Pixar has become a bit of a household name these days. When we think of cute, family friendly films that are well made, have a great message, and are fun for all ages, Pixar is what we think of. I would contend even that the likes of the films we have seen from Pixar until very recently have been far better than anything Disney ever put out.
There are really 3 things Pixar is known for, two of those are the bulk of the ingredients that make a good Pixar animated film in my opinion.
- A Really, REALLY good and compelling story.
- A really good message behind the story, well executed and not beating the audience over the head with it.
- Cutting edge computer animation.
The first two are the key, essential ingredients. The last one is still important to Pixar’s success, but not as much. Pixar’s claim to fame is of course, Toy Story — which in my book may still be the best though hard for me to choose favorites. All three elements are there in good form.
And with each release of each new Pixar film, it seemed the film company could do no wrong. I would say in fact that Toy Story 3 is every bit as good as the first Toy Story. Keeping up that level of success is simply unheard of.
But then Cars 2 happened. We all sort of scratched our heads trying to figure out where the heart went, what went wrong. And then we thought, “well, it was bound to happen sooner or later, everyone puts out a dud now and then.” And then Brave happened and we became nervous. Was the Disney acquisition having a negative effect? Have they run out of ideas and stories? Is there some sort of brain drain going on over at Pixar?
Meanwhile, Disney animation turned out one of the best “Pixar” films that Pixar never made, Wreck-it Ralph. Obviously looking at the list of talent behind that film reveals that many of the same minds that had been at Pixar for years were behind the film. But still, there’s some sentimental value in attaching the name Pixar to an animated film and I for one thought it would be sad if the Pixar name never produced any good films again.
The Scare Off
Well, be reassured, Monsters University is a pretty good return to form for Pixar. Never mind that it worries me a little that Pixar may be getting sequelitis and can’t do original content anymore (I suspect I’m just being a worry wart anyway), Monsters University is a really good film.
Why a prequel one wonders though? This is obviously the first prequel that Pixar has done. Well I have a theory about that. As cute and fun as Monsters Inc. was, where was there to go in that universe? They kind of tied it up and put a nice bow on it. The scaring as energy conceit was no more, now it’s all laughs and giggles. Maybe I don’t have a good enough imagination, but I’m not sure where they could take that and tell a good story. And I suspect that the creative minds behind this new Monsters film felt the same way because they opted for the prequel.
I think that one of the things left over from the previous film is that we never really learned to love Mike very much. Sully was the big lovable hero of Monsters Inc. without a doubt. Mike was okay, but riding a bit in Sully’s shadow. Well not so in MU. Here Mike is very easily our primary protagonist. Here it is Sully who does some questionable things, has questionable opinions and attitudes. Mike is the one we follow all the way through, starting with his childhood and seeing him as the small, picked on monster in elementary school.
In short, this film really made me like Mike Wazowski in a way I never did in the first film. And following his storyline through, one wanted to see him succeed, even though it seems impossible that he ever would. And you had to wonder, how does this end happily?
The Right Kind of Message(s)
But end happily it did, and along the way I think the right things came out of the story. For instance, the cool kids wouldn’t have anything to do with Mike, and when Sully didn’t make the grade, he was kicked out of the cool club too. They were both forced to hang out with the ridiculous and wacky kids who “had no future” and were the laughing stock of the school: The Oozma Kappa Fraternity. I thought this was absolutely great, brilliant.
SPOILERS IN NEXT PARAGRAPH!
Mike is told he’s not scary and he can’t be a scarer, and this is when you wonder as you watch Mike struggle, how this is going to work out. Well it does so because Mike (and Sully) both take a route to success not defined by the normal terms of the monster society. Both expelled from college, they find their own route to success. So Mike couldn’t be a good scarer, but he had the know how, he could be a great partner with someone who didn’t have the know-how, but who was more scary.
Friends and Enemies
One interesting aspect that the film played up was the beginning of the relationships we see more fleshed out in the first film. Here we see that Mike and Randy start off as friends, where Mike and Sully are sworn enemies. As the story progresses logically, this changes around completely until the relationships are as we see them in Monsters Inc. And the thing is, this is how things go in real life too. I have friends right now that I distinctly did not like when I first met them (due to personality conflicts or what have you). I don’t know on the other hand that I have any enemies or whatever you want to call them that started out as friends, but that does happen in life sometimes.
Ultimately, this brings me to a general point about Pixar, and about this film. Pixar excels at bringing more life to their make believe, animated characters than many films ever do to their more real to life characters, and this is one of the ways they do it.
Obviously, one of the other things Pixar is known for is soliciting great vocal talent. And while much of the vocal talent for this film was already built in, it’s still worth noting. Mike and Sully could not have been any more perfectly cast than they are with Billy Crystal and John Goodman. Here too we find that newcomer to the franchise Helen Miren as Dean Hardscrabble is simply outstanding, easily conveying the menace needed for the character, but able to bring it in for a graceful admission of misjudging at the end of the film.
The film seemed to take it’s time capturing my interest. For the first 15, maybe 20 minutes, I was convinced it was a dud. I’m not sure what should have been done differently but it faltered a bit in the beginning.
Another minor thing, Mike mentions in the first film something about Sully in the 4th grade. The idea is that they knew each other then. It’s not a huge deal, but how hard would it have been to have Sully be in the same class with Mike in the elementary school scenes? I applauded the idea that they would ignore that one line in the cannon of the timeline if it made sense for the overall story, and I still would. But now after having seen the film, it did not seem necessary.
And finally the climax of the film, while I liked it a lot, did have a bit of a problem in surprising me. I saw the cheat coming a mile away. Mike, while doing as good as he could in that final scare match, was just obviously not so scary. And yet the meter pegged the red line? It was 1). way to easy to see where that was going, and 2). unable to be believed that they would not have checked for tampering right then and there. It would have been far better to my way of thinking if they would have set up the story so that the tampering with the scare simulator would have resulted in a decent but not pegged out scare meter reading.
But don’t get me wrong, other than that minor quibble towards the end, I thought the climax of this film was perfect. Venturing into the human world, Sully and Mike working together to make the perfect scare, being kicked out of college and forging their own way. It was all pretty perfect.
So in the end, obviously I highly recommend this film. As with most of Pixar’s films, it’s hard to rank it compared to the other great films.