"Monsters University" (2013)

Monsters University (2013)
Directed by: Dan Scanlon
Running time: 104 minutes

Is anyone else really concerned about the amount of prequels and sequels that Pixar Animation Studios are doing/planning to do lately? It began with Toy Story 3*, which was amazing undoubtedly, but then followed with Cars 2, and an announcement for Monsters University and Finding Dory. Personally, that was three more sequel/prequels than I would have liked to be happening, as outside of Toy Story there were no other mysteries or questions I wanted answered from previous Pixar franchises so I would have preferred that Pixar did what Pixar does best: original, beautiful, heartfelt, childish-yet-adult storytelling. I wanted more films like WALL-E and Up (my two personal Pixar favourites), and not for Pixar to start becoming like what every other top tier movie studio is becoming: a machine for producing sequels and reboots.

I’ve prattled on long enough, but I just wanted you to understand the mindset I had going in to Monsters University; and I wanted you to feel the full impact of my words when I say: I am much less concerned about all the Pixar sequels now.

Now Showing this week is Monsters University, directed by Dan Scanlon in his Pixar directorial debut. Set an undetermined amount of time prior to the original Monsters Inc., Monsters University tells the tale of a younger Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) enrolling at the prestigious “Monsters University” majoring in “Scaring”. Mike has dreamed of being a Scarer since a school trip to Monsters Inc. and he is more determined than anyone else to achieve his dream. However, all his book smarts and knowledge of scaring technique can’t quite get him past his issue of not being an overly scary monster, and his classmate/rival James Sullivan (John Goodman) is one of the scariest monsters around (or at least, he can roar the most fiercely!). Following an incident that I shan’t spoil, both Mike and Sully are expelled from the Scare Program, and their future at MU hangs in the balance. To reclaim their studies, they must compete in the annual Scare Games. With a team of misfit nerds, their competition are some of the scariest teams on campus. If Mike and Sully win, they can resume their studies. If they lose, they face expulsion from the entire university!

The biggest trouble I have with prequels is that I struggle to be invested in them when I essentially know what the end result is going to be. We all know that eventually Mike and Sully become the monsters who break the “All Time Scare Record” in Monsters Inc. with Sully as a Scarer and Mike as a Scare-technician-person (what were they called again?!) and therefore we can pretty much discern how this whole Scare Games plot line would play out. Well, yes you would think you could discern that in these circumstances, but Monsters University does an amazing thing that all prequels should do, and they should all be taking notes! Monsters University takes surprise twists and turns that still end up with the results it needs for continuity purposes, but gives the audience something more that makes the prequel worth their time. Without going into specifics, the big highlight of this film for me was the journey of Mike, with him having so many hopes and aspirations at the beginning of his studies to him realising that perhaps he just isn’t cut out for the job he wanted most in the world and that he would have to find something else to make his career out of. Granted, most kids movies would go there, but then they would say “but wait, turns out you had ‘it’ all along!” and everything is sunshine and rainbows. But Monsters University doesn’t have that latter part; Monsters University simply says “that’s life”. And I found that to be an extremely powerful message, and a very realistic one. In a world full of “don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t follow your dreams” ending morals, I commend Pixar for trying a “not everyone is cut to be (for example) an astronaut. But that’s OK” kind of message. As someone who has experienced this feeling, it resonated very deeply.

On the lighter side of things, Monsters University is absolutely hilarious, particularly if you have ever attended university. Myself and the friend I saw it with (both of us university graduates) were in hysterics more than anyone else in the cinema and I distinctly recall the two children next to us loudly whispering “why are they laughing?!” on several occasions! Pixar has so accurately captured the aspects of new student life that it was side-splittingly funny. They had everything: the disgustingly cheery orientation guides, the spur of the moment student ID photos, the student union people hassling you in the quad, wandering through all the weird and obscure student clubs; you name it, it was in it! In a way similar to Toy Story 3, Monsters University seems to be catered not only to children and their parents, but also to the younger adults; the ones currently in, or recently graduated from, university. With the possible exception of the brave dark twist on the story line, I feel all the university in-jokes was one of the best things about this film.

