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

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire June 10, 2013 at 12:05AM

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. "Monsters University" is the latest example that things have changed.
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Monsters University

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

This article is related to: Reviews, Pixar Animation Studios, Walt Disney Pictures, Monsters University, Monsters Inc.