Review: ‘Monsters University’ is Good, but Not Quite Pixar

Monsters University, the prequel to Monsters, Inc., hits all the Pixar notes.

A clever world rendered in meticulous detail? Check.

Well-rounded characters with humor flowing organically from their inner character? Check.

A sweet, warm core about the universal value of friendship? Check.

But there is a fatal flaw.

If you could sum up Monsters, Inc, the lesson would be: It’s better to be loved than feared.

After all, children’s laughter is more powerful than screams and monsters and children can be friends, right? That was kind of the point.

And then, in Monsters University, we’re transported back to a time when being scary was the greatest good and terrorizing children is the goal.

It kind of takes the oomph out of the whole thing. We know Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) is destined to befriend Boo and revolutionize monster/human relations, so how can we really, truly get behind his quest to be the scariest scarer in the whole land?

Mike, a small monster of humble origins, is the monster you’d last expect to become a big, mean, tough scarer. The scarers are the astronauts of the monster world, held in awe by mere mortal monsters. But Mike is kind of a runt.

He works hard, very hard. He has heart, tons of heart. So when his admission to the premiere monster training program comes through, he sees it as the next logical step in his quest to be the best.

On campus, he bumps into Sullivan (John Goodman), lackadaisical scion of a great scaring family. His father is a legend. Sully, of course, is built like a mac truck and scares people just standing still.

He has had everything handed to him on a spooky platter.

The opposites become rivals, neck and neck until the moment they both flunk out of scaring school. With their futures in the balance, they enter the scaring contest, their only hope at redemption. The team they gather around them is no help, the monsters equivalent of Lambda Lambda Lambda.

The heart of the film is the rivalry between Mike and Scully that turns to friendship, but only when each admits his own “jerkiness” and changes his ways. That storyline is rich and warm and lovely, as is so often the case in Pixar films.

Also rich is the monster collegiate world, from the guitar playing strummer with lyrics about tentacles to the sorority girls whose laser eyes mean business. There’s a gag in everything and, again being Pixar, they all work. The film is funny and wonderful in its gentle humor.

The passion to succeed that drives Mike and, ultimately, Scully, is also a wonderful thing for kids to be seeing. They love what they do and are willing to work and sacrifice for it. (Unlike the other barometer of teen culture this week…The Bling Ring)

Rated G, there is no wink-wink humor or potty language that will make you regret bringing the kids. A few scenes might be scary for kids, especially a dean whose bat wings and centipede body make her the creepiest thing at the U. But mostly, it’s all bright colors and goofy monsters roaring.

So this is a very good movie from Pixar. Far better than many of the animated movies you’ll be seeing this year. Parents and kids will enjoy it together.

And, yet, from Pixar, we expect more than very good. We expect sublime, excellent, amazing. We expect a movie that makes us choke up just thinking about it, as I do when I remember Toy Story 3.

This is not that level. If it were released from any other studio, it would be one of their best flicks. From Pixar, it’s not even in the top category.

Pixar does amazing work. But not everything can be Up or Toy Story 3, I suppose.

Sigh.

Review: ‘Wreck-It Ralph’

If Disney’s latest creation, Wreck-It Ralph feels a little familiar, hewn a little close to the lines of Pixar’s Toy Story, who can say that’s a bad thing?

It’s like comparing a new car to a Ferrari. It may not be entirely original, but it’s darn good.

Like the Toy Story franchise, this film takes us into a world that comes to life when human beings go away. This time, we travel into the circuits of the video games in an arcade and experience the struggles and dreams of those blinking bundles of code that entertain us when we plunk in our quarters.

Those characters that race and fight and fly and bash and eat on the arcade screens? They’re just like us. They work their day job, endlessly taking laps around a track or blasting invading enemies. But when the day ends and the arcade closes, they socialize, celebrate, and dream of bettering themselves.

They travel through the electrical wires to a sort of Grand Central Station of games, where they compare notes and drink root beer at the restaurant game. They celebrate anniversaries, bicker amongst themselves, and hassle each other. They even care for those poor homeless characters whose games broke, leaving them stranded without a job.

