Review: Monsters University 3D

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Monsters UniversityThe Pitch: Saved By The Scream: The College Years.

The Review: Who are the greatest animation house ever to have made motion pictures? Most people answering that question would likely say Disney, and the evidence would support that – to a point. If you look at the Internet Movie Database Top 250 Films list (as I frequently do), there are currently 17 animations among those 250 films. Nine of them bear the stamp of the fairytale castle at the beginning, but only two were old school Disney (Beauty And The Beast and The Lion King, in case you were wondering). The other seven – Toy Storys 1 and 3, Up, Wall•E, Ratatouille, Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc. – all share the castle opening with that of an anglepoise lamp jumping on a letter. (Quiz question for you – can you name the other eight, non-Disney movies? Answer at the bottom.) Pixar has become so synonymous with not only quality, but outstanding quality of both animation and storytelling, that the expectation on every film they make is almost inevitably going to prefix disappointment. Movies such as the Cars films, and to a certain extent Brave, would have felt perfectly acceptable, even decent, from other studios, but from Pixar they feel missed opportunities, so high has the bar been raised. Now, the studio seems intent on mining its back catalogue, buoyed by the success of Toy Story sequels and now set to find more fish (in the upcoming Finding Dory) and to scare more monsters. But did the world really need a prequel to Monsters, Inc.?

It feels an incredibly safe storytelling decision from a studio renowned for narrative bravery, not least because the various endings of Monsters, Inc. would seem to preclude any sensible sequel without diminishing the magic of the original. So we’re presented with what, for a decent length of the run time, is about as predictable an American college / fraternity movie as you could possibly imagine. Inspired by a school visit to the local scaring company, Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) dreams of becoming a top scarer. Pursuing this dream all the way to college to major in scaring, Mike meets many of the familiar faces we’ll know from his future, including his friendly roommate Randall (Steve Buscemi) and the arrogant jock monster James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman). They are all in fear of the university’s ominous Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), and when Mike and Sulley inadvertently upset the dean, they both end up off the Scare Program. The only way back in looks to be an alliance with the dorkiest fraternity on campus, Oozma Kappa, and somehow getting them in shape to win the college’s Scare Games.

There are very few points anywhere in the duration of Monsters University where you get the feeling that this was a story that needed to be told. Where most Pixar feels fresh, vibrant and can often move you to tears, the only tears here will be those of frustration during the opening stretches when the laughs seem to have been scared off and the monsters are playing out the plot in the most predictable way possible. There’s a few reasonable gags, but it’s not until the movie reaches the Scare Games that the laughs start flowing thick and fast. This is a relief, as it’s then easier to overlook the predictability of the plot – which may as well be on rails, so predestined does it seem on its course – and to enjoy Monsters University for what it is, which is a decent amount of fun from that second act onwards. All of the returning voices, from Crystal to Goodman via a fair few background monsters in a variety of fun cameos dotted liberally through the run time, fit snugly back into their original roles but some of the new characters are less successful. While the likes of Nathan Fillion and Aubrey Plaza fill out the background well, the weakest link might just be Helen Mirren as the dean, simply for the fact that she’s just being Helen Mirren being a monster, and it never feels quite enough for her character.

Of course, this Pixar movie – as with every other Pixar movie – still manages to look gorgeous, achieving a strange mix of almost photorealism mixed with cartoon monsters, but every frame is a visual feast. What the original had in spades, as do most Pixar movies, were a level of invention and surprise that would feed ten other normal movies; the climax, with the chase through the realm of doors, can’t quite be matched here, but a smaller scale finale is almost as effective, favouring atmosphere over spectacle and still satisfying as a resolution. The last stretch of the film feels the most genuinely Pixar, where the plot doesn’t always go where you’d quite expect and where the character beats manage to strike just the right notes. The real problem with Pixar is the rod they’ve made for their own back with such a sustained period of immaculate quality, but it would be wrong to feel hard done by with a good Pixar movie instead of a great one, when their good still manages to outdo the great of almost everyone else. But, while the Toy Story movies managed to feel necessary for their characters, Monsters University is more disposable; let’s just hope this studio learns when to stop going to the well before it’s too late.

Why see it at the cinema: It’s a Pixar movie, so of course it’s packed with rich and incidental detail, so while you won’t have the luxury of a pause button, you will be able to pick out a decent number of the tiny and obscure references in the background thanks to the cinema screen. Also, the second and third acts have a high level of laughs, comparable to the original, and that always works better with an audience.

Why see it in 3D: It’s a tricky one: there’s nothing offensive about the 3D, but nothing compelling about it either. It adds depth of vision, but there’s none of the minions-in-your-face malarkey of Despicable Me 2, its likely box office competition in the UK this summer. The best I can say is if that you’re not paying a significant 3D premium, don’t mind the glasses and can’t find a 2D screening, then the 3D is perfectly watchable.

What about the rating: Rated U for mild slapstick and comic threat, meaning anyone over the age of four can see this, with or without parents. And you all should.

My cinema experience: Saw this at a preview with two burly women in attendance at the door, looking for all the world like night club bouncers and rather aggressively insisting that Mrs Evangelist turn her phone off before we entered. As it turns out, thankfully the standard of ushering hadn’t dropped sharply, it was actually two employees from the House Of Mouse there to ensure we didn’t spread the film all over t’internet before it was even released. So nervous did that make Mrs E and I, we didn’t stop to see if there’s an end credits scene. Apparently there is, and it sounds like a decent LOL, so do stay if you’re into that sort of thing. (End credits, that is, not LOLs. Of course you’re into LOLs.)

