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With ‘Monsters University,’ Has Pixar Lost Its Street Cred?

With 'Monsters University,' Has Pixar Lost Its Street Cred?

In the early days of Pixar, the company’s use of computer-generated animation was ahead of its time. When that novelty wore off, it became progressive in other ways. With the thematic depth and layered humor that carried it through an unprecedented run of universally beloved hits, Pixar supplanted Steven Spielberg as the preeminent source of smart popular cinema, even coming close to outdoing Disney’s decade-spanning animated legacy with its complex range of characters. Then Disney bought Pixar, and the distinctly post-modern Pixar touch slowly turned into a modern Disney one.

Once upon a time, in a land that now looks so magical it could have been dreamed up, Pixar carried the virtues of an independent studio that delivered brainy alternatives to simplistic studio-produced animation. Whether exploring the end of humanity in “Wall-E” or the frustrations of the nuclear family in “The Incredibles,” Pixar assailed society’s mythologies and fears within a pop culture context in a fashion that at times almost felt subversive. By contrast,  “Monsters University,” the latest Pixar offering, charms in an excessively familiar way that illustrates a troublesome eventuality: Pixar has lost its edge. 

As it has devolved into less of a disruptive force, the company got safe. Two years ago, “Cars 2” could have been written off as an anomaly (because “Cars” was a weak Pixar effort anyway), but then came last year’s “Brave,” an innocuous children’s fairy tale that carried plenty of wholesome value in its unconventionally assertive princess but lacked the searing wit and complex subtext associated with most previous efforts.

Well, they say three makes a trend. “Monsters University,” a prequel to the supremely imaginative “Monsters Inc.,” fills in the background of those characters with a tame, cheery origin story that lacks the original’s crackling wit, not to mention its stealthy satire of corporate bureaucracy. Capably directed by Dan Scanlon, “Monsters University” delivers a very basic, factory-certified animated adventure.

And yet it made me laugh. As a fan of the one-eyed scare strategist Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and furry blue beast Sully (John Goodman), I eagerly gawked at the characters’ youthful iterations along with the rest of the crowd at the preview screening I attended over the weekend, where diehard “Monsters Inc.” fans quoted the original to each other moments before the lights went down. We know that one day these guys will team up to form the best monsters in the business of scaring children at night and collecting the energy of their screams to power their alternate world. Their journey is secondary. The movie reaches its most lovable highs in the opening scene, when an adorable middle school version of Mike goes on a field trip to Monsters Inc. and steals his way behind one of the dimension-crossing doors that lead to the bedrooms of sleeping children to watch an adult monster at work. 

Though an object of derision for his taller classmates, pipsqueak Mike has greater ambition, and suddenly the movie flashes forward several years to find him off to Monsters University in pursuit of his dream. That’s when “Monsters University” slows down to become a rather pedestrian college comedy that establishes the odd couple pairing of Mike and Sully, whose dad is apparently a legendary monster whose status leads his arrogant son to assume he’s already got it made. Neither Mike nor Sully manages to impress their stone-faced dean (Helen Mirren) — Mike’s not scary and Sully lacks technique — so after a first-semester final goes sour for both, they’re out of the scare program for good. Naturally, the duo figure out a last minute shot at regaining their pride, hesitantly joining forces with the other less-than-scary college rejects to compete in the college’s annual Scare Games in a desperate bid to reenter the program.

To its credit, while “Monsters University” goes through the usual motions as the monsters work against impossible odds to set themselves on a triumphant course, the ending isn’t a total hackneyed cop out. I was ready to write it off completely in the climactic monster game finale until the movie surprised me with a late act twist that further complicates matters and raises the stakes to some degree.

But as a whole, the ordeal feels strangely tame, and it’s especially disconcerting to watch the vibrant world already fully realized in “Monsters Inc.” persist in a less daring context. The audience tittered with delight each time the screenplay dropped in references to future developments found in “Monsters Inc.,” particularly in relation to the eventual tension between Mike and the scowling chameleon Randy (Steve Buscemi). While momentarily appealing, however, such winking lessens the ability for the work to stand on its own terms. The world-building approach puts the franchise ahead of the story — it’s like a Saturday morning cartoon spin-off. That shouldn’t come as a surprise by now. The outliers of Pixar’s legacy have become its new normals: Nearly everything about “Monsters University” reeks of inoffensively average commercial entertainment.

But the outcome stings, particularly when contrasted with the Pixar-produced short film preceding the feature, “Blue Umbrella,” a totally enjoyable and wordless romance directed by Saschka Unseld. In a dramatic break from the studio’s usual reliance on traditional CG animation, “Blue Umbrella” uses photorealistic imagery to track the experiences of two umbrellas that catch each other’s eyes on a rainy street. When the blue umbrella loses sight of his newfound crush, he engages in a desperate bid to wrestle free from his owner, while various humanized street objects — drains, pipes, etc. — watch along with us. The simplistic plot is infused with bittersweet vibes by Jon Brion’s delicate score, which centers on a catchy loop that — like the uber-simple premise of “Blue Umbrella” — ends before it could get tedious. 