Ralph (voice of John C. Reilly), particularly, dreams of bettering himself. A denizen of an old, basic game, he spends each day wrecking a brick building. The hero, Felix (voiced by 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer), springs into action, fixing Ralph’s mayhem. It’s a living, but Ralph wants more. He would like to be the hero, to win accolades, to build instead of destroy. Besides, the other members of his game see him as nothing more than the villain, leaving Ralph to sigh alone on his pile of bricks while they party the night away with PacMan.

In a cyber mid-life crisis, Ralph breaks the primary law of video game characters. He abandons his post and enlists as a fighter in a shoot-em up, modern sci-fi warfare game. He wants to be a hero and here’s his chance; it’s right there in the game title! Pursued by a no-nonsense, shapely warrior with a suitably sadly written backstory, Calhoun, Ralph careens through the battle-weary game.

But it isn’t until it all goes wrong and Ralph finds himself elbow deep in a pool of chocolate in a candy-themed game that he gets a chance to be a true hero. Little Vanelope (Sarah Silverman) just wants a chance to race in the game’s sticky-sweet cupcake go-cart trails, but she has been relegated to obscurity.

Unfortunately, Vanelope is a glitch, a character with a slight tendency to flicker in times of stress. In King Candy’s confectionery kingdom, she is defined by her disability and restricted from participating in the game.

Ralph knows a little something about being left out. The two outcasts make the perfect team.

Showing the influence of Pixar who merged with Disney in 2006, the movie is a good time with attention to detail and easy humor. There are nods to beloved video games, to be sure, but also a deeper playing with the video game meme. Older, 8 bit characters live and move in jerky, square movements while citizens of newer games are rendered in vivacious 3D. In fact, one thing Fix It Felix first notices about Calhoun (Jane Lynch) is her remarkable, um, rendering.

The wizards of animation really had fun with creating interior worlds for the games. The candy kingdom, complete with cheering lolypop citizens, candy cane forests, and landscaping of gumdrops, is particularly delightful.

But the creators, more than most, understand that a good setting and fun sight gags are secondary to a story with heart. The unlikely friendship of a mild villain and a little glitch carries the movie. At its core, it’s a story of creating family between two lonely hearts.

Rated PG, the film has good-humored crudity, mostly Ralph and Vanelope calling each other mildly rude names in affection (Hello, frazzle-butt! How are you, stinkbrain?). There are some fairly intense parts that may be frightening for younger viewers: A zombie at a villain support group, a swarm of attacking bugs in the shooting game. However, when the true villain is revealed toward the end, he becomes an honest-to-goodness bad guy, complete with a scary clown face and pincers. Even my twelve year old said it was pretty freaky.

Wreck-It Ralph offers a movie that is thoroughly entertaining and satisfyingly warm. I recommend it.

Note: A previous version of this review credited Pixar with making the movie. I can only blame a hurricane-addled brain that lived without power for days for the error. The review has been updated to reflect reality.

Review: Surprising ‘Brave’ Tells Sweet Tale of Family Love

Brave, the first release from Pixar to star a female lead, is a bit of a conundrum for the movie critic.

It’s one of those flicks in which a writer should not reveal the central surprise that comprises the bulk of the movie.

Is it a review if I say I liked it very much and just leave it at that?

I suppose not.

I will tell you, however, that the film is nothing like what you expect going in, having seen the trailer and ads.

The set-up is there, to be sure. Merida (voice of Kelly McDonald) looks at first glance to be your now-typical modern girl-power female warrior. A mess of raucous red hair and inappropriate table manners, she does not want to marry a leader of a local clan and settle into a feminine world of gentility. She’d rather shoot her arrows and ride her horse and let her hair flow untamed.

Girls are as good as boys. They can fight too. Blah blah blah. That seems to be about the only story we get nowadays.

But Brave only begins there. That Merida is strong and capable is a given, a starting point.

Her mother (Emma Thompson) desperately wants Merida to conform, and not entirely for selfish reasons. The two females talk but do not speak the same language, hear each other but do not listen.

And so Merida comes to her choice and a spell that sets the story on its path.

The story we expect to be about girl empowerment is, instead, about family love. And it’s lovely.

That’s all I can say.