The only real drawback I could attribute to Monsters University is that some of the character relationships were throw aside far too casually. The big one for me was the whole subplot (if I could even call it that, it is barely there!) involving Randell, the chameleon villain from the original film. Beginning the movie with Randell being Mike’s best friend/roommate, Randell very quickly fades away from sight and memory, occasionally popping up now and then as though the writers suddenly remembered they had to make him hate Mike and Sully so they’d better write it so that they inconvenience him in small ways. Other than that, the film has a great new cast of colourful characters, played by an excellent group of actors (including Helen Mirren and Nathan Fillion!) who perform their roles wonderfully.

While many may feel like Pixar has lost their touch in recent years, Monsters University is still worth your time. It may not be Up or WALL-E, but it is a childish film that conveys a very adult message, and that in itself is something to praise. And even if Monsters University isn’t the best of Pixar’s work, Pixar are still the greatest at what they do: they make great, high quality children’s films, with a little more to them than most. And Monsters University is certainly no exception to that rule.

See you next time!

P.S. if you’re interested in Monsters Inc. have a look at this great article explaining an amazing theory as to what led the monsters to believe that children are toxic! Monsters Inc. is listed as number three.

Cracked: 5 Fan Theories That Make Classic Movies Even Better

*yes there was a Toy Story 2 but that was the only sequel Pixar had made the in fifteen years prior to this one so I can forgive it!


"Man of Steel" (2013)

Man of Steel (2013)
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Running time: 143 minutes

There is one thing that I always try my best to avoid when approaching a review, and that thing is “spoilers”. When deciding what points to cover throughout the post, I always try to think of ways to express my views without ruining the film for someone who has not seen it. I also try not to say anything beyond things that I feel the filmmakers don’t mind you knowing ahead of viewing. An example of this would be I would explain the premise of a film, but only if the audience not having any idea of what is going on is not part of the film’s narrative. However, there do come times when I feel I cannot say what I truly want to say without giving pieces of the film away, and sadly I feel that Man of Steel is one of those times.

For those of you who always skip my opening paragraphs, that was a really roundabout way of me saying: SPOILER WARNING!

Now Showing this week is Man of Steel, a reboot of the Superman franchise directed by Zack Snyder. Following the destruction of the planet Krypton, Kal-El (Henry Cavill) arrives on Earth as a child after having been sent away by his father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) prior to the planet’s demise. Kal is found by Jonathan and Martha Kent and is raised as their son, whom they re-name Clark Kent. As Kal/Clark grows up, he soon discovers that because he is a Kryptonian, the rays from our solar system’s sun allow him to develop greater strength and new abilities that he would not otherwise have had had he lived on Krypton. Kal/Clark (screw it, I’m calling him Superman from now on!), at the behest of his Earth parents, hides these abilities from the human population out of fear of being ostracised by them and he becomes a nomad, searching for answers as to his alien heritage. But while on his quest, a Kryptonian ship arrives on Earth, commanded by General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his squadron. They have come to claim Superman, and to destroy Earth if he resists, and Superman must grapple with the thought that he may have to reveal himself to mankind in order to save them.

Being a reboot, I was excited for Man of Steel to reinterpret the mythology of Superman in order to add a level of realism into the character and the world. Kind of like what Batman Begins did for Batman all those years ago! I don’t mean to say I was hoping Man of Steel would be “realistic”, as in no aliens or superpowers etc, but more that the film would show what the real world would be like if Superman was suddenly in it. And for the most part, I could see that Man of Steel tried to do just that, but they did not succeed. And the reason for that is because they did not want to stray too far away from what we know about Superman from the decades of comic books and films that have come before it. I’ll go into a bit greater detail on that front in a minute but first I wanted to address something else.

The narrative of the film, while functional to a degree, suffers from logic flaws right from the beginning. The film begins with Jor-El and his wife on Krypton giving birth to Superman in preparation for sending him away to Earth and saving him from their doomed planet. Soon after the birth, Jor-El confronts the Kryptonian council to explain to them that the planet’s core is unstable and they are all doomed unless they leave Krypton. The council simply defends their belief that mining the planet’s core was necessary and that they cannot be to blame for what is happening. Then enters General Zod, instigating a coup over the council because… I’m actually not sure, I could find no logical explanation. Anyway, in the course of events, Superman is successfully sent away, and General Zod is arrested for treason. Zod, and his squad, are sentenced to three hundred “cycles” in “The Phantom Zone” (kind of like an alternate dimension). The planet then explodes an undetermined amount of time later, but it is assumed to be within days or weeks.

So, after all that exposition I have just given you, can you spot the big problems? Well number one is that the Kryptonian council  never disagreed with Jor-El’s assessment that they were all going to die unless they left Krypton, yet they still stated they wouldn’t leave. Secondly, upon catching General Zod, they sentence him to an eternity in a prison dimension and thereby send him OFF KRYPTON and essentially knowingly saved his life and let themselves die. Furthermore, I cannot for the life of me justify General Zod’s actions. I have even hunted around online for an explanation as to why he attempts a coup on a dying planet. Wikipedia suggests it was due to Zod becoming “dissatisfied with the planet’s ruling councils’ decisions”. If that is the case, then why is killing more Kryptonians the answer?! Wouldn’t you evacuate people to the other planets Krypton is stated to have colonised? I already had these thoughts buzzing around my head as the events were happening, so already I was concerned with how the rest of the movie’s narrative would unfold.

Man of Steel was never overly clear about how being on Earth makes Superman different from regular Kryptonians. Jor-El mentions something about his body drinking in the radiation from our younger sun, and allowing him to grow stronger muscles. Now what that says to me is that the fact that Superman’s body is developing in our sunlight, he is thereby growing a lot stronger than he would had he grown up on Krypton. Therefore, if another adult Kryptonian showed up they would have to spend a lot of time on Earth in order for their muscles to grow stronger as well. However, when the other Kryptonians show up, they are instantly super strong, as though being touched by sunlight is some kind of immediate strength booster. Wouldn’t that mean Superman would have no powers when he is indoors and not being touched by sunlight? And wouldn’t that mean that these new Kryptonians would not be used to having this increased strength, and thereby not be instantly a master of using it? And if this theory is the case, then why does the movie utilise the idea that it is a difference in atmosphere between Krypton and Earth that cause Superman’s powers?

Allow me to explain. Man of Steel breaks away from the traditional trope of exposure to Kryptonite (a radioactive element from Krypton) weakening Superman, and rather states that breathing the Kryptonian designed atmosphere on General Zod’s ship weakens his Earth atmosphere accustomed body. So that would mean that it is simply being on Earth that gives Superman his powers, or at least breathing the air. But that doesn’t make sense either as the enemy Kryptonians deliberately wear breathing suits so as not to breath in Earth’s atmosphere, yet they still instantly gain super strength! And Superman and Zod have a fight in space, outside of Earth’s atmosphere, and they can still fly and punch each other hurtling into the distance! It was as if the writers had no idea what reasoning they wanted to go with and decided to just switch between them when it was convenient to the story!

And lastly (I promise this is the last long rant), there is the problem with Superman hiding his identity. The age old tradition of Superman not hiding his face and his alter ego Clark simply wearing glasses has always been really stupid, and I was really excited when the film made no effort to have him stealthily work at the Daily Planet newspaper. That is until they do just that right at the end. And whilst the only person who really saw Superman up close was Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who thankfully sees right through his dumb disguise, everyone else (at least anyone who counts, like the government) would figure out who he is due to his name being Clark Kent, and that throughout the film military personnel saw Superman hanging out at Martha Kent’s house. If a sequel is made and no one else can really figure that one out, then I feel the Man of Steel universe’s government is more inept that any of our real life ones!

Now, having had these really long complaints about the film, I should say that I actually rather enjoyed watching it. Yes its narrative was largely flawed, with muddled logic and Lois and Superman having absolutely no chemistry; but the action set pieces were amazing! A fist fight involving Superman can take place across several states and even go into outer space! And there were narrative highlights as well, I particularly enjoyed the one-on-one scenes between a younger Superman and Jonathan Kent, the two of them exploring some really interesting notions of what it would take to hide the fact that you’re a god from everyone else. So while I may have left the cinema disappointed with Man of Steel, it is still worth a watch; if for nothing else but to watch an epic superhero movie that isn’t made by Marvel for a change.

See you next time!