Wednesday 17 July 2013

Flunkin': "Monsters University"

If there was any pressing creative reason for a follow-up to 2001's Monsters, Inc., it would surely have emerged earlier than it has. After all, it took Pixar only four years to progress from Toy Story to Toy Story 2, which seemed long at a time when the company was bursting with ideas and energy, but perhaps processor chips weren't running as fast back then as they do today. It's taken twelve years to get from Monsters, Inc. to Monsters University, and here we find the series actually going backwards - into prequel territory - to the extent that its closing scenes seem specifically designed to send very young audiences out of the auditorium pestering their parents and keepers to buy them the DVD of the first movie. Previous Pixar films were born of the company playroom; this one - like Cars 2 before it, and most likely the upcoming Nemo sequel Finding Dory - comes right out of the boardroom. The company has grown up, and comprehensively lost its innocence.

The main narrative business here concerns how walking eyeball Mike (again voiced by Billy Crystal) and furry Sully (John Goodman) first met, at the eponymous institution: the former then a nerdy outcast with braces, the latter, a very big man on campus, trading with increasing desperation on an apparently illustrious family name. (Neither Crystal nor Goodman bother to pitch their voices an octave or two higher to fit the characters' youthfulness, but New Pixar presumes we won't care about such details.) Yet where the original created a world and came up with an occasionally affecting story to work through, MU trades lazily on its target audience's desire to pal around with these characters again, committing only to the kind of skitty, riffy set-pieces you see in every other animated feature these days.

The university's participation in the annual Scare Games cues more 3D-"enhanced" running about, and the film promptly rushes past its own better ideas. Where MI knew it could spend its entire third act within its own lovingly sketched universe of bedroom doors, MU shows us a maze from above, then skitters off in another direction entirely, hoping attention-deficient cinemagoers will follow. Throughout, director Dan Scanlon and his co-writers studiously avoid anything that might resemble the human touch that could be discerned in the work of their illustrious predecessors Lasseter, Stanton, Docter and Bird, deferring wherever possible to the algorithm and the core processor: everything has been formulated and sped through, the better to cram in more screenings per day.

The degree to which these digimations have saturated the marketplace and started treading on one another's tails is apparent from an early joke involving a late-running snail: it's a nice try, but it's already been spoiled by the trailer for DreamWorks' upcoming mollusc-centred Turbo, currently playing before Monsters University. That gag isn't the only thing here to have been stamped on, corrupted or otherwise devalued. Back in 2001, the casting of Crystal and Goodman as a wisecracking double-act could still be considered a coup; since then, Crystal has been reduced to the likes of Parental Guidance, while Goodman has taken on so many anything-goes gigs (Flight, The Hangover Part III, The Internship) that it's become difficult to discern which ones his heart is genuinely in.

There remain signs in Monsters University that if Pixar tried - if they were really pushed by a marketplace (and an audience) that didn't automatically turn every last heavily marketed animation into a billion-dollar megahit - they could still scrape together something worthwhile from their dwindling creative reserves. I liked certain notes in the characterisation (Helen Mirren as a dragonfly dean going under the inspired name of Hardscrabble, a many-eyed soccer mom who reveals her passion for death metal in the one joke here worthy of Old Pixar), and the busy, textured recreation of a college football stadium, its crowds, and the turf. But these are less objects of rapture than happy accidents, straws you cling to within what's most often an indistinct and nondescript blur of colour and movement with less to amuse accompanying adults than the only moderately witty Despicable Me 2.

I was never completely sold on Monsters, Inc. - in either its 2D or retrofitted 3D incarnations - a state of affairs that might have had something to do with its subtext extolling the joys of the factory line. This far along the conveyor belt, Mike and Sully really have become monsters, corporate avatars touting their cuddliness in order to deprive parents of hard-earned leisure time and whatever money they might have left after paying the bills, and in so doing helping to turn our dreams and nightmares into the stuff of grim contractual obligation. Their reteaming has been positioned very professionally - on the side of every bus, and at the very heart of pop culture - as the pre-eminent multiplex option for killing a couple of hours of your offspring's summer holiday. But might we not ask for more from our children's entertainments than to be this obviously mercenary?

Monsters University is in cinemas nationwide.

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