Pixar Animation Studios’ latest film, Monsters University, may seem like just another in a line of Pixar revisits to their past characters, but it actually represents several firsts, much like their Academy Award-winning film from last year, Brave.
The Blue Umbrella
Directed by: Saschka Unseld
Pixar has a long tradition of showing an animated short film before each of their films, and Monsters University is no different, with The Blue Umbrella serving as the film’s opening act. What you may not know is Pixar has another long tradition (their traditions are many): they like to try new things within these short films. With The Blue Umbrella, Pixar employed new techniques in photorealism: lighting, shading, and compositing; you can certainly tell, as this short is a drastic departure from the usual look of Pixar’s animation. They’ve expressed their desire, in the past, to make their worlds look real enough to be believable but not so real that you’re taken out of the feeling that you’re watching a story; this was an issue with early animation on Finding Nemo that made the water look so photorealistic that you couldn’t tell it was animated–yes, Pixar is so good at animation that they are sometimes too good.
The photorealism wasn’t a problem, at all, with The Blue Umbrella; in fact, I loved it. The story is essentially two umbrellas meeting and falling in love with each other. I swear Pixar is bound and determined to anthropomorphize our entire world. I already empathize with my childhood toys, cars, bugs, and unicycles; The Blue Umbrella‘s gentle, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse-esque animate-inanimate faces are going to have me seeing life in everything. Speaking of that unicycle: with its rainy, city streets; somber characterizations; and color coordination, The Blue Umbrella immediately felt like an updated version of Red’s Dream, the 1987 animated short written, directed, and animated by John Lasseter. Pixar has also been known to test out directors with their short films, too; in fact, Dan Scanlon’s first directing job with the studio was on the short Mater and the Ghost Light, so we can potentially expect to see Saschka Unseld tackle a feature-length Pixar film in the future. This is an invaluable “farm system” for Pixar, that keeps their directing pen stocked full, even as their veteran’s like Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton move on to live-action films (although, I’m glad to see Stanton returning to direct Finding Dory, the sequel to his Finding Nemo).
Directed by: Dan Scanlon
Unlike their previous ventures back into the lives of characters, Monsters University is not another Pixar sequel; it is, instead, their first prequel. The film finds a young Mike Wazowski who dreams of being a professional scarer and crashes his meticulously plotted life into that of the slacker-jock that is the young James P. “Sully” Sullivan. They both attend Monsters University, the premiere college for aspiring scarers (much better than Fear Tech), and many spoilers happen that eventually result in their friendship. That’s not a spoiler, since, you know, the first film follows this one.
First, within seconds–literally, seconds–you’re right back into the rich and complete world of Monsters Inc, as if you had never left it. The look and tone of the film almost brought Pavlovian tears to my eyes, just from remembering the many times I’ve watched Monsters Inc. while someone just happened to be cutting onions. There’s nothing missing from the film for those fans of the first movie who, like myself, felt an emotional pull willing them into the theater on opening day. What’s more, even though Pixar never focuses the attention on the actors (they prefer to let the story sell their movies), it was so good to hear so many of the same voices again (Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, and–of course–John Ratzenberger), and it was very interesting to see the little things thrown in to “explain” events and character actions in that occur in Monsters Inc.
Second, there are obviously new things. Pixar goes to college… and joins a fraternity; we haven’t seen the Pixar take on this life event, and Monsters University almost serves as a spiritual successor to Toy Story 3, which ends with Andy leaving for college. I feel like a lot of kids who watched Monsters Inc twelve years ago should be drawn to Monsters University in the same way teenagers and young adults were drawn to Toy Story 3, because a lot of them are of college age, now. Many of the characters and events feel contemporary (such as one middle-aged student who had to go back to college and “learn the computers” after being downsized), but there are plenty of tried and true tropes parents will recognize from ’80s college movies–although, they’re made even more awesome by the fact that they are caricatured “monster” versions of those familiar tropes. One such reimagining of a familiar plot device is the way the film treats scaring as if it’s essentially college football, with coach pep talks and crazy fans (although, it also feels a bit like an ’80s ski-competition movie). The point is, Pixar clearly did their homework on “college” movies and damn near perfected a satirization of them. On top of that, we’re treated to a nice sequence where we see, perhaps, what a Pixar horror film would be like–complete with expert deconstruction of being the scarer, as opposed to the scaree.
As the Walt Disney quote goes, and is often quoted by Pixar’s John Lasseter, “For every laugh, there should be a tear.” Of course, it’s not meant to be taken literally (presumably), because it would be pretty damn difficult to be that precise, but all of Pixar’s films aim for a good balance. Monsters University definitely delivers; it’s written, directed, and animated with the seeming intention of making you not only sad for the events within the movie but also the relationship those events have with the events of Monsters Inc. it’s just a very well-constructed prequel, which is difficult to accomplish. It manages to stand alone, while also reconnecting the audience with the other film, and the biggest share of credit for that, I’d say, lies in the hands of its director Dan Scanlon whose only previous feature-length directing job was on the very funny mockumentary Tracy. As for the 3D? If you’d prefer the kind of 3D that is obvious and–in my opinion–distracting, you might as well never see a Pixar film in 3D because they always go for the more subtle approach–for which I’m thankful. I’m afraid I have nothing negative to say about this movie; it should scare up an awful lot of fans.
Yeah, I punned.