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

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)

If I look back on my childhood, there’s probably one film star that had the greatest impact on me. That actor would be Jim Carrey. 1994 was something of a revelation for the pre-teen Phage. We had Ace Ventura, Dumb & Dumber and The Mask all hit our cinemas. You’re doubting the impact these films had on me as an impressionable youth aren’t you? Well, suffice it to say that I actually took to wearing Hawaiian shirts unbuttoned, with a vest underneath. I went out in public like that! I even did the little neck twitches that Carrey would do in Ace Ventura too. I’m glad the feeling of “shame” hadn’t kicked in at such a tender age. Thankfully, I think very few photos exist of that period of my life. Now, almost 20 years later, Jim Carrey is still doing his thing on our screens. Sure, he’s had some duds, but he’s also starred in some modern day classics. How does The Incredible Burt Wonderstone fare though?

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is about magic. The large scale magic shows that cascade through Vegas like some flashy river. The eponymous character, Burt (Steve Carell) has been in the magic game since he was a little kid. Shunned by his classmates, he turns to magic courtesy of a magic kit his mother left him. This triggers a friendship with another school loner, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) and together they go on to become “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton” in their adult years. But things aren’t peachy behind the scenes. Aside from their worn friendship, there are egotistical issues and the fact that their style of bombastic magic is no longer “in vogue”. People don’t want David Copperfield any more. They want the Criss Angels, David Blaines and Dynamos of the magic world. Street performers with a dangerous edge. Cue Jim Carrey as Steve Gray (who is Criss Angel in everything but name) with his show Brain Rapist (Angel‘s show is Mind Freak)… a guy who is definitely stealing their thunder.

Criss Angel and Steve Gray... Brain Rapists and Mind Freaks.

Criss Angel and Steve Gray… Brain Rapists and Mind Freaks.

I think The Incredible Burt Wonderstone makes a lot more sense and is vastly more enjoyable if you know a little about magic acts. Especially how magic has changed since the 1980’s and 1990’s. Big illusions are out, “mind freaking” up close is in. If you bear this in mind, and know some of Criss Angel‘s work, you’ll see what this film is trying to do… or I think you might. The film is quite confused in its tone. It doesn’t know whether to send up the world of magic as a comedy, or play out like a traditional buddy film and actually respect the art of magic. It would have worked far better as one or the other, and not the mish-mash that actually is revealed from behind the red curtain.

The problems with the film stem mainly from the scripting here. We all know that Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi and Jim Carrey are extremely bankable actors. The first and last in that list have proven chemistry from films such as Bruce Almighty, and Steve Buscemi is just a seminal actor. But the movie falls flat quite often. The laughs are few and far between, which is pretty unacceptable for a comedy. Most of them come from the ridiculousness of Steve Gray’s bizarre stunts, and even those types of laughs don’t really appeal all too well to an international (read: British) audience. I was genuinely excited by the prospect of the film when I saw Carell and Carrey were reuniting again, which may  have fed this sense of being underwhelmed that I had throughout the film.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)

However, nothing can be taken away from Jim Carrey‘s performance here. He’s back on the “full tilt madness” setting that characterised his earlier movies: rubber faces, crazy eyes and being generally… Jim Carrey like. Alrighty then! Although I felt that his character’s “appeal” grew increasingly thin over the length of the film, his presence on-screen made every one of his scenes the most memorable parts. As for Carell and Buscemi? Well… they’re just there. Their story is plainly obvious from the start and you can predict the plot points from the outset. Having said that, I thought that the ending of the movie was genuinely heart warming and quite charming. It actually made me question how harshly I’d been viewing the movie since the titles appeared. I wondered whether I should award The Incredible Burt Wonderstone with a higher score than I’d planned… but you can’t pull off that type of illusion. Not on The Phage. My verdict is resolute and absolute.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone promised much more than it could provide. Sure, Jim Carrey is on sterling form, which makes his appearance in Kick-Ass 2 all the more anticipated, but the script and subsequent parts played by Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi were underwhelming and quite tiresome. But the biggest problem? The laughs just weren’t there. This is a film that will make magic fans titter, but if you have no idea who Criss Angel is, then this film will fall flat. And also, can I point out that Jim Carrey‘s character is NOT meant to be an aping of David Blaine. His name is Steve Gray… and he presents a show called Brain Rapist. He’s topless a lot, has long hair and is covered in tattoos. Criss Angel presents a show called Mind Freak, is topless a lot, has long hair and is covered in tattoos. Shazam.

And although I don’t feel the urge to dress up as Jim Carrey / Steve Gray / Criss Angel, this film reminds me just why I idolised Jim Carrey so much years ago. He’s still a funny guy and has an indisputably unique comedic talent. Sure, it’s waned at times, but I predict that 2013-14 will be his resurgence. We’ve got Kick-Ass 2 and Dumb & Dumber to to look forward to (too many to’s). And I can’t wait!

Phage Factor:

2.5 Stars