Tag Archives: B-

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY

One hesitates to be too hard on a creative team that’s provided many hours of great entertainment—not just great family entertainment, but simply great entertainment—over the years, but Pixar seems to have fallen into something of a funk. “Up” was the animation outfit’s last real masterwork, and though the featurette “The Blue Umbrella,” which is being shown before “Monster University,” shows the quality of which they’re still capable, the movie that it accompanies is just a pleasant but minor diversion, not up to the standards one used to expect from Pixar.

The problem is one that blights all of Hollywood—the repetition that comes with sequels. “Toy Story 2” was a deserved smash, but its success spawned “Cars 2,” which might well have been the worst Pixar movie yet. And while 2001’s “Monsters, Inc.” was good enough, the idea of doing a prequel—which is, after all, no better than a sequel—evinced a paucity of imagination, and the outcome bears that out. “Monsters University” is hardly as bad as “Cars 2,” but it’s pretty ordinary, even compared to its modest predecessor.

The premise is that eager little one-eyed Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and gruffly likable aquamarine giant Sulley (John Goodman), the monster partners of the first movie, met as incoming freshman in the Scare section of the titular M.U. and immediately rubbed one another the wrong way, Mike being the unthreatening twerp who depends on book learning to graduate and Sully the big, frightening guy from a famous family who thinks he’s a shoo-in without studying. But after both alienate stern Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) and face expulsion, their only hope of survival is to win a Scare Contest. That requires them to be part of a fraternity team, however, and the only one with openings—needless to say—is the bunch of lowly misfits of Oozma Kappa, who become their “brothers.” The four goof-ups they find themselves partnered with in the crazy Olympics are plump, naïve Squishy (Peter Sohn), maniacal puff-ball Art (Charlie Day), quarrelsome brothers Terri and Terry (Sean Haynes and Dave Foley), who happen to share a two-headed body, and avuncular retiree Don Carlton (Joel Murray). Mike and Sully join them in the frat house that’s actually Squishy’s family home, complete with his equally plump and endlessly spunky mom (Julia Sweeney) as den mother.

Much of the rest of the picture is devoted to the different challenges the OK guys have to face against teams from the other Greek houses, most notably the dominant one—ROR—headed by arrogant (and literally bullish) bully Johnny Worthington (Nathan Fillion). And even after they win—a spoiler that will come as no shock to anyone—their victory isn’t the end of things, and it takes a visit to the terrifying human world to prove that together they’ve got the right stuff, even if—as a credits summing-up shows—it will take a long climb up the ladder before they ultimately earn their scare stripes.

This is amiable stuff with a predictably benign message that comes down to not judging books by their covers. And Mike and Sulley remain genially engaging characters whose interaction provides contented smiles. The new supporting characters are generally agreeable too, with Mirren making a formidable impression and the rest having their moments—though better use could certainly have been made of Steve Buscemi as Mike’s roommate, a lizard with the ability to go invisible. And the animation is as top-of-the-line as one would expect.

But most of the really laugh-out-loud moments in “Monsters University” don’t come from the main characters at all; they arise from throw-away bits like a gag about a slug (or is it a snail?) desperately trying to get to class on time, and they last but an instant before the movie has to get back to churning out plot. There’s also a problem in the lack of a truly compelling villain. Hardscrabble is a tough cookie, no doubt, but she’s not really villainous, and Fillion’s Worthington is a standard-issue BMOC type.

One’s left with likable but fundamentally ordinary 3D-animated children’s fare, which in the Pixar canon doesn’t represent so much a return to form as a continuation of decline.

EPIC

A visual marvel that’s unfortunately pretty derivative in terms of plotting, this animated 3D adventure from Blue Sky Films, the makers of the “Ice Age” series, is appealing enough overall to amuse both kids and the adults who watch it along with them but not sufficiently entrancing to become a franchise-spawning classic.

