Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Eric Kohn
June 10, 2013 12:05 AM
19 Comments
  • |

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

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

You might also like:

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.