The Score: 8/10

Answer to the earlier quiz question: The eight non-Disney produced or distributed movies in the IMDb Top 250 at the time of writing are Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro, Grave Of The Fireflies, Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind and Howl’s Moving Castle (all Studio Ghibli), How To Train Your Dragon (Dreamworks) and Mary And Max (Melodrama Pictures). If you got them all, then you obviously cheated. Shame on you.

IMAX Review: Toy Story 3D

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The Pitch: The Toy Box Redemption.

The Review: After the success of the first two Toy Story movies, there can be few people who’ve set foot in a cinema or DVD rental store in recent years who haven’t seen the originals of this series, especially if they have kids. Every one of those people, I’d be willing to wager, has their own Woody or Buzz, the toy that stands out from their childhood above all others. Apart from some teddy bears that were mine at a very early age, the toy I played with most in my childhood was my Optimus Prime, something I was still playing with when most of my contemporaries had moved out of the toy box and onto more grown up things. (I had stopped before most of them had girlfriends, in case you were wondering.) And I sat through the two Transformers movies chewing my nails; after being (spoiler alert) killed off in the animated movie from the Eighties, I lived with the same fear that my childhood favourite would meet an unpleasant end.

Which feels appropriate for the feelings going into this, the third and possibly final chapter in the saga, especially given how Pixar will happily take out a character (Nemo’s mum, Carl’s wife) if it serves the story. After dealing with workplace rivalry first time out and issues of loyalty and friendship last time, it’s obsolescence, old age and retirement that are the main themes here, coupled with a strong sense of moving on. Andy (John Morris) is getting ready for college, and that sense of packing up and having to move on will be familiar to anyone who’s ever moved, for any reason, and left loved ones behind. For the toys, the question is simple – what happens next?

So we get a classic narrative where the main protagonists get split up – Buzz and the rest of the gang play out the prison movie where the threat of danger is present every time the school bell rings, and Woody gets to explore the possibilities of what retirement could mean, while through it all continuing to cling to the belief that there’s still something to get from his relationship with Andy. The central cast of characters has been reduced to the core of the main cast from the first two movies (leading to the first poignant moment when you realise who’s no longer there); but there’s a whole host of new toys on offer, both in Buzz and Woody’s adventures. Standouts are Ned Beatty’s Lotso, the bear that smells of strawberries but who may be slightly bitter underneath, Timothy Dalton’s Mr Pricklepants, who is one of the few toys to fully understand the potential of the toys’ roles as actors for their children, and Michael Keaton’s Ken, who perfectly embodies the neuroses of being a girl’s toy trapped in a straight man toy’s body. (Well, mostly straight – his love of fashion would put Tyra Banks or Gok Wan to shame.)

To fully justify a third visit to the well, you feel that the movie needs to up its game in every area. There are a few, Randy Newman’s music being the most obvious example, where actually it’s only as good as the last couple and doesn’t really stretch. The comedy, while having plentiful highlights, is certainly no more than the equal of the last movie (although my favourite squidgy alien moments are all in this one now). So it’s the drama and the themes that take this to a new level – there’s a sense of genuine dread and jeopardy that increases through the course of the narrative that’s willing to take this Toy Story to darker places than the first two, and it’s all the more rewarding for that.

But to be compared as the equal of either of the first two movies is as impressive a yardstick as you could hope for. Pixar have set the bar higher than almost anyone around; this is certainly the equal of the second movie in the series, and as such is as fine a final outing as we could possibly have hoped for. Both the main cast and all of the new additions excel in their roles, and if you’ve ever cried at a movie before, prepare to cry in the last half hour of this one, although if anyone wants to learn how to do multiple endings to a trilogy, they should watch this and not The Lord Of The Rings. I do hope, though, that the short film with these characters that will play before Cars 2 notwithstanding, that the trilogy is left a trilogy, as this is a fitting end to the journey of Woody and Buzz.

(And speaking of short films, Pixar’s eleventh feature is the tenth to have a short film in front of it; Day and Night is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, a wonderful mix of 2D and 3D CGI and hand-drawn concepts, and is a pure delight, standing up to the other short films as strongly as the main feature does to its brothers.)

Why see it at the cinema: The showing I was at got a round of applause at the end. That’s only the third time I’ve ever seen (or heard) that at a showing I’ve been to. If that’s not a recommendation for the cinema, I don’t know what is.

Why see it in 3D: This is not an obviously showy 3D film, that’s not how Pixar do things. But the level of texture and detail do come across even better in 3D, and there don’t seem to be the darkness issues that have plagued some other 3D releases, due to the nature of the process.

Why see it on IMAX: The picture and sound quality are unsurpassed, and the love that Pixar put into every frame comes over on the big screen. The monkey mushroom cloud in the opening sequence looks so impressive, you’ll swear you can see every individual monkey.

The Score: 10/10

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Toy Story 3: When Will The Backlash Start?

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The World Cup. You have to hate it, don’t you? Well, as a fairly normal Englishman I shouldn’t (unless of course we have lost to Slovenia by the time you’re reading this), but one of the side effects for the UK seems to have been that we’ve had a bit of a wait for Toy Story 3 to come out. While release windows have closed on a lot of movies (to the extent where we even got Iron Man 2 first this year), Disney and Pixar films still seem to take a while to make the transition, and the fact that no-one would have been in cinemas in the UK to see it this week just hasn’t helped, apparently.

So I’m still some weeks away from seeing the movie (and am at present checking the BFI website daily so I can book tickets to see it in IMAX, even though I’m on their mailing list), and all that’s doing is causing my own personal hype and anticipation to ramp up to fairly uncomfortable levels. And the reception that this threequel has received is only serving to ramp that up further.

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