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Reviews: Monsters University & World War Z

This double feature review was originally posted in my column at Towleroad

Another Month. Another Apocalypse

If the world can be powered by screams, as Monsters, Inc and its new prequel MONSTERS UNIVERSITY claim, then we've surely got a surplus to run on for decades to come. The horror genre in all its shapes, sizes and moods (including children's film) has rarely, if ever, been more popular. Brad Pitt warns a surely soon-to-be zombified family in WORLD WAR Z who have holed up in their apartment that "movement is life". They should run! But where are they supposed to run exactly? Zombies, werewolves, vampires, serial killers, and monsters are everywhere on film and television. Even outside the horror genre, dystopias (Hunger Games anyone?) or apocalypse awaits; at some point every superhero and action movie now blows its (budget) load on laying waste to New York City and/or its counterparts across the Globe. If pop culture is mass catharsis for our intangible mood, than we are all terrified children and in need of much therapy. 

Apologies for the armchair psychology but this must surely be why we've made our zombies crush-worthy (Warm Bodiesjust arrived from Netflix as I was typing this, no joke, - Hiiii, Nic Hoult!), our vampires twinkly, and our monsters cuddly. I mean just look at this guy "Art" to your left! He's practically built for wrap-around hugs... 

[More on cuddly monsters and Brad-chasing zombies...]

A hefty percentage of the plot to the prequel to Pixar's 2001 classic Monsters, Inc springs from an indisputable fact about the hero that the hero just can't accept: Mike (Billy Crystal), that wisecracking green eyeball with arms and legs, is just not scary. For all of Pixar's much lauded gift for and focus on "story story story" this basic truth at the heart of the film is never satisfactorily dealt with and only sort of wished away, in a dreams affirming way. The foundation itself is shaky but very few of the monsters are scary so we'll let it slide.

After a brief prologue in which Mike first becomes fascinated with Monsters, Inc on a grade-school field trip, we catch up with him again as he starts college. In the past Pixar has excelled at making movies for kids that are also resonant for adults. The concept here suggests a goldmine of the same since college is for adults-in-training. Sadly, apart from a few mediocre fraternity house jokes and one amusing bit about continuing education (one of the monsters is much older than Mike and Sully and seeking a career change), the setting is wasted since the college itself, the title character for chrissakes, has no personality. This could just have easily been called Monsters High or Monsters Elementary for how generic the jokes are. Think: intimidating teachers, shushing librarians, and school "clubs". 

For the first time ever in a Pixar feature (outside of maybe the Cars franchise) the visuals are also disappointing. There was precious little variety in the monster designs ('how many eyes do you want on this one, Lasseter?') despite a late-film "message" that everyone is unique and our uniqueness is our strength. Instead of an interesting story that might hold deeper meanings -- we should expect that from Pixar right? -- we get a contest plot without stakes since the outcome is assured and/or irrelevant by the small fact of this being a prequel. Instead of clever story beats we get potential video game levels (Mike and Sully and their friends must pass five tests (in different settings) to stay in school -- many of them involving dodging objects or escaping other monsters.

In the absence of a good story and resonant emotional journey you busy yourself with engaging miniature details: the way one teacher's horns wrap so tightly against her head that they looked like hair buns, the creepy sounds of the Dean's tiny crustacean legs on a giant dragon's body, an unexpectedly spooky/funny shot of the least scary monster of all motionless with every eye open by a child's bed. Despite a few smiles, Monsters University is a sad reminder that the once ambitious Pixar's days of glorious original programming are behind them. They're content to lean back into former glories now.

Things got a little better in World War Z despite its troubled production history. It's a worthier film for trying much harder and succeeding (in parts). It starts off exceptionally well, buying the film a lot of goodwill (which it will need), with a genuinely terrifying setpiece: an eruption of city chaos during a normal day's drive for Gerry (Brad Pitt) and his wife and kids. "Rabid" people are suddenly flinging themselves at fellow citizens, trucks and cars are careening through the streets with no sense of speed limits or lanes and soon the entire city is burning. As it turns out Gerry is good in a crisis, a professional even. After this nail-biting intro, the government (or what remains of it) demands he resume his previous UN funded dangerous activities and find patient zero and/or a cure for this apocalyptic plague.

World War Z is based on an acclaimed novel of the same name that was told from an unusual multi-character multi-city diary-of-events perspective. Occassionally one gets a sense of a truly original movie, a more faithful adaptation, peaking through but since they've chucked all perspectives but one (Gerry's) to the side, it's a much simpler movie than it seems to want to be, given its ambitions, visually and geographically. "Movement is life" and Gerry logs a lot of hair raising frequent flyer miles, with and without zombie passengers.

Despite at least two fantastic setpieces and the genuinely unsettling visual of dead people piling up like ant mobs to scale seemingly impervious walls, World War Z has three problems it can't resolve. First, they've forgotten to make Gerry a character so it's only Brad Pitt, Globe Trotting Philanthropist/Hero, you're seeing and without substantial supporting roles to augment him, he's less than usual. Second, the story just sort of runs out of steam, tossing up its hands via voiceover in a 'maybe we'll make a sequel?' shrug. But most damningly it just never fully answers the loud question of "WHY ANOTHER ZOMBIE MOVIE?"

Brad enters the red light zombie district

The lack of variety in today's cinema may be the scariest monster in our collective closet. If we all bought a ticket to Before Midnight, Frances Ha or Mud again (the three best movies of the summer) each time a new superhero or monster movie opened, Hollywood would have to change its ways. But first we'll have to. I'm part of the problem: I never remember until a new blockbuster or sequel or reboot is over that it's just like seeing the last one again. Variety is an illusion! 

 To quote Buffy the Vampire Slayer, an early precursor to today's monster mania but wise enough to continually mock its perpetual apocalypse...

The earth is doomed."

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Reader Comments (9)

Hi Nathaniel, it was very nice meeting you at the Monsters University screening.

I agree with you on most points, but I must say I was pleasantly surprised with the movie's last act. Not to spoil anything, but I liked the places it went to in Mike's journey after that false ending at the end of act 2 and was also very satisfied with the ultimate revelation of how Sully and Mike ended up working on the scare floor.

June 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterConrado

I watched these two back to back over the weekend, and was not impressed by both. It's just two decent movies for me. Though I'm surprised that World War Z was not as bad as I thought it would be. Lesson learned: always start by expecting a movie to be bad so when it is in fact bad you won't be disappointed and when it's not bad you'll have a little surprise. Next one up: Pacific Rim. Bad movie, bad movie, bad movie... LOL

June 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPJ

Gonna have to strenuously disagree with you on one thing: the Cars films have many, many problems, but disappointing visuals are emphatically not among them. The jaw-droppingly perfect Southwest landscapes in the first one, the dreamy Japanese city in the second, and the neon-lit cruise in the first is still in my top 2 or 3 most beautiful Pixar scenes ever.

Haven't seen MU, kind of really don't want to, but it's happening soon. At this point, anything better than "the movie theater catches on fire and I die" will be better than my expectations.

June 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTim

PJ -- this is a remarkably positive way to think negatively. I love it :)

June 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

One thing I really appreciated about WWZ was its use of silence. Heavenly, to build that in as a plot point.

But yes, I'd rather see Before Midnight, etc. 2 or 3 times each before I see another summer blockbuster.

June 24, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteradri

I was also expecting WWZ to be a disaster. Did you see how many people credited as writers during the credit? With news of how they cut a chunk of scenes and had a reshoot, I thought it would be really bad. But evenn with its flaws and lazy ending, the films is still quite entertaining. The opposite comes to Man of Steel. With producer like Nolan, I thought the film would be good if not great at least. But turns out it's still a Zack Snyder movie with little story added an hour of overlong never ending big explosive action scenes.

So yeah like what PJ said. It's much better to always lower your expectation I guess so in the end you still can quite appreciate the flawed movie.

June 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike

Well, we are talking about Monsters University. What we have to say is that the movie as a movie isn't so good, but it teaches the viewers lessons of life, like team work, keep going if you fail, never give up, try not to tell lies or you will disappoint your mates, and lots more. Those are things that make a not-so-good story into a great one.
So we would say that it's a good movie to watch with children or students in school and for sure it would get worth results.

Well, we are talking about Monsters University. What we have to say is that the movie as a movie isn't so good, but it teaches the viewers lessons of life, like team work, keep going if you fail, never give up, try not to tell lies or you will disappoint your mates, and lots more. Those are things that make a not-so-good story into a great one.
So we would say that it's a good movie to watch with children or students in school and for sure it would get worth results.

I don't
I don't
I don't like Zombies

i do like Brad Pitt :)

August 23, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter123view

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