Monsters University

Monsters University is one of the better prequels that you will see. While it’s not as fresh as Monsters, Inc. the laughs aren’t quite as big, and the message is a lot more predictable, it’s still a lot of fun and the voice acting is top-notch. That it gives plenty of respect to its predecessor helps Monsters University quite a lot.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released June 21, 2013

Written by Dan Scanlon, Daniel Gerson, and Robert L. Baird.

Directed by Dan Scanlon

Starring Helen Mirren, Aubrey Plaza, Julia Sweeney, Bonnie Hunt, Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Alfred Molina, Steve Buscemi, Nathan Fillion, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, John Krasinski, Bