Monsters University (2013)

Monster University (2013)

School and university… they’re formative institutions for many people. You get an education, make friends, and the more liberally-inclined would say they “find out who they really are”. I guess it’s a better place to “find yourself” than on a beach in Thailand though, which is where so many middle class 21 year olds from the UK will tell you. Seeing films set in universities or schools is nothing new; it’s been done time and time again. I think Hollywood actually gave me an impression of what to expect from university: girls, beer and hijinks. Not all of it came true, and I never saw a single red cup at a house party. That seems to be very US-centric… thanks for that American Pie! But the current film doesn’t bring up beer… it’s a kids’ film after all. But it does (scratch on) girls and hijinks… Yes, Monsters University has rolled onto campus, but is it the class clown or is it going to graduate magna cum laude?

Monster University (2013)

First… can I just dwell on the title? Does it bug anyone else that it doesn’t have an apostrophe in there? Shouldn’t it be Monsters’ University? I guess I can let it slip though, and someone will probably enlighten me as to why it shouldn’t be in there. I’m sure they wouldn’t have let that slip! Anyway, Monsters University is the prequel to 2001’s hugely successful Monsters Inc. – yes, that’s a 12 year gap between instalments in the series. Luckily, Disney Pixar have a great DVD / streaming market, because the target audience this film is aimed at is far too young to even have been alive when the first film came out. I’m not sure why there was such a delay in this happening!

Thankfully though, we see the original cast return: namely John Goodman as the voice of Sully (big, blue and furry) and Billy Crystal as Mike (small, green and eyeball-y), plus a whole host of other favourites that fans will recognise from Monsters Inc. Essentially, Monsters University goes back to Uni (who’d have guessed that?!), where Mike is the geeky try-hard student of scaring, who isn’t actually scary, whilst Sully is the cocky, “I don’t need to learn” type that is scary… but can’t apply himself. Mike and Sully turn into rivals, but are kicked out of university… the only way they can get back? To join the house of OK (Oozma Kappa) – a group of monsters that are going no-where. They’re the outcasts – the bottom rung of society. Only by joining OK can they enter the Scare Games… their one chance to get back into their course… but can they work together?

Monster University (2013)

So, you can probably figure out how the plot’s going to play out, as it’s a bit contrived and obvious. But as is the case with so many movies aimed at the younger demographic, that’s to be expected. What’s also expected in these types of movies is humour – both for the kids and for the adults in the audience. This is what’s made Pixar such a gold standard over the past two decades… but Monsters University doesn’t quite hit all the high notes it should do in this regard. The screening I was in had the perfect split of kids and older audience members, but laughter was at a bare minimum… from both demographics. Normally, I’d expect the children to be laughing at this type of movie, but you can only imagine that some of the laughs were lost owing to the setting for the movie: university. No pre-teen kid will have much of an idea of what university entails. It’d have been wiser to set this Monsters instalment in school – a concept that could be latched upon by kids and adults.

Then again, the university setting didn’t elicit copious laughs from the older audience either. In all honesty, the script just wasn’t that funny. Endearing? Yes. Funny? No. I don’t expect belly laughs, but I do expect a wry smile to creep over my face quite frequently, but it was sadly lacking. Don’t get me wrong here – I enjoyed the movie and the runtime evaporated in no time, but I didn’t get the series of laughs that I was expecting from a movie like this.

Monster University (2013)

What I did enjoy were the gorgeous visuals we’ve come to expect and the colourful supporting cast that rounded out the Monsters University world. It all came together well and made the world “pop” – something that Pixar has always been quite adept at achieving. As previously stated, the plot was quite formulaic and the laughs weren’t ten-a-penny, but the film itself? A success… even if it wasn’t quite the big bombastic return of Sully and Mike that I was expecting.

Monsters University enriches the world set forth in Monsters Inc. and contains a lot of fan service in terms of cameos and “origin stories”. Whilst it seemed to miss the mark with the audience I was viewing with, it nevertheless maintained a fun, upbeat vibe that had me compelled from beginning to end. It may not be Pixar’s finest film to date, but it’s another solid entry in their catalogue. Besides, sometimes it’s just good to spend time with old friends yet again. So long as they’re not Cars… or Planes

So whilst Monsters University isn’t a new American Pie 2 in the way it portrays university, it hits a lot of the right notes. Sure, we have no beer pong, no foul language and no sex with pies, but we get the right vibe from it all. Although having said that, I’d like to have seen how the characters would have coped if you’d merged the two aforementioned franchises. Would Stifler pick on little Mike? Would Sully assume the role of Oz the star lacrosse player? And just how would the film deal with the thorny issue of “exotic” magazines? Stay tuned for Monsters Go Wild

Phage Factor:

3.5 Star

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Frankenweenie (2012)

