Is there a more exquisite scene in Pixar animation than that final glimpse of Sully, that beast with the freshly shampooed turquoise fur, saying hello to the girl he thought he’d never see again at the end of Monsters, Inc.? Of course there are. The Emeryville, Calif.-based studios have been delivering many such memorable moments ever since Toy Story, the first-ever computer-animated feature, permanently changed the landscape of mainstream animation in the fall of 1995.
In recent years, though, the magic, at least for me, has been noticeably in short supply. At the time of its 2010 theatrical release, it seemed as if I was the only grouch who pooped on Toy Story 3, dismayed and underwhelmed as I was by its warmed-over, greatest-hits pastiche of what made its predecessors so special. I’m sure they heard my gripes all the way on the West Coast.
Cars 2 was released the next year.
Why the sequels, CGI wizards? Cleverness and originality, after all, used to be your stock in trade. Brave followed in 2012, which introduced Pixar’s first Disney princess even as the studio’s top brass and the project’s mastermind, director Brenda Chapman, parted ways over creative differences. The schizoid results smacked of Too Many Chefs in the Kitchen Syndrome. Walking out of that screening, I was fuming, wondering what could possibly be more dire than this disappointment. Cue the pouring rain outside Regal Cinemas South Beach, which did not let up for hours. Pixar folks, you were literally raining on my parade, swiftly eroding the goodwill that had been accumulating ever since Woody and Buzz Lightyear had their first territorial rumble.
My heart sank when I read the title of the studio’s 2013 summer release: Monsters University. My first impulse was to fly to California, storm into Pixar Headquarters and stage a one-man intervention. Enough was enough. So what if a prequel is technically not a follow-up? Who the hell wants to know about Sully and one-eyed lime-green ball of neuroses Mike Wazowski’s college days? We want fresh characters, uncharted journeys from you. Leave the perfunctory sequels to the animators toiling away in Disney’s straight-to-DVD department, why don’t you?
I’d like some fries with my words. Turns out that Pixar’s 14th feature looks like a blatant cashgrab. It even starts out like one. By the time it reaches its sobering, bittersweet conclusion, however, Monsters University, which raked in an estimated $82.4 million at the U.S. box office last weekend, had restored my faith in the house that Steve Jobs built. It doesn’t quite live up to the standards set by Monsters, Inc. and the rest of Pixar’s finest efforts, mind you, but its modesty isn’t just becoming. It wore down my seemingly ironclad defenses.
Let’s point the finger at the man responsible: director/co-screenwriter Dan Scanlon, who cut his teeth as a writer and storyboard artist in Cars and is really adept here at paying homage to what Pete Docter and the rest of Monsters, Inc.‘s creative team accomplished more than a decade ago while giving the material his own imprint. In Scanlon’s telling, Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) start out as rivals when they both enroll in the titular institution of higher learning. The former, a book-smart outcast driven by a lifetime of rejection to excel as a “scarer,” even as MU’s Dean Hardscrabble (a delicious, appropriately creepy Helen Mirren) shrewdly observes that he’s a Scaring major who’s just not scary. The latter, the son of monster royalty, thinks he’s going to be able to coast through college relying solely on his effortless ability to frighten and unsettle.
No can do, says Scanlon, and the message also applies to any creative endeavor that revisits characters from a popular work of art. It’s imperative to bring something new to the table and avoid hitting all those crowd-pleasing bases that ultimately hinder more than help one’s storytelling. Here’s a filmmaker whose tough-love approach takes the time to examine these two beloved characters, and we experience their growth from the inside out. How so? Let’s just say Wazowski gets to prove his mettle by honing his leadership skills when things don’t go as planned at school. Scanlon, aided by screenwriters Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird, hew closely to the underdog narrative of college staples like Revenge of the Nerds, although when placed side by side, it’s the live-action 80s comedy that comes across as more cartoonish.
Monsters University is an affectionate ode to the idealism that takes hold of us in the years between graduating from high school and joining the workforce, but even more than that, it exalts the virtues of community values over selfish individualistic pursuits, a trait that immediately recalls cocky race car Lightning McQueen’s sweet-natured comeuppance in the first Cars. And just when you think it’s going to stick to the tried-and-true formula of earlier Pixar movies, Scanlon takes viewers into morally murky waters by exploring what happens when a character who is supposed to be a role model engages in unethical behavior. It’s an ace in the hole that elevates this gentle buddy picture by attempting something I wasn’t expecting from a summer tentpole: taking its characters to task by examining the consequences of their questionable actions. Scanlon’s an apt pupil. In taking us back to school, he serves up one of Pixar’s most mature films to date.
Sully’s rich arc in Monsters University reminds me that we lost another gentle giant last week. Best known by playing Tony Soprano – brilliantly – in HBO’s hit series, James Gandolfini, who passed away last Wednesday at age 51 while vacationing in Italy, also left behind an eclectic body of work on the big screen. A character actor with the heart and charisma of a leading man, he was a true natural whose roles ran the gamut from one of the jurors opposite Jack Lemmon in the 1997 production of Twelve Angry Men to the mayor of New York City in Tony Scott’s remake of The Taking of Pelham 123. Outside of his iconic TV role, my sentimental favorite performance of his was as the openly gay hit man in Gore Verbinski’s The Mexican opposite Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. He imbued a role that could have easily been played as a facile stereotype with more nuance than it deserved. And that goatee looked really good on him.
Speaking of HBO, the cable network couldn’t have timed the premiere of The Out List any better. Hitting airwaves one day after the Supreme Court issued two landmark rulings on marriage equality – one of them striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, the other giving the heave-ho to California’s Proposition 8, albeit applying only to that state – the hour-long documentary is a polished, absorbing series of interviews with prominent LGBT figures: celebrities (Neil Patrick Harris, Wanda Sykes), activists (playwright Larry Kramer), even a law enforcer (Dallas County sheriff Lupe Valdez) fight for screen time with lesser known subjects such as Afghan educator Wazina Zondon and ballroom performer Twiggy Pucci Garcon.
Director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders keeps things plugging along at a steady clip, and he yields touching and empowering anecdotes from his subjects. (Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s harrowing discussion of his Mormon upbringing didn’t leave a dry eye in the house at the Gusman Center, where the film was screened last Friday to an ultra-PC, United Colors of Benetton-wholesome, LGBT/hetero ally audience.) Part of me nevertheless wanted the interviewees to veer off script more often. The film’s squeaky-clean tidiness is practical from a structural point of view, but it renders this engaging assortment of life stories a tad too generic for its own good. It’s healthy to talk about the uncomfortable truths about the LGBT community, and the most effective one-on-ones embrace their inner beasts. I’m looking at you, Mr. Kramer, egging viewers to channel their anger to bring about social change. It’s a rallying cry little monsters of all stripes and persuasions would do well to answer.