simple Monsters, Inc. is my favourite of the golden-age Pixar titles. Released when Gulf War II was ramping up, it's an allegory for the fat cats who run Big Oil and the need for alternative fuels that are safer to harvest, with heroes Mike and Sulley, the furry brawn to Mike's brains, discovering that children's screams--extracted with terror and used to power Monstropolis--aren't nearly as potent as their laughter. Monsters, Inc. is also a lovely, Chaplinesque fable about the bond between gruff, career-focused Sulley and an absolutely-unafraid toddler stowaway from the human world he nicknames Boo. The astonishing closing shot turns the Monster's first line of offense--the word "boo"--into a question, filled with yearning and tenderness, as Sulley asks after his proxy daughter. You can have your Up prologue and your Toy Story 3 incinerator climax: this is the moment from the Pixar canon that leaves me most verklempt.
It would be a challenge to follow these characters into the next chapter of a story now filled with hope, which isn't necessarily conducive to drama, but Pixar's risen to the occasion before, chiefly with the sprawling Toy Story saga. Unfortunately, maybe with all the personnel changes and defecting to live-action that's been going on, Pixar of late seems to be all about coasting, and the studio--who once, for crying out loud, gambled triumphantly on a movie about a rat running a Parisian restaurant that climaxed with a food critic weepily flashing back to his bucolic childhood--settled for prequelizing Monsters, Inc. instead. The irony being, of course, that prequels are inconsequential by definition--regressive, too, Monsters University more than most: the characters are back to collecting screams again in a franchise depressingly off the wagon.
So Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) majors in Scaring at Monsters University, but he's a nerd taking a course that favours jocks like James "Sulley" Sullivan (John Goodman), a legacy who's content to skate by on his surname and a leonine ferociousness he can turn on and off at will. Though mostly in Mike's head, their rivalry reaches critical mass during midterms, and Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren)--a ringer, apropos of nothing, for the purple dragon from Shrek--kicks them out of the scaring program. Their only hope of getting back in is to emerge victorious in the campus Scare Games, the rules of which require them to be in a fraternity. With Sulley freshly-bounced from Roar Omega Roar, the two ostracized frenemies are left with no choice but to pledge dweeby Oozma Kappa, the Tri-Lambs to RΩR's Alpha Betas.
Critics were struck by the parallels between the plotlines of Monsters University and the concurrent The Internship, but it's not at all surprising that the current predominance of '80s nostalgia and nerd culture would spur a gold rush towards the promised land of Revenge of the Nerds. Yet these movies, as well as an abortive attempt to remake the film itself with Adam Brody a few years back, prove that Revenge of the Nerds was lightning in a bottle, well-structured but perhaps irreducible to formula. Revenge of the Nerds endures because it's witty, sexy, and morally ambiguous. Safe to say that Monsters University is not at least two of these things, and while Pixar built an empire on their knack for infusing kiddie concepts--like toys coming to life and having adventures, or a house being hoisted into the sky by balloons--with crossover appeal, the opposite holds true as well: In tackling the adult-skewing campus-comedy genre, they've never looked more childishly square. Indeed, nods to archetypes like the crusty old dean and a rather toothless parody of the Greek system notwithstanding, the movie's G-rated vision of the college experience looks an awful lot like Disney's favourite canvas of mock maturity, high school, with Roar Omega Roar represented by coveted letterman sweaters and the Oozma Kappas suffering a Carrie humiliation when they show up to a party under the misguided assumption that they've joined the ranks of the cool kids.