The film differs from Disney princess movies in tone and content. Although there are funny and light moments, there is no wisecracking animal sidekick such as the chameleon in Tangled or the genie in Aladdin. Nor is there a villain with evil schemes. The witch who does show up is more of a goofy shopkeeper and not at all sinister or bad intentioned, although she is tricky. Little spirits inhabit the woods, but they are helpful sprites. The movie is not a musical, in the sense there are no singing cutlery, menagerie, or undersea creatures.

As one would expect from Pixar, the animation shines, with Merida’s hair alone radiating tangled, curly glory. The Scottish setting is rendered in lush vibrancy, now green and rich with moss, now foggy and mysterious, but always beautiful. Set against a score from Scottish composer Patrick Doyle and Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis, the film evokes the feeling of the Scottish highlands of long, long ago.

Rated PG, there are a few suspenseful sequences which will scare the youngest viewers, but no disturbing violence, no sexuality, and no inappropriate wink-wink jokes.

In fact, the film is an unexpected and delightful departure from ordinary animated family fare. It’s not really a princess movie, and that’s a good thing. Nor is it a wacky animated adventure. Instead, it’s a misty and lovely foray into the heart of families and their love for each other, love that is stronger than either the stubborn will of the heart or exterior dangers.

It’s a welcome change. I highly recommend it.

Pixar and Disney announce New Kids’ Flicks

Last week at the CinemaCon convention in Las Vegas, Disney announced upcoming projects. (Pixar is owned by Disney.)

Deadline reports:

The Muppets director James Bobin will return to helm with a script written by Bobin and Nicholas Stoller. A release date has not been announced.

The Good DinosaurThe Pixar comedy is from director Bob Peterson, co-director Peter Sohn and producer John Walker. According to Pixar, it’s about what would happen “if the cataclysmic asteroid that forever changed life on Earth actually missed the planet completely and giant dinosaurs never became extinct?” It will be released in the U.S. on May 30, 2014.

Untitled Pixar Movie That Takes You Inside The MindFrom Disney-Pixar’s announcement: “Pixar takes audiences on incredible journeys into extraordinary worlds: from the darkest depths of the ocean to the top of the tepui mountains in South America; from the fictional metropolis of Monstropolis to a futuristic fantasy of outer space. From director Pete Docter (Up, Monsters, Inc.) and producer Jonas Rivera (Up), the inventive new film will take you to a place that everyone knows, but no one has ever seen: the world inside the human mind.” The film is slated for release June 19, 2015.

Untitled Pixar Movie About Dia De Los MuertosPer Disney-Pixar: “From director Lee Unkrich and producer Darla K. Anderson, the filmmaking team behind the Academy Award-winning Toy Story 3, comes a wholly original Pixar Animation Studios film that delves into the vibrant holiday of Día de los Muertos. No release date yet.

 

Related:

Read our Muppets review.

Watch the trailer for Pixar’s Brave.

New ‘Brave’ Trailer and Clip: Red-Haired Toughie

Pixar’s much-anticipated movie Brave is coming! It’s the first time the (mostly) boys at Pixar have had a female protagonist and she leaves oldschool Disney princesses in the dust.

Recent ones, not so much.

Still, I have to say, I’m getting a little tired of the modern Disney girl, the “I’m not going to get married” and “I just want to fight like the boys” and “I can be as tough and independent as any prince charming” girls.

Yeah. We get it. You’re liberated.

It just feels like they’re fighting yesterday’s battle. What about the “I want to have it all” girl or the “I know I’ll have to make hard choices to do everything in life and I will be very grateful to have a good man by my side” girl.

Can we get that?

Still, the movie looks beautiful and funny, so I’m hopeful it’s more than just a girl who wants to shoot arrows like the boys.

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DVD Release: Cars 2

“Cars 2″ is out on DVD today.

Bottom Line: It’s preachy and silly and slow at times, but it’s from Pixar and even their worst is better than most of the rest.

Read our original review.

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Cars 2 Misfires

Maybe this is a good time to talk about expectations. Pixar, the company of swollen-brain geniuses who brought you the “Toy Story” franchise, “Up,” “Finding Nemo,” and “Monsters, Inc.,” has a reputation to protect. When they misstep, as they have with “Cars 2,” released today, it’s a bit like catching the Glee concert when Lea Michele has a sore throat. It’s not pretty, but it’s better and more exciting than anything you’d hear at the bar down the street. They’re in a whole other league.

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