Unlike “Monsters University,” the gentle emotional pull of “Blue Umbrella” never flags. Its sincerity merges with its technical innovations. The joy of watching a clever idea succeed in a narrative that’s adorable and yet never transparently simple-minded stands in telling contrast to the feature that it precedes. In the past, Pixar’s shorts have been used as a training ground for its future animation stars, but at this point they’re its last hope at keeping the brand honest. 

Criticwire grade: B

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Comments

Duane

You're an idiot

DRToohey

Also, I was unimpressed with the short to be honest. It felt like a stale version of, you guessed it, a Disney short: Johnny Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet.

DRToohey

Disney acquired Pixar in January 2006. That's 2.5 years before WALL-E came out. So it was in production pre-Disney, but Disney would have had enough time to defang that. Or Up. Or Toy Story 3. So it might be that Pixar does not how to follow up their "mortality trilogy," not a simple defanging by the Mouse.

It could also be, and this seems more likely, that John Lassetter just isn't given enough attention to his old company and Pixar is having some problems without him. Since the acquisition, he has started also working as head of Disney Animation. What this has meant for Disney animation is a Renaissance of the best films they have made since Lion King. What this has probably meant for Pixar is that films that had Lasseter's initial oversight before the acquisition were fine…but the new ones just don't have that spark behind them.

DRToohey

Disney acquired Pixar in January 2006. That's 2.5 years before WALL-E came out. So it was in production pre-Disney, but Disney would have had enough time to defang that. Or Up. Or Toy Story 3. So it might be that Pixar does not how to follow up their "mortality trilogy," not a simple defanging by the Mouse.

It could also be, and this seems more likely, that John Lassetter just isn't given enough attention to his old company and Pixar is having some problems without him. Since the acquisition, he has started also working as head of Disney Animation. What this has meant for Disney animation is a Renaissance of the best films they have made since Lion King. What this has probably meant for Pixar is that films that had Lasseter's initial oversight before the acquisition were fine…but the new ones just don't have that spark behind them.

Jesus

Where is your editor? It is spelled "Sulley."

Paul Jones

Do you realize how many trolls you are fueling by saying "Pixar has lost its edge?" DO you realize that Brave and Cars 2 were troubled productions? Are you aware that saying company is going down when you know nothing about what goes on there is completely biased? You have the right to not like a movie, but you are not being fair to Pixar.

David

Same thing happened with The Muppets, they were quite subversive at first and then when Disney took over they became bland and inoffensive.

yuri

Tell it like it is . my children and my friend's children were disappointed with Cars Pixar has moved away from originality. What a shame.

Brian Koch

Why is this listed as a "rotten" review on Rotten Tomatoes? It's not a glowing review by any means, but it's a B.

nick

The line "because 'Cars' was a weak Pixar effort anyway" lessens the credibility of this review. Millions of fans worldwide find the world of Radiator Springs comfortable, and the characters lovable. Was Cars 2 a cash grab? Maybe. But it was also a lot of fun and over-flowing with creativity. Cynics might hate that Disney dares to capitalize on its #2 world brand (Winnie The Pooh is #1), but Disney needs to keep their brands in high demand so they can keep making original titles like Brave, Good Dinosaur and Inside Out. The latter 2 films will be Pixar's offerings in 2014 and 2015. And following Finding Dory, Lee Unkrich will helm another Pixar original.

I, too, like films with "edge" and films that don't seem to care about pleasing all audiences and all ages. But as Andrew pointed out in this comments section, Pixar is trying to, ultimately, make movies for kids to enjoy. And obviously, Pixar is an American studio and wants to get millions of Americans in theaters. Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, Ponyo and Arriety are all WONDERFUL films from Studio Ghibli that are aimed at kids. They're usually a lot more subtle, more beautiful and smarter than most American animated films. In most American animated films, you can make a list….funny sidekick voiced by borderline-offensive comedian, smart sassy female voiced by popular actress, dance or hip-hop songs by latest top 40 artist, tons of topical references and toilet jokes, a sequence that splices funny bits with a trendy fast-paced rock song in the background….etc.

Pixar, I feel, does a great job of being true to their art while also trying to cater to wide audiences.

Herson

Since when did a 'B' become a negative grade?

Andrew

"brainy" "post-modern"? Pixar makes cartoons for kids, so unless you're a child, an imbecile or a parent that has to convince everyone: "hey this is really a good movie for adults too …", why is this BS even mentioned by a publication called Indie Wire?

Guy

Why does rottentomatoes have this has a negative review? Last time I checked a "B" grade wasnt negative. I think people have been waiting for Pixar to fail for years. I was suprised at the negative reviews for "Brave". It was Pixar's take on the princess story. It wasnt as great as Pixar's take on Super Heroes in Incredibles but still a worthy effort none the less. The less said about Cars the better but some critics have been waiting to take down Pixar. You can't have non stop critical and commercial success in Hollywood for over a decade without someone wanting to put an end to its reign

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