Ah, Tim Burton. Tim, Tim, Tim… I’ve never really been a fan of your work if I’m honest. I’ve seen much of it, but never felt that rabid urge to sign up to the fan club. Or even admit to really liking your films. Sure, I enjoyed seeing Edward Scissor Hands as a youth (even if I did get it confused with Lawnmower Man – too many garden appliances), and I also quite enjoyed Beetlejuice, but since then? Not so much. I remember seeing The Nightmare Before Christmas at the cinema and being particularly unimpressed, despite my age. I remember 1993 much more for Jurassic Park – now THAT was a film. A hulking behemoth of a movie, but The Nightmare Before Christmas? It was a little weenie in comparison. A forgettable, little weenie. So when I saw Frankenweenie (see what I did there?) was coming to screens at the same time as ParaNorman and Hotel Transylvania, I just lumped them all together as “might see”… then I actually saw Frankenweenie

If you love the retro feel of this, you’ll dig the film itself…

Well well well Mr. Burton, this I did not expect. Frankenweenie is perhaps the finest animated film I’ve seen this year, or in recent memory. The story follows a young, clever and introverted child by the name of Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) and his faithful dog Sparky. Tragedy strikes when Sparky meets his maker in an untimely fashion, but after some sadness, Victor uses his superior intellect to resurrect Sparky through the use of lightning and electrodes. It’s alive… IT’S ALIIIIIIIVE!!

Ok, so it sounds like Frankenstein, but with a dog, as opposed to a human. And therein lies the genius of this film: it’s very referential to horror and sci-fi films that have gone before it. Whether it’s a toilet scene bringing to mind that of Jurassic Park, the naming of characters such as Victor Frankenstein, Edgar “E” Gore or Elsa Van Helsing, or even the inclusion of footage from Horror of Dracula with Christopher Lee. It’s all there. And there’s probably a hell of a lot of stuff that I didn’t spot. This is a true Easter Egg hunt for horror purists. Search and you shall find.

Although you could probably fit the plot of Frankenweenie on the back of an envelope, it’s told incredibly well. The characterisation is fantastic and definitely Burton. This would normally put me off, but not here. He’s gone back to his roots and brought out that spooky and odd writing of old. All of this is rounded off with true off-the-wall humour that made me think of Mars Attacks! more than anything else. In saying this, I didn’t hear a single child laugh over the course of the movie. Now, I said that ParaNorman had the same issue, but kids did laugh – at physical comedy. Frankenweenie is a much more solemn affair and the humour is aimed squarely at a more mature audience. The film looks beautiful, which will entertain the children, but it won’t have them laughing and squealing with delight. It may therefore be suited to a more intelligent child. But everyone thinks their kid is a genius right? But if you’re being honest with yourself, does your child enjoy being creative and painting vivid scenes with poster paints? Or does he/she simply just mix all the paints into a brown mess and claim it’s a “bunny wabbit”. That child wouldn’t suit this film. Sorry. You child isn’t a genius. But I hear Madagascar 3 is incredibly funny…?

Back on track: I mentioned the visuals. Obviously the first thing that strikes you about the film is that it’s in black and white – all of it. Don’t expect the colour to appear somewhere. I read that Burton was set on having his world shown in this way. It’s a brave move, but it really works. I can’t help but feel that The Artist‘s success made film companies a bit more interested in the nostalgic approach to film making, but regardless – it’s certainly helped Frankenweenie. And the animation? Flawless. All of the characters are very “Tim Burton” – big heads, massive eyes and odd teeth. It’s very stylised and stylish. I loved it.

It’s aliiiiive!

Ultimately, I couldn’t get enough of this film. Some of my US-based critic friends. notably Keith & The Movies and Papa Kenn Media (check them both out) had alerted me that this might need to be seen and I wasn’t disappointed. As I said at the outset, I’ve never been a Tim Burton fan. I think his reliance on casting Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter in everything put me off somewhat. That and the fact that he hasn’t had an original film idea in a good while now. This changes all that. Although I still won’t be signing up for that fan club, I can wholeheartedly say that this film is fantastic. Thoroughly engaging and true eye candy, with enough horror-centric references to sate old school horror fans, as I’m sure Burton himself is.

So Mr. Burton it seems I owe you an apology. Well, not an apology… an admission. Although I think the vast majority of your work is forgettable and ultimately underwhelming, I loved Frankenweenie. It really struck me as a lovingly put together film that really drew upon all of your inspirations as a child. Also, thanks for not casting your wife or Johnny Depp (your other other half) in this film. No disrespect to them, but it made the film so much more refreshing without them.

Might I make a recommendation to you though? Let’s not reanimate the corpse of Frankenweenie. I don’t want to see Frankenweenie 2: Revenge of the Felines. I think it should stay buried, and not in the Pet Sematary, because we all know what happens there too… Cheers, The Phage.

Phage Factor: