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Disney Blu-ray Roundup: ‘Monsters University’

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2013 has been, by all accounts, a forgettable year of mainstream animated films at best, and a woeful one at worst. With only two fully animated films left to be released on a wide platform—the upcoming 20th Century Fox film Walking with Dinosaurs is partially animated—it’s not likely that anyone will look back on this 12-month period as being a landmark year for animation. (Those two fully animated films are Free Birds, opening this Friday; and Frozen, opening at the end of the month. My hopes are much higher for the latter. Also, Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, The Wind Rises, will have a 1-week release very soon for Oscar consideration, hence the “wide platform” qualifier.) Up until now, the best animated film of the year has been, almost predictably, from Pixar Animation Studios: Monsters University, a prequel to the widely beloved Monsters, Inc.; it’s being released on a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack nationwide today. The consensus on this new film, as commercially successful as it was, hovered roughly around “fine.” It was, most seemed to say, a more coherent step up from Cars 2 or Brave, but nothing as special as either the four films prior to Cars 2, or Monsters, Inc.

I will not, here, go so far out on a branch as to say that Monsters University is the equal of Ratatouille or Up, but even if I must do so alone (or in a small minority), I’ll absolutely argue that this prequel is better than its 2001 “sequel.” The story of how Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan, best friends and the kings of the factory where monsters collect children’s screams for their power, have to deal with the accidental intrusion of a human child into their world is fast, funny, and colorful. But the key relationship in Monsters, Inc., as its many fans would attest, is between Sulley and Boo, that little girl who has a propensity for mischief. And as many times as I’ve seen all or parts of Monsters, Inc., I just don’t feel the same pull from that duo as I do from WALL-E and Eve, Woody and Buzz, Carl and Ellie, Marlin and Dory, and so on. As manically paced as Monsters, Inc. is, it’s not nearly as emotionally strong, to me, as it should be. The final shot of the film, both because of the detailed animation and John Goodman’s quavering baritone, is sweet, but lacking in uplift.

Monsters University, for all its adherence to the college-level underdog tropes, is a far richer, smarter, and more mature film than its predecessor. The high-concept hook—what if Mike and Sulley met in college and, instead of being best friends, hated each other’s guts?—is but a lampshade on which to hang an adult discussion of facing up to the fact that failure is one of life’s guarantees, while also not automatically being the worst thing to happen to us. Whereas Monsters, Inc.’s central character is Goodman’s Sulley, the big, blue, furry monster who’s been a champion Scarer for years, Monsters University takes a deeper look at Billy Crystal’s Mike, who’s introduced as the kind of kid who wants to be Dwyane Wade or Michael Jordan or David Ortiz, but never will be. He’s collected all the Scarer Cards, he’s studied all the books, he’s more determined to be the best possible Scarer than anyone else, and he’s worked harder than anyone else. But if you’ve seen Monsters, Inc., you know Mike’s dream is just that, and will never become a reality.

Here, director and co-writer Dan Scanlon successfully cracks the nut of making a prequel. It’s likely that the target audience for a prequel is so familiar with what came before that there’s zero tension. The question, for example, is not if Anakin Skywalker will turn into Darth Vader. It’s how. We know it’s coming. And we know that Mike Wazowski isn’t a Scarer, that his true goal is both to coach and to make children laugh. (The latter is a goal he won’t even realize is possible until he’s much older.) On a repeat viewing of Pixar’s latest, Mike’s painful acceptance that everything he’s dedicated his life to up to this point is for naught remains potent, visceral, and true. What’s most surprising isn’t that Pixar can continue to tap wells of emotional depth, but that a movie whose message is that accepting your limitations is an inherently positive thing comes from Pixar at all. I was struck, then, by some of the special features on the Monsters University Blu-ray pack. The second Blu-ray disc is all supplements, many of which are detailed looks at the technical elements on display in this film. However, there are a few that stand out for different reasons, such as the Path to Pixar: MU Edition feature, in which a number of the crew members, including Scanlon, discuss how it was that they came to work for the animation studio in Emeryville, California. It’s frankly heartening to see Scanlon or story supervisor Kelsey Mann talk honestly about being rejected; Mann has a rejection letter with him in the feature, and points out the encouragement buried within the initial bad news.