The callbacks--or are they call-forwards?--to Monsters, Inc. range from lame (Steve Buscemi returns as the chameleonic Randall, whose metamorphosis from nice guy to rogue is instantaneous and not the least bit gratifying) to peculiar (what's the Yeti doing at Monsters, Inc.?), and it's worth mentioning that there are no major female characters other than Hardscrabble, since it suggests that Pixar's Brave was more sop than sea change and reflects a denial of certain realities, like coeducation and the intricacies thereof. Similarly, the movie's message feels like a step backwards post-Brave: Mike comes to see the fallacy of defying his biologically-predetermined, socially-prescribed destiny. (Distilled: those who can't do, teach.) With so much children's entertainment cultivating a sense of entitlement in the young, I'm all for the reality check, but Pixar has done enough variations on this "if everyone's special, no one's special" theme by now that Monsters University is at best hackneyed; at worst, it begins to take on the dimensions of a company manifesto. Odder is the picture's ultimate ambivalence towards the value of an education, as Mike and Sulley quit school--that is, they accept their mutual expulsion--and go to work in the mailroom of Monsters, Inc., which obviously led to the same opportunities that a university degree would have. To say that this coda and that sentimental passing-of-the-baton opening send mixed signals would be an understatement.
Monsters University is nothing so unforgivable as a Cars movie, but, with its juvenile orientation, uninspired gags, and disappointing lack of pathos, it's a close cousin to A Bug's Life, and certain to be just as forgotten. If I'm less forgiving of Monsters University, it's because it's sure to drag Monsters, Inc.'s respectability down with it, and because a late-film heart-to-heart between Sulley and Mike, who've taken refuge in a moonlit clearing after finding themselves fugitives at a summer camp for human children, is so poignant as to cruelly tease a better movie--even a better-looking movie, lit as it is like a Flemish painting. What monsters.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The 2-D image on the Monsters University Blu-ray is a notch above Pixar's already-impressive status quo. Fine detail is especially crisp and colour reproduction is superior. Dynamic range is incredible (no real issues with blown-out whites this time around), as is the lucidity of shadow detail. There's an impressive depth to the 1.78:1, 1080p transfer, too, that makes 3-D sound extravagant. Meanwhile, the attendant 7.1 Dolby TrueHD audio is warm and percussive; Monsters, Inc. sound designer Gary Rydstrom sat this one out but the mix honours the original's funhouse quality, though dialogue acoustics could be a little more persuasive. Lots of sidewall imaging is accomplished with breathtaking transparency; although I do wonder what 7.1 would add to rollicking scenes like the Toxicity Challenge, as with the 2-D viewing experience, I didn't feel short-changed by my player's 5.1 downmix in the slightest.
Another track houses a feature-length commentary with director/co-writer Dan Scanlon, producer Kori Rae, and story supervisor Kelsey Mann. Scanlon's hobbyhorse is the movie's lighting, very purposefully designed as it was to narrate the drama on a subconscious level--it's really the topical alpha and omega for Scanlon, who monopolizes the conversation. We learn that Cars screenwriter Dan Fogelman...sorry, I stopped listening after "Cars screenwriter." Something about Mike's parents. We also learn that "entertainment" was often sacrificed for "story," God forbid a movie about monsters going to college be entertaining.
Joining Monsters University on the "Feature" platter is the Pixar short that played in front of it during its theatrical run, Saschka Unseld's The Blue Umbrella (7 mins., HD). A departure for Pixar in that it's a full-fledged attempt at photorealism (human faces are studiously avoided), it looks, not unappealingly, like an Instagram version of Blade Runner, but the subject matter is par for the Pixar course: a blue umbrella in a sea of black umbrellas is separated from a red umbrella while flirting with her, and the sentient streets conspire to reunite them. If the anthropomorphizations are pure treacle, as animation it's in a class by itself. Call it a draw: **/****. Hi-Def previews for Frozen, The Jungle Book Blu-ray, and Planes cue up on startup of this first disc.
Extras on the "Bonus" BD break down thusly:
"Campus Life" (15 mins., HD)
A day of working on Monsters University begins with 11-year-old director Dan Scanlon taking the streetcar, subway, and bus to work at Pixar. He arrives early to enjoy the calm before the storm. The DVD producers hit various departments--"Anim, edit, crew meeting, some scratch, layout"--and arm them with cameras of their own. It's a nice, fly-on-the-wall glimpse into the jobs of unsung heroes (one guy's assignment is to make Sulley's hair react to an exploding door) that introduced phrases like "loop group" into my lexicon. Eventually the piece fast-forwards itself, saving us the trouble.
