My report on Monsters University
I saw Monsters University at an Arclight theater, which makes me wonder one thing: why does Southern California have any other theaters? If I lived down there, I’d be in an Arclight all the time (if only to give myself a brief respite from the horrifying realization that I lived in Southern California). And I didn’t even go to the fancy one in Hollywood.
As for the movie itself: I loved it. To be honest, I was surprised by how much I loved it. I enjoyed Monsters, Inc., but it’s never been one of my favorites. I expected that there was only so much you could do with a prequel to a so-called “mid-tier” Pixar movie (no matter how much I like the director), and it’d end up being good but disposable entertainment with the studio’s now-expected amazing level of technical artistry.
I think the problem I had with Monsters, Inc. was that it was the first in a line of Pixar movies where the formula was starting to show. Start with a little bit of world-building, spend the first act doing a bunch of jokes around the premise, set up the conflict in the second act, do a huge spectacular climax ideally with a chase sequence, make the audience cry, the end. (And don’t get me wrong: the very last scene of Monsters, Inc. gets me every time). When it works, it’s amazing: Finding Nemo, Up, and all three Toy Story movies do essentially the same thing. But it seems like kind of a crap shoot; plug all the pieces into the right slots, get the most absurdly talented people to polish everything to perfection, and then cross your fingers and hope it creates some emotional resonance.
Monsters University side-steps all that by trading the spectacle for storytelling. There’s really no scene that seems like the studio saying, “Oh by the way, look what we can do with computers.” Instead, it seems as if they took everything Pixar’s capable of doing for granted — a good idea, since that’s what the audience is already doing — and then putting it to work as if they were making a live-action comedy. Just one that happens to have characters with anywhere from one to six eyes, or wings and millipede legs. It doesn’t jettison formula entirely, because it doesn’t need to; a story set in college that didn’t have elements of The Paper Chase or Animal House would just seem strange. But it takes the format of a live-action movie where the characters are the focus, and all the millions of fantastic world-building details are relegated to the background.
The most technically impressive thing here is the lighting, and it’s amazing. I don’t remember the lighting in any other Pixar movies looking particularly artificial, but now I want to go back and do a comparison. In Monsters University, you can tell what time of year it is just by the color of the ambient light. Instead of feeling like sets or backgrounds, everything seems to be happening in a real place — even in Ratatouille, which had some of the best vistas of any movie, Pixar or otherwise, there was a persistent sense that it had all been constructed as a reproduction of a real place. And like everything else, it’s used solely to build mood and character: the cavernous auditorium where the scaring class takes place and the Dean steps out of the shadows; the creepy gray light of human children’s bedrooms, where everything looks sinister and alien; or the hyper-real moonlight of the real world, where it’s clear that a walking eyeball and blue furry giant with pink polka dots are out of place, stranded away from their home environment.
But the real achievement of the movie has nothing to do with rendering; it’s the timing. Scenes play out exactly as long as they need to, and every bit — gag or otherwise — has a beat right where it’s supposed to, and cuts at just the right moment. There’s no scene like the dogfight in Up or the door conveyor belt chase in Monsters, Inc.; instead there’s a sequence where we see a team of monsters taking turns in a scaring simulator, and it’s every bit as exciting. (The one that “Squishy” does is one of my favorite scenes in the entire movie). And Sulley & Mike performing an elaborate scare (in a cabin straight out of Camp Crystal Lake) doesn’t go for spectacle, but delivers a climax more satisfying than any other Pixar movie that doesn’t involve a talking dog.
If you want to read a second opinion, the review by Matt Zoller Seitz is full of insights and I agree with almost all of it. The part that I disagree with most strongly is the idea that Manohla Dargis’s review in the New York Times had any valid objections. She spends her entire review grousing that it’s centered on male characters, which is “disappointing” after the release of Brave as if that were at all relevant. Although I’m sympathetic to the call for more diverse representation when it’s done well (as it was in Brave), I’ve never been that sympathetic to the complaint about Pixar movies being guy-centric, since the studio’s never seemed as if it were pushing an agenda or churning out product. Every film has felt like an honest presentation from a group of people who loved the story they were telling, whether it had male lead characters or female characters. And Dargis’s review crosses the line from a call for more representation, and goes directly into the territory of calling for artificial quotas. It’s completely irrelevant, simple-minded, and short-sighted.
But I think Seitz’s most insightful observation is that Monsters University seems like it’s hitting all the predictable beats of a genre film, but “it never arrives via the most obvious route.” It doesn’t feel like a movie made by people who know Disney movies, or by people who know genre movies, but by people who know audiences. So I never felt like the movie was trying to wow me, or trying to make me cry, or trying to sell me toys (although it still managed to do each). I just felt like it was trying to make me laugh.
The interesting thing, though, is how that’s been interpreted by some critics as a lack of ambition. Even Seitz’s review, where he rates it four stars and in the comments calls it “a perfect movie,” has the conclusion that the movie achieves its goals perfectly, but it has modest goals. But I think that’s a case of critics — much as they did with Brave — constructing a small box to define what makes a Disney movie or what makes a Pixar movie, and then judging it based on how neatly it fits into that box. Or, most frustratingly, checking off their list of preconceived notions about a movie and then complaining that it’s predictable.
It’s most telling with Monsters University, though, because while it’s delivering the jokes, it’s also delivering a message that keeps it from spinning off into well-executed-but-disposable entertainment. It’s not simply a message about honesty and loyalty and friendship and cooperation and consequences. It’s a message that takes the usual genre film story structure of “underdogs work hard and win in the end,” and the Disney story structure of “believe in your dreams and your wishes will come true,” and pulls the rug out from under both of them.
The message here is, “You’re valuing the wrong thing.” In the Monsters world, being a scarer is seen as being the best of the best; anything else is considered to be rote and boring, nothing but support work for what’s really the best job. And in a straightforward underdog movie, the underdogs get their victory by proving to be just as good as the jocks at their own game. Monsters University shows how messed up that is. It makes it clear — and it’s a subtle enough distinction that there’s a dozen ways the story could’ve messed this up — that Mike isn’t settling for less, and he isn’t there in support of Sulley; he’s actually really, really good at what he does.
So telling him “you’re just not scary” — which is almost always meant as dismissive, and which he always takes as something to be overcome — becomes a simple statement of fact. Being scary isn’t everything, and it isn’t the only thing worth doing. And neither, it turns out, is being Toy Story.