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by Eric Kohn
June 10, 2013 12:05 AM
19 Comments
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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.

19 Comments

  • Duane | June 16, 2013 8:41 AMReply

    You're an idiot

  • Kyle | June 17, 2013 11:37 PM

    You are not well spoken.

  • DRToohey | June 12, 2013 1:10 PMReply

    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 | June 12, 2013 1:08 PMReply

    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 | June 12, 2013 1:08 PMReply

    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 | June 11, 2013 6:52 PMReply

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

  • Paul Jones | June 11, 2013 1:26 PMReply

    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 | June 11, 2013 2:22 AMReply

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

  • yuri | June 10, 2013 6:02 PMReply

    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.

  • Kyle | June 17, 2013 11:36 PM

    You are absolutely correct. I feel the shift as well.

    And @IAGO, the burden of proof to support your counter argument lies with you. That said, please point me to the source material Pixar "ripped off" to produce Toy Story, Ratatouille, Wall-E, The Incredibles, or even the original Monsters, Inc?

  • Iago | June 10, 2013 7:50 PM

    Are you kidding? All of Pixars supposedly "good" movies are complete rip offs of other movies! Go look it up if you don't believe me.
    If anything Pixar is just starting to get some originality, which is probably why their stories are so crappy now- because they can't think for themselves.

  • Brian Koch | June 10, 2013 3:31 PMReply

    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 | June 10, 2013 11:07 AMReply

    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 | June 10, 2013 10:24 AMReply

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

  • Norman | June 10, 2013 1:54 PM

    No-Cars was weak when compared to the glorious films before it

  • Chris Etrata | June 10, 2013 10:29 AM

    They must have factored the blue umbrella into its score. Their review of MU itself is more of a c.

  • Andrew | June 10, 2013 10:12 AMReply

    "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 | June 10, 2013 8:13 AMReply

    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

  • Chris Etrata | June 10, 2013 9:35 AM

    Im guessing Indiewire factored in The Blue Umbrella into its score, yet rotten tomatoes seperates that from monsters university.