Like any number of children’s pictures—most recently “The Secret World of Arietty”—it’s about little folk, in this case two groups of forest dwellers. One is made up of the Leaf Men, the hummingbird-riding army of archers who use their bows and arrows to guard the Forest Queen, Tara (voiced by Beyonce Knowles), the source of all that’s green and growing—a whole community of anthropomorphized plants sand tiny critters. The other is their dark opposite, the Boggans—grotesque, rat-like creatures led by the evil Mandrake (Christoph Waltz), who wants to dethrone Tara and turn the woods into a bleak, desiccated wasteland. (They’re also called Rotters, for the rot they bring, and they travel around on bats.) Check the ecologically correct message off the to-do list! On the other side of the size spectrum is teenager MK (Amanda Seyfried), who’s arriving at the isolated house of her father Professor Bomba (Jason Sudeikis), a goofy Andy Dick lookalike. He’s been obsessively searching for the little folk for years—a passion that estranged him from his recently-deceased wife. Ah, the parental-child re-bonding element of the plot clicks in!

The two worlds come together when Tara ventures from her protected perch to select a bulb that will become the heir to her powers. Unfortunately, her dalliance outdoors is taken by Mandrake as the opportunity for a surprise attack, and in the ensuing melee her devoted general Ronin (Colin Farrell) cannot save her. She is, however, able to pass along the chosen bulb to MK, who for some unexplained reason has been shrunk to the little folks’ size. She’ll eventually become prize sought by Mandrake but defended by Ronin and rebellious young Nod (Josh Hutcherson), the orphan son of the general’s best friend but a lad who can’t follow order and has gone AWOL to race in the flying contests run by a mobster toad (Pitbull). Their mission is to take her to the domain of the caterpillar (Steven Tyler) who’s the guardian of the community history and can help determine how to induce the bulb to flower and transmit Tara’s powers to another and save their world. Along the way, of course, MK and Nod—initially hostile though they may be—become gooey-eyed over one another; check off the “teen romance” category!

And one can’t forget the slug named Mug (Aziz Answari) and a snail called Grub (Chris O’Dowd), who as the guardians of the bulbs accompany Ronin, Nod and MK on their journey. Mug, a romantic sort, sees himself as Nod’s rival for MK’s affections, while Grub dreams of becoming a Leaf Warrior himself, while they also bicker between themselves. They fill the traditional Disney role of cute slapstick sidekicks. (There’s also Professor Bomba’s three-legged dog, whose antics fall into the same category.)

Needless to say, the story—inspired by, though not directly adapted from, the children’s book “The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs” by William Joyce, who also served as one of five screenwriters—must end in a big confrontation between the heroes and Mandrake’s forces over whether the bulb will be used to revivify the forest or kill it. The outcome is never in doubt, though the screenplay tosses in hurdle after hurdle to try to generate suspense about it. Fortunately not only are Ronin and Nod indefatigable, but MK can enlist a giant—her dad—to intervene on their behalf. In the process, of course, Bomba is finally introduced to the miniscule species he’s been seeking for years—check off the “dream fulfilled” slot!

“Epic” is obviously pretty formulaic, but it manages to orchestrate the predictable elements with enough panache to keep things reasonably fresh, and it’s beautifully crafted, giving a degree of shimmering elegance to the backgrounds, whether they be the green ones of the leafy world or the grays of the rotting one. And the obligatory 3D is applied with more sophistication than usual. The character animation is generally first-class, though Ronin seems a fairly generic fellow and Tara is frankly a regal bore, and the voice work is solid, even if Beyonce’s contribution is bland. Danny Elfman’s score complements the visuals well enough, though it employs his characteristic ticks a bit too insistently.

And apart from Mub the slug’s trail of ooze, the picture happily avoids the penchant for mild grossness that seems to afflict children’s movies nowadays. That’s reason enough to put it head and shoulders above most of the competition, despite the Leaf Men’s diminutive size.