"Story School" (9 mins., HD)
"You can never go over the basics too much," says 10-year-old director Scanlon. Hear, hear. But Monsters University is hardly the ideal platform for championing Pixar's renowned methods of story development, unless the original script was a total fiasco. Entirely possible: We learn that Sulley wanted to be a dentist in an early draft.
"Scare Games" (5 mins., HD)
"Pixar takes its fun very seriously," says Pixar's Nicole Grindle--and yes, the famed party atmosphere is starting to look a little fascist. Anyway, they held actual Scare Games in the Pixar building, pitting the departments against each other in a two-month competition.
"Monthropology" (6 mins., HD) discusses the Herculean task of populating the frame with monsters of various shapes, sizes, and colours. The production made simple-faced base monsters from which they would create whole species consisting of fifty characters.
"Welcome to Monsters University" (6 mins., HD)
9-year-old director Dan Scanlon hosts and begins by informing us that MU was established in 1313. Since Pixar employees are by and large art-school grads, the college clichés were not their personal experience, so they toured numerous campuses on a research-gathering mission the same way they would if the movie took place in the wild. The featurette highlights subtle motifs woven into the aesthetics of Monsters University.
"Music Appreciation" (7 mins., HD)
It's the second recording session with composer Randy Newman, who calls the orchestra itself an "instrument." Randy is "a pencil-and-paper guy," says music supervisor Tom McDougall, getting in a none-too-veiled dig at the Hans Zimmer school of engineering-as-scoring.
"Scare Tactics" (5 mins., HD)
A veritable glossary of the jargon animators invented to convey indescribable monster gestures, like "splines" and "squetch."
"Color and Light" (5 mins., HD) highlights those gorgeous "exploratory illustrations" that look like crude oil paintings from a children's book but are actually created with a tablet. They're used as rough lighting/colour references for the DP (here Jean-Claude Kalache, who throws in his two cents), hence their sparse detail.
"Paths to Pixar: MU Edition" (8 mins., HD)
A lot of relating to Mike here, as Pixar employees who started out in one field explain how they came to work at the studio. Art Director Dice Tsutsumi, for instance, wanted nothing more than to be a baseball player. Kori Rae--who looks like she could be in the WNBA, definitely--wanted to play professional basketball. Storyboard artist John Nevarez reveals that he was a math major whose teacher was none other than Jaime Escalante, subject of the movie Stand and Deliver!
"Furry Monsters: A Technical Retrospective" (5 mins., HD)
People who worked on Sulley circa Monsters, Inc., like Steve May and Christine Waggoner, talk about the pioneering simulation software that enabled CGI for the first time to approximate the physics of hair. They recall the "shot from Hell" that led to the invention of the "Inertia Field Generator," which acted against those same physics to make Sulley's fur less enslaved to the impact of his movements. Great, geeky stuff. These tools live on in the grass in Cars and in characters like Dug from Up.
Thumbnail animatics comprise the 22-minute, four-scene "Deleted Scenes" section, which begins with an intro from 8-year-old director Scanlon, who admits how painful it is for him to revisit these cutting-room crumbs. In addition, Scanlon individually introduces each elision to sum up the reason or reasons for its removal, saying for instance that a scene of Mike and Sulley in middle-school together was jettisoned once the filmmakers realized they could either do Monsters Elementary or Monsters University but not both. (Me, I think I'd rather see Monsters Elementary.) With the blessing of Monsters, Inc. writer-director Pete Docter, they decided not to take a throwaway line from Sulley in the first film--"You've been jealous of me since the fourth grade"--literally.
Speaking of table scraps, "Monsters Mash Up" (4 mins., HD) is a pointless goofing-off montage featuring Sulley, Mike, and the other Oozma Kappas. The character animation is fully-rendered but the static backgrounds are just that. The section marked "Set Flythroughs" (HD) offers 1-2-minute VR tours of the MU campus, its Scare School, its fraternity row, and the Oozma Kappa house. An art gallery divided into "Characters," "Color Keys," "Development Art," "Environments," and "Graphics" rounds out the supplementary material along with a batch of five HD trailers for Monsters University. This Collector's Edition includes DVD and Digital copies of the film; Blu-ray 3D version sold separately.
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.