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In watching this and many of the other special features, I also realized something that may have been obvious to some on this film’s initial release, but is really emphasized on the Blu-ray: Monsters University is a film totally made by Pixar’s new guard. John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich, and Pete Docter (who directed Monsters, Inc.) are all executive producers on the project; Lasseter, Unkrich, and Docter appear in behind-the-scenes footage, each for a split second. Otherwise, they’re absent from the supplements and from the production crew. In some ways, then, I watched Monsters University this second time and saw it as these newer filmmakers turning their frustrations and neuroses into those of the characters. Instead of monsters hoping to be accepted to the Monsters, Inc. factory, I imagined the animators in art school hoping to create the right kind of portfolio to be accepted into Pixar. Obviously, many of the touches in giving dimension and development to Mike and Sulley are not unique to art students hoping to get into an animation studio. But even Sulley’s bubbling insecurities—that he’s part of a legacy and is constantly terrified of the pressure associated with his family name—feel like a personification of how Pixar’s animators feel now that some of its most well-known directors are moving on to bigger and better things, leaving the newbies to carry on. That this is all somehow relatable speaks to the deft hand with which Scanlon and fellow screenwriters Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird are able to craft both Mike’s and Sulley’s emotional arc. Both of themwill, eventually, find a way into Monsters, Inc., because of course they will. But how they reach that point, and how they enter this vaunted factory at which they’ve placed all of their childhood hopes, is immensely satisfying.

As is, I’m thrilled to say, the Monsters University Blu-ray pack. I have harped on Disney in the past for not treating their catalog Blu-ray releases with much care and attention. (I will do so again, I am sure.) This even extends to new animated films like Wreck-It Ralph. My mild opinion of that film aside, it has a very large fanbase, one that deserved better than a Blu-ray set that was touted as being a multi-disc collector’s edition in spite of having literally an hour of special features, and that’s if you count the Paperman short, video game commercials, and 10 minutes of unrelated sneak previews. So maybe it’s just that the people at Pixar care enough to overload their feature Blu-rays with supplements. If so, kudos to them. The first disc isn’t just the feature, but also includes The Blue Umbrella, the short attached to the film in theaters; and a feature commentary with Scanlon, Mann, and producer Kori Rae. The Blue Umbrella is something of a letdown, a true rarity at Pixar: a short that just doesn’t work. On a technical level, the short, about a lovestruck blue umbrella in the big city, is a curiosity, but that’s about it. It seems more experimental, a way to play with photorealistic techniques. Those techniques are too close to the uncanny valley, however; even on an HDTV, it’s legitimately difficult in a handful of shots to tell if director Saschka Unseld filmed scenes in live-action or animation. Strangely, that’s less of a compliment than you might think.

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The commentary is informative and friendly, but mostly as fascinated with the near-scientific technique of making a film as it is with the emotional beats. (Here, as in another supplement, the most notable information may come early: Scanlon once again acknowledges how this film goes against a throwaway line in the first film in which Mike references how he and Sulley have known each other since the fourth grade. The evolution of how Scanlon and crew came to separate their film from this line is fascinating. But now, I agree with him: let’s move on from this peccadillo.) Many of the special features drill down into various aspects of the making of Monsters University, from color and light to Randy Newman’s bouncy, marching-band-inspired score to character design. All of these features have a scholarly, technical tone; mathematical equations are invoked at one point, in explaining how the animators had to figure out how to manipulate Sulley’s fur. As much as the explanations may seem overly complicated, the information is a welcome addition to the Blu-ray. In truth, watching the supplements in advance of revisiting the film itself, I found myself appreciating those details more, whether it was Sulley’s fur or the texture of wood that’s been scratched by monstrous claws, or even the light and shadow employed from scene to scene. It is, by now, a given that a Pixar film is expertly, colorfully animated. To see how that particular sausage is made from film to film is never not captivating. Also captivating is the Campus Life feature, a 15-minute look at a day in the life of Pixar, from Scanlon’s point of view. No shock, of course, that a animated feature director’s work day is overstuffed with meetings and creative decisions of all types. What makes this feature so delightful is its extended peek into the inner workings at Pixar. Do I need to know that, one day in the past, Swiss char was the lunch special at Pixar’s cafeteria? No, but that knowledge is a great way to make me jealous, if nothing else. (I have no shame at reacting to this feature by wishing I could work at Pixar. Looks like paradise.)

Monsters University was, by most accounts, a fine film, but one that didn’t try as hard as some of Pixar’s most original works. It’s easy to see why people leap to that conclusion; no doubt, working with previously introduced characters is safer than building an entirely new world and people to inhabit it. In that respect, Monsters University is safe. But in every other respect, this is a delightful and exciting film in a package that’s equally so. This film works around the inherent trouble of being a prequel by acknowledging the sad, inevitable truth of life: failure is just around the corner. You have to roll into it, or else it’ll consume you. Failure is at the core of Monsters University, a film many people (I include myself here) presumed would be another step down for Pixar, a minor misstep for a typically confident, assured company. The story of how Mike Wazowski became best friends with James P. Sullivan and, in doing so, accepted the limits of his abilities is, thankfully, the opposite of a failure, as confident as Pixar’s best, and even more of an assured triumph than our first foray into the world of monsters.

— Josh Spiegel


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