We start this week’s show with a discussion about the furore surrounding Wong Jing’s upcoming Chinese New Year offering From Vegas To Macau 3, before giving a shoutout to the marvellous animated short Pineapple Calamari and then moving on to reviews of Alvin & The Chipmunks: The Road Chip and Pixar’s troubled The Good Dinosaur.
This week on Radio 3’s Morning Brew I chat with Phil about Terminator Genisys, the latest instalment in the apocalyptic time-traveling robot saga, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Emilia Clarke. Then I offer up an unpopular opinion on Pete Docter’s Inside Out, the latest animated offering from Pixar.
I’m not sure you ever need an excuse to revisit what is arguably the crowning achievement from Pixar’s impressive “first run”. Pitch perfect entertainment for children and adults alike, on this particular viewing (probably my 4th) it occured to me that this film represents the changing of the guard at Pixar, which has resulted in the sharp decline in quality that has followed with Cars 2, Brave and Monsters University. Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton, Pete Doctor and John Lasseter are essentially Andy here – passing on their legacy to the likes of Lee Unkrich (the director here) just as Andy finally relinquishes possession of his toys at the film’s end. Andy knows that Woody and Buzz will be safe, but must concede that they will never be quite the same again. Hell, little Bonnie might change their names, give some of them away, break or even lose them. We will always have what came before, but the overwhelming feeling of loss of innocence at the end of the film perfectly brings to a close the glory days of that first generation of storytellers at Pixar studios. Let’s just hope “Bonnie” comes of age sooner rather than later.
In what was considered by many to be an unnecessary prequel to the excellent Monsters, Inc. we learn how Mike and Sulley met at the titular hotbed of education and due to an eronious set of contrivances, are kicked off the Scaring course. The only way back is to join a fraternity and win the Scare Games (courtesy of a bet made between Mike and the fearsome Dean Hardscrabble). So, in typical college movie fashion (Animal House, Old School etc) they are forced to join a misfit collage of weirdos and outcasts in the no-hopers fraternity, only to discover that as a team they might just have what it takes to come through.
It’s all perfectly entertaining while it’s up there on the screen. Plenty of praise has been showered on the prologue (or prequel to the prequel) that sees primary schooler Mike go on a field trip to Monsters, Inc, but pretty quickly it all starts to fade into mediocrity. The first film had a smart, original premise and buckets of heart to go with the laughs, primarily in the form of young Boo, whom the boys are forced to adopt. We learn about the monsters’ ignorance of the human world, that laughter is more valuable than fear, and there is an epic rivalry between Sulley and Randy that sparks with real menace.
Here we have almost none of that, just a parade of frat boy jokes, sporting events, gags that exist solely to utilize some freakish new monster designs (and vice versa), and a scarcity of material that feels genuinely fresh and original in the way that first dozen Pixar movies did. The changing of the guard at the studio post-Up has been glaringly obvious, with Lasseter, Stanton, Doctor and Bird stepping back to allow a new generation of filmmakers to take the helm. This would be fine if the company hadn’t simultaneously lost faith in original product, instead going back to the well to rehash past victories. Sure, it worked for the Toy Story films when nobody thought it would, but Cars 2 was childish nonsense, and Monsters University is just bland and derivative.
With news of Finding Dory going into production there seems little hope of the fad changing up any time soon, and the scene at the end of Toy Story 3, when Andy hands over his beloved, humanised possessions to a new childish mind full of wonder, yet determined to remold them to suit her less-developed tastes, seems all the more poignant.
When people list their favourite Pixar animated films, Monsters, Inc. doesn’t often get a mention. Yet, it was a highly successful, well received film and perhaps the most re-watched Pixar hit in ours and many other family homes.
So, it’s no surprise Pixar decided to revisit the story, seeing as how we already have two Cars films and three in the Toy Story series. This time though, we have a prequel, as we meet younger versions of the characters from the original at school and then university.
Much of the storyline is funny, but made of fairly worn out stuff; the band of misfit underdogs who fight their way towards an improbable victory while battling the absurd social norms of college life. It’s not only wearisome because we’ve seen it so many times before, it’s also wearisome because it’s so US-centric. University life outside the US bares little resemblance to the rituals and customs we see in Monsters University.
But, this is Pixar. In the final act, just as we think the story is winding down, the film pulls the rug out from under us, shifts and simultaneously becomes more perilous and emotionally charged. It’s not quite as powerful as the final act of Toy Story 3, but it’s still moving in its own way. It might be harsh to say it redeems the film, but without doubt, Monsters University saves its best moments for the concluding scenes.