In perhaps a revelation more dramatic than anything in the film itself, WORLD WAR Z has triggered a shockingly wide spectrum of reactions from us here on the Spotlight. Is the Brad Pitt-starring zombie thriller a top-notch popcorn movie with well-staged action, gripping suspense, and an amazing global scope? Is it an unfortunate misfire, with good ambitions and notable high-points, undone by a tortured production history? Is it an unqualified flop, simplistic to the point of silliness in its scripting, and inept in its attempt to portray a zombie apocalypse on a worldwide scale? Come join our special guest, beabetterbooktalker.com‘s Andrea Lipinski, as she weighs in on this surprisingly controversial entry in the 2013 summer sweepstakes, with Spotlight regulars Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons.
Then, Andrea, Steve, and Larry give their opinions of the latest Pixar film, MONSTERS UNIVERSITY. Plus: What’s coming to theaters next week.
Mike and Sully are back, but they are not friends till the end – well, at least not until the third act. It’s as if Pixar Animation Studios took a look at MONSTERS INC. and said, “The Mike-Sully relationship is just as good as Buzz and Woody, but it’s as if we skipped straight to TOY STORY 2, without ever getting to see them meet and become pals, so let’s go back and do that.” That’s right: MONSTERS UNIVERSITY takes the well-worn prequel path of leading up to what we already know, instead of showing us something new – or at least that’s how it seems initially. In fact, the new film is very much the Mike Wazowski story: it’s about the little guy who dreams big; who works harder than everyone else because, frankly, he doesn’t have the natural skills; and who must, ultimately, find a different path to success from the one he anticipated, because he’s never going to be the heavyweight champion he imagined. It’s a great message for children and a poignant reminder for adults: everyone has something to offer; the “cool” kids aren’t always cool; and sometimes the underdog has his day – though perhaps not quite in the manner he expected.
PLOT SUMMARY (MINOR SPOILERS)
After a school field trip to Monsters, Inc., the one-eyed Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) decides he wants to be a scarer when he grows up. To that end, he studies and earns admission to Monsters University, where he meets the over-confidant James Sullivan (John Goodman). “Sully,” as he is known to his friends, is a legacy student, coasting on his father’s reputation and his own natural abilities, which he does not bother to hone.Mike, meanwhile, works diligently, but an accident in class gets both of them kicked out of the university’s scare program.
Mike and Sully’s only chance to get back in is by winning the “Scare Games,” but to qualify, they have to join a fraternity, and the only one with vacancies is made up of losers, known as Oozma Kappa. Fortunately, Mike’s know-how and Sully’s skills propel the group to success as a team, but the final game requires each individual monster to prove his scare-skills, and Sully (well aware of Mike’s deficiency) rigs the results, which gets both of them expelled.
Determined to prove himself, Mike goes through a scare-door but finds himself trapped in a sleep-away camp filled with children who are not afraid of him. Sully goes through the door to aid his friend, but he lacks the confidence to be truly scary in a real-world situation. However, working together, they literally blow the door off the place….
COMMENTS (END SPOILERS)
I was never a huge fan of MONSTERS, INC. Though entertaining, it is not rich enough to stand up to multiple viewings as well as other Pixar classics; its main strength lies in the Mike-Sully relationship. Transplanting that element to an earlier time and a different setting engenders some new comic possibilities but not enough to sustain the follow-up as more than a mildly amusing time-waster that follows the typical prequel “surprise” strategy: Mike and Sully don’t like each other initially; the first film’s villain, Randall (Steve Buscemi), seems like a nice guy at first; and so on.
Fortunately, when the story moves beyond playing with our expectations about the familiar characters, the message about teamwork and learning to use one’s own personal resources enlivens MONSTERS UNIVERSITY; the well-executed third especially justifies the film’s existence as something more than a way to cash in on a successful predecessor.
Long before they realize it themselves, the audience sees that Mike and Sully are complimentary talents – the brains and the brawn, if you will . Mike is the self-made man, pulling himself up through determination. Sully is unformed raw material, impulsive, expecting success to come easy but afraid of failing to meet expectations implanted by his famous name. The benefits of collaboration are foreshadowed when their combined, if not premeditated, efforts capture a rival university’s mascot. From there, it may be predictable that they will succeed only when they become a team, but the result is no less satisfying.
The message extends beyond them. Midway through, when the Oozma Kappa (that reads “OK” in abbreviated form, get it?) are dispirited about their chances of winning, there is a brilliant sequence in which Mike sneaks them into Monsters, Inc. and shows them a scare-floor full of workers – none of whom have anything obvious in common. The point: you can’t tell who’s the best just by looks; each scarer uses his or her own personal skills; what seems like weaknesses may be hidden strengths; and everyone needs to develop what he or she can do best, rather than striving to conform an established norm. Sure, it’s basically REVENGE OF THE NERDS redone as a CG Muppet movie, but it works.
