Monsters University Review

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When I first heard that Pixar’s Monsters Inc. was slated to get a sequel, I was a little taken aback. Like Finding Nemo, which I’m more than a little incensed about, Monsters Inc. was the Pixar property that needed a sequel the least. While it’s true that the original was brilliantly written and was perhaps the benchmark of computer animation for it’s time, the story that it was trying to tell was emphatically over by the film’s end. With that in mind, I was expecting nothing more than a profoundly transparent milking of the nostalgia cash cow. It was a pleasant surprise, then, when I discovered that the Monsters University would not be a sequel, but a prequel. For me, a little hope had been restored, but it remained to be seen if Pixar could make that singular brand of Monsters lightning strike twice.

Monsters University, directed by Pixar veteran Dan Scanlon, takes place before the events of Monsters Inc. and focuses on the budding relationship between the over-ambitious Mike, intent on becoming the world’s greatest “scarer”, and Sully, possessed of great potential but coasts by on his family name. Direction is overall impressive and the team at Pixar is to be commended once again for making a visually beautiful film, as  their masterful CG shines. Stars like Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi reprise their previous roles and help to bring the Monsters universe to life.

The two things that have always impressed me with Monsters are the fully realized and rich world and the dynamic and fun characters. While both of these aspects return in Monsters University, the narrative seems to be much more character focused than it’s predecessor. In many ways, this is a positive development, and each film work well within the context of the other. Monsters University gives us a glimpse into the minds of the characters and lets the audience become invested in their fates, and Monsters Inc. gives the characters some vast, incredible challenges to overcome. The issue with Monsters University, however, stems perhaps from the fact that we know how its going to end.

Sure, we can make a reasonable assumption that the protagonists will win the day- as this is a film aimed at children. What I’m referring to though, is the fact that the audience knows that the overarching goals of the characters, to become “scarers” is based on a lie, and is not nearly as vital as the narrative would have you believe. It may be the case that this relatively small plot hole eliminates any of the stakes that may have been established, but that really depends upon the individual audience member’s investment in the Monsters universe as a whole.

The comedy mostly stems from a lot of the usual tropes of a college comedy being seen through the filter of the monster world. In that sense, I believe that it not only succeeds, but also understands and hits its target audience. See, Monsters Inc. was released in 2001, when I and many other now-college students were just kids. The release of Monsters University perfectly coincided with that film’s target audience’s maturation and assimilation into college life. Indeed, there’s a lot to relate to, and a lot that your average college kid could get out of it. Kids, likewise, will get a kick out of Mike and Sully’s antics, even if this is their first experience with the Monsters franchise.

All in all, there’s a lot of things that Monsters University does right, even if it lacks a little of the Earth-shattering originality of it’s predecessor. Many of its flaws (not that there are many to begin with) can be overlooked, thanks to the brilliantly conceptualized world and clever, dynamic characters. “Solid”, is perhaps the best word to describe the film, and deserves a recommendation at the end of the day.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

The Incredibles: Who Cares About John Galt?

Pixar, throughout the years, has produced more than its fair share of exceptional films. In my mind, one movie in particular rises above the others. The Incredibles, released in 2004, has everything I could want in an animated film, and indeed, in any film; action with a sense of something at stake, romance with consequences, and brilliantly written characters and a plot which invites the audience to experience something…incredible.

Moreover, the film possesses an intricate and engrossing commentary on the ethics and values associated with Objectivist philosophy, which may (or may not) have been evident to anyone familiar with the work of philosopher Ayn Rand.

Allow me to provide only the barest background into the admittedly labyrinthian intricacies of Objectivist thought. In its most basic form, Objectivism (as far as values and ethics are concerned) holds that there are three virtues which make it possible to honor the ultimate Objectivist value, that is to say, one’s life. These virtues are rationality, productiveness, and pride*. Rand believed that no man of integrity could live without these three virtues and hope to live his life to the utmost.

Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s magnum opus published in 1957, is also referenced through the film as it remains to this day the most complete and comprehensive guide to Objectivist thought. In it, Rand portrays a world in which society’s most productive members have been demonized and have therefore chosen to go into hiding in order to watch a civilization which champions mediocrity to crumble from the inside.

Now, in the case of The Incredibles, the superheroes have been forcibly driven into hiding and are no longer allowed to use their powers which once set them above their fellow man. From the beginning, Mr. Incredible is punished for using his intimate knowledge of his insurance firm’s inner workings to help people who are in need, because the though the company’s profits may suffer. He is discouraged from that “sacred” virtue, productiveness, in the name of the greater good (at least from the point of view of his tyrannical employer).

Likewise, when Mr. and Mrs. Incredible argue over whether their son, Dash, should be allowed to go out for sports, Mr. Incredible laments the fact that theirs is a world in which the mediocre are heroes while the strong are themselves oppressed. He goes on to say that only those who are truly exceptional should be celebrated and acknowledges the fact that Dash’s superpowers may give him an advantage, but argues that his son’s success should not be limited by the inability of others.

There are, however, natural exceptions which disqualify this film from being about Objectivism. One such exception is the fact that the protagonist, Mr. Incredible, believes that saving people should be done for its own sake, whereas Objectivist ethics would imply that he himself should be gaining something from that endeavor.

If you’ve never read one of Rand’s novels, I do recommend it. The Fountianhead or Anthem is a good place to start. But be warned, do not accept everything you read as fact, even when Rand may present it as such. And would you kindly remember one last thing for me? We all make choices, but in the end…our choices make us.

*Paraphrased from an essay by Rand entitled The Objectivist Ethics. (1961)

Brave Review

Brave, Pixar’s latest box office extravaganza, is masterfully animated and the voice acting is, as always, top notch, but I found that the film is safe and mediocre in the worst sense of those words. It takes no risks and oversteps no boundaries and is therefore imminently forgettable. In fact, movies not bad enough to verbally crucify and not good enough to canonize are generally difficult to review because I can’t bring myself to get worked up about them one way or the other. Basically what I’m saying is that Brave is an insignificant little crab scuttling unnoticed along the grey shores of indifference.

Like a great number of other people, I began watching Brave not knowing anything about the plot, and as the film progressed, began to wonder if I had sauntered into the wrong theater by mistake. I was prepared for an epic coming of age story set amid warring kingdoms in a romanticized depiction of the Scottish Highlands. What I got, however, was something entirely different. Indeed, the film was unique in that it simultaneously surprised a lot of people and surprised no one at all. Allow me to explain.

The characters are generally likeable and in the grand tradition of Pixar animation, often unbearably cute. In addition, many teenagers will find Merida’s, our protagonist,  relationship with her overbearing mother all too relatable which helps to add an element of humanity to the film. Billy Connolly, in addition, does an admirable job as the voice of King Fergus and infuses the film with a kind of vitality that it would have otherwise sorely lacked. Don’t get me wrong, all of the above areas are where the film really shined, but at the same time they were unsurprising simply because we as an audience expected all of those things from a studio as experienced as Pixar, especially after they showed us that they could deliver the goods in the form of a glittering gold nugget that we call Toy Story 3.

The aspect of the film that did surprise people was the plot, and I believe that it was fumbled enough to bring down an otherwise rich cast of characters and interesting locale. The trailer, much to its credit in fact, leaked little to no information about the plotline. As a result I was both pleased that the film threw me a curve ball and disappointed that the magical elements seemed clumsily handled and almost contrived.  What’s more, Pixar seems to be going a little overboard on the whole “storytelling without words” concept and relies heavily, especially in the second act, on visual gags. I believe the film would have benefited from a more complex interaction between Merida and her ‘altered’ mother than the grunts and roars that constitute a large portion of the dialogue. Also, an interesting commentary on the moral implications of the good of the self vs. the good of the community was ripe for the plucking had the writers cared to explore it beyond something akin to “it’s your duty, Merida!” I felt let down by the abrupt transition between the bitchy Queen to the nurturing and understanding Queen, especially since there was virtually no dialogue to show that a change in her thought process had taken place. But now I’m just critiquing minutia.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that Brave is a bad film. In fact, I think it’s a decent film which disappoints me because it could have been so much better. My hope is that Pixar will continue to live up to its reputation as the undisputed king of computer animation and will soon give us a film that will knock Toy Story 3 off of its gilded throne. At the end of the day, and indeed despite my overt cynicism at the beginning of this review, I suppose that one could argue that saying that Brave is mediocre is like saying that one of the diamonds in Pixar’s money pile is slightly less brilliant than all the others.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

FINAL THOUGHT: I’d like to comment briefly on how much I like the trailer for this film. The purpose of a trailer, after all, is to establish the tone of the film and perhaps introduce one or two of the more interesting characters instead of spoil the entire plot in less than two minutes. The Master and Man of Steel trailers are also fine examples of artfully executed hype generators.

FINAL THOUGHT 2: La Luna was brilliant!

FINAL FINAL REDUX: Who else is super fucking excited for Les Miserables in December?!