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

Brave (2012)

Pixar's Brave

Teenage issues eh? Ungrateful parents who’ve never done anything for you in their entire lives, issues with your body getting more bumpy and bulbous (hopefully in the right areas), and invoking magic to get your own way to prevent an arranged marriage. Wait… what?! I’m sure we can all attest to two out of those three issues. If you can say “yes” to all three then kudos to your for being brought up in mediaeval Britain with wizards and warlocks. And if you’re reading this, then I guess Paganism really pays off considering you’d be about 8-900 years old by now. AND you managed to find Film Phage. You sir, or madam, deserve a medal. Or an eye of newt, whichever you want.

So why am I bothering to invoke references to teenage life and mediaeval times? Well, you can thank Brave for that. Pixar’s latest animated endeavour focusing on the story of Merida (Kelly Macdonald): first born to King Fergus (Billy Connelly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) of Scotland. Her tale isn’t a new one: a young girl feels controlled by her overbearing mother, wants to rebel, rebels, deals with the repercussions of doing so and learns a lesson. You could take any Disney / Pixar / Dreamworks story and put the same framework over it, which is why I went into Brave not exactly expecting much; especially since I feel jaded after my last foray into the animated world with The Lorax. But you have to give credit to Pixar… they sure do know how to show and tell a story!

Whilst regular readers will know I get especially hung up on predictable plot lines, I guess you have to forgo these irritations in any U / PG-rated movie aimed primarily at kids, so I will. For now. Beyond this, my reasons for my initial frostiness towards the film stem from the trailers not engaging me in the slightest. They were devoid of humour and quickly became stale. Couple this with the hoo-ha surrounding the “first female protagonist of a Pixar film” and I was turned off. Making a fuss of gender – for me – means there’s nothing much else to brag about in the film. If you felt the same, then I urge you to put this aside, as the film is definitely worth your pounds and pennies, dollars and cents, or pieces of eight… whatever.

Ginger children: no matter how many buns they eat, they’ll never gain a soul.

Firstly, it looks truly stunning. Pixar really are leaps and bounds ahead of their competition in this regard. Much fuss was made of 2010’s Tangled being the most aesthetically pleasing animated film of all time (Walt Disney played the “female lead” card with that film too because she wasn’t a damsel in distress. We get it, women and men are equals. This isn’t the 1950’s. It’s a given now isn’t it? Let me know when you make a bloody Labrador the lead ok?!), but this blows it out of the water. You also cannot talk about the quality of an animated film without also discussing the voice work. And whilst Brave doesn’t boast A-list Hollywood royalty, it does a fantastic job. I’m very glad of this actually, considering the film’s Scottish setting. There’s nothing worse than a US actor having a ham-fisted attempt at a Scottish accent. You can’t pull it off. Don’t try.

I particularly enjoyed Billy Connelly‘s turn as King Fergus: a rough-and-tumble leader who’s indebted to his loving wife, but also encourages his daughter’s tendencies to wield weapons and act more like a warrior, much to his wife’s disdain. Credit also has to be given to Kelly Macdonald for taking the lead and running with it. Although Macdonald is far older than her on-screen character, she pulls it off. She’s come a long way since 1996 where she starred in Danny Boyle‘s Transpotting. From a tale of heroin-addicts in Glasgow to a tale of a fiery princess… also based in Scotland.

“There Can Only Be One!” Oh wait, wrong Scottish-themed movie.

Sure, it all comes to a head in that saccharine way you expect of animated movies, with no emotionally devastating curveballs (ala Up!), but the story does opt for a charming take on reconciliation between mother and daughter: one that you wouldn’t expect. Although you will wonder why the witch in the movie is still in employment considering her panacea cure-all approach to spell-weaving. Why’d they all have the same outcome? It was also very refreshing to see a movie that doesn’t rely on the cliché guy-meets-girl love story. And no, that’s not a spoiler, as that’s not what the film’s about so reel your anger back in if you thought that was spoiling anything about the movie.

The film’s scope also merits discussion. Pixar and Dreamworks both have a tendency to tackle epics. Not quite Avengers Assemble style epic, but epic nevertheless. How To Train Your Dragon, another Scotland-based romp, is apt here. In that our young protagonist strives for independence and earns his father’s respect. The film also culminates in a whopping great battle – a feast for the eyes. Brave is nothing like this; it’s very pared back and the story never leaves the Scottish glens. Yes, it would be odd to see Merida fly off into space or battle massive super-villains, but there was a lack of “final conflict” between her and anyone. Here the hero wins with love and words, as opposed to steel and bravery, which is ironic considering the title of the film. Some will mourn the loss of such a climax, whilst others will be happy to see a more focused story. The only way to find out is to judge for yourself.

Brave is another shot on target for Pixar, even if not squarely in the bullseye. Whilst it’s not in the same leagues as Toy Story, Monsters Inc. or Wall-E, it’s certainly no Cars 2. Mind you, considering how high Pixar’s standards have been, this is nothing to be ashamed about. Whether the film has the lasting appeal of its contemporaries however remains to be seen. You can’t judge whether a film is a classic without the passage of time.

That is unless you’re the 800 year old Pagan witch that’s still reading this review. For you, it’ll take no time – just mix 56 Bavarian herbs and spices, the blood of a deer and liquid of the scarlet bull and there you go: a potion to see the future. Either that, or it’s how I ended up in ER last weekend. Can’t remember which… I’ll try again and let you know.

Phage Factor:

4 Star