VISUALS AND 3D
The screenplay may be a mixed bag, but the visual execution is state-of-the-art, without being ostentatious. The backgrounds and the characters are so detailed that they seem almost palpable; we may be reaching the point where the champions of stop-motion effects can no longer point to the tactile textures of miniature models as a point of superiority over computer-generated animation. Mike and Sully are rendered even better than before, and there are some nifty new characters, too, including Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), an insectoid monster with demonic wings, who cleverly skirts the edge of the light while addressing students, seldom emerging fully from the shadows.
These qualities are magnified by some of the most beautiful 3D visual ever captured on screen. Unlike too many post-production conversions today (including MONSTERS, INC.), we are not seeing a simple separation of foreground and background elements. The characters and the props have depth. There is a curvature to Sully’s bulk that makes him appear almost real on screen. A nighttime seen beside a lake illuminated by a full moon extends from the edges of the movie screen and into the distance like a landscape viewed through a window.
The expressive capabilities of the animation are also amazing. The one-eyed Mike, in particular, has an amazing range, and it’s not the CGI equivalent of scenery chewing, either: a blink, a downcast look – these are the simple building blocks the animators use to show the mix of determination and self-doubt that make the little green guy come alive.
And the filmmakers know when to use all these elements in the service of a great set-piece. The games provide ample opportunities for visual fun (including a massive librarian-octopus who seems to have crept out of a Lovecraft story), but director Dan Scanlon is clever enough to modulate the mayhem, turning the volume up to 9 but saving the 10 for the end, which offers an unexpected highlight: a scene that takes familiar horror tropes suitable to a FRIDAY THE 13TH knockoff (dark cabin in the woods, rustling shadows, and scratching claws – all building up to the final reveal of the monster) and uses them as deftly as any live action movie. Especially impressive: for once, we in the audience are on the side of the monsters, but that does not diminish the sinister tension of the scene. This is MONSTER UNIVERSITY’s true “money scene,” the one that makes you realize you just got everything you paid for when you purchased your ticket.
Needless to say, MONSTERS UNIVERSITY is very funny. A bit less expected: in the counter-programming sweepstakes with WORLD WAR Z (which opened the same weekend), Pixar’s G-rated film boasts an animated scare sequence that rivals Brad Pitt’s live-action trek through a zombie-infested corridor. More successfully than the PG-13 rival, MONSTER UNIVERSITY’s horror-movie-style climax completes character arcs that tease out previously unseen nuances in the familiar characters, bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion while setting up the events that will follow. The script even avoids the obvious, easy resolution, offering Mike and Sully a less expected route that will lead to MONSTERS, INC.
The virtues of MONSTERS UNIVERSITY are not enough to raise the film to the level of Pixar’s best work: TOY STORY 2, THE INCREDIBLES, CARS. Although it is fun to see Mike and Sully back in action, I’m not sure the sequel is even as good as its predecessor. Nevertheless, after the double disappointment of CAR 2 and BRAVE, this is a small step back in the right direction.
On the CFQ Review Scale of zero to five stars, a moderate recommendation.
Note: MONSTERS UNIVERSITY is preceded by THE BLUE UMBRELLA, a cute Pixar short subject, in which common street objects (drain pipes, mail boxes) are given subtly anthropomorphized expressions. The simple story follows the titular umbrella (which looks like the real thing, but with animated features) meeting a pink (presumably female) counterpart. Their owners separate, but a gust of wind brings them back together. It’s vaguely similar to last year’s Oscar-winning short subject, PAPERMAN; though not quite as satisfying artistically, THE BLUE UMBRELLA features very impressive computer graphics to bring its street scene to life.
MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (Walt Disney Pictures & Pixar Animation Studios: June 21, 2013). Rated G. Running time: 110 minutes. Directed by Dan Scanlon. Writers: Robert L Baird, Daniel Gerson, Dan Scanlon. Voices: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, Peter Sohn, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Charlie Day, Alfred Molina, Tyler Labine, Nathan Fillon, Aubrey Plaza, Bobby Moynihan, Noah Johnston, Julia Sweeney, Bonnie Hunt, John Krasinski, John Ratzenberger.
Walt Disney Pictures releases the latest computer-animated fantasy from Pixar Animation Stuidios – a prequel to the popular MONSTERS, INC. This time, we get to see Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) back in their college days, when they were studying – and competing – to beomc the scariest monsters. Steve Buscemi, Jennifer Tilly, Frank Oz, and John Ratzenberger also reprise their roles; Kelsey Grammer replaces the late James Coburn. Dan Scanlon directed.
U.S. Theatrical Release: June 21
Fifth trailer from Walt Disney’s 3-D re-release of Pixar Animation’s CGI fantasy-comedy. The 3-D version hits screens on September 14.
Walt Disney Pictures re-releases Pixar’s amusing underwater opus, this time in 3-D. Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich directed the computer-animated film, from a screenplay by Stanton, Bob Peterson & David Reynolds. Voices: Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Alexander Gould, Willem Dafoe, Brad Garrett, Allison Janney, Austin Pendleton, Stephen Root, Vicki Lewis.
Release Date: September 14, 2012.
BRAVE, from Disney-Pixar, opens Friday, June 21. Check out this featurette for interviews with the cast and crew, including John Lasseter, Colin Ferguson, Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, etc. Julie Walters, John Lasseter, Brenda Chapman, Mark Andrews.
The official Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots movie is still in the planning stages, but until then, we have REAL STEEL, the Disney/DreamWorks family-friendly take on a world in which the squared circle has been commandeered by mechanical pugilists while the humans stay safely in their seats. Wrapped in the redemptive tale of an absentee father (Hugh Jackman) bonding with his son (Dakota Goyo) in order to rescue a hang-dog sparring robot from the junkyard and turn it into a populist sensation in the ring, the film features director Shawn Levy’s assured way with top-level special effects, not the least being Jackman’s formidable physique. Join Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons as they discuss whether the project goes the distance, or should just retire and open up a night club in Florida (strained boxing analogy ahoy!).
Also: The gang offers an appreciation of Steve Jobs and discusses the recent spate of announced projects taking on the Frankenstein legend; and Dan gets all sloppy over the deliciously bizarre J-Horror film, THE SYLVIAN EXPERIMENTS. Plus: what’s coming in theatrical and home video releases.
Think of it as one spiritual brother reaching out to another over the span of almost an entire century: Bill Plympton — the innovative animator known for his edgy surrealism and distinctive, hand-drawn style — has decided to rejuvenate the work of one of animation’s first fathers, Winsor McCay, the man who painstakingly and single-handedly created such elegant, landmark films as GERTIE THE DINOSAUR and LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND. Plympton has reached into McCay’s catalogue to pull out THE FLYING HOUSE — an UP-like adventure in which a married couple take wing in their homestead — and with the help of a small corps of volunteers, is busy cleaning up the footage, adding a soundtrack voiced by Patricia Clarkson and Matthew Modine, and, in a move that’s controversial only until you see how pretty it looks, added a delicate color palette to the original black and white footage.
Plympton and I talk about the McCay project, as well his work on the new Weird Al video, TMZ, and his new book, the comprehensive survey, Independently Animated: Bill Plympton: The Life and Art of the King of Indie Animation (which you can purchase here, if you’re of a mind). Click on the player to hear the show.
THE FLYING HOUSE
Kickstarter Pitch Video
In 1999, Warner’s released THE IRON GIANT. Well… released may not be the best term. Slipped into theaters under the cover of night so that anyone who might be remotely interested couldn’t possibly know of its existence… yeah, that’s the term. Despite the stealth marketing, director Brad Bird’s animated tale of a young boy who lives in red-scare, 1950’s America and manages to bond with a giant, gentle, metal-eating robot managed to catch a few discerning eyes (mine included), and has since been championed as a tremendously entertaining animation classic. As for Bird, well, the guys at Pixar took note, too, and Brad wound up helming a couple of minor trifles you might have heard of: THE INCREDIBLES and RATATOUILLE.
The staff over at New York’s Film Forum clearly know a good thing when they see it, and this year, they decided to treat their audience to a limited run of THE IRON GIANT as a holiday treat. It’s running from December 22nd through the 28th, and to commemorate the event, I got an opportunity to talk with Bird. We were able to discuss the creation of GIANT, plus look into some of his other projects, including his live-action debut: the Tom Cruise-starring MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL.
Click on the player to hear the interview.
Having survived the rocky shoals of THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER, Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons decide to kick it freestyle (as the kids all say — the kids do all say that, don’t they?) in a wide-ranging, nay, recklessly random episode of THE CINEFANTASTIQUE POST-MORTEM PODCAST. Covered in the discussion are Larry’s impressions of Julie Taymor’s daring adaptation of THE TEMPEST, Dan’s reactions to Bill Plympton’s impertinent animated short THE COW WHO WANTED TO BE A HAMBURGER, and Steve’s serene confidence amidst his critical brethren. Plus vag-monsters, John Lasseter, the COMMUNITY Christmas special, competing George C. Scott impressions, and the waning tyranny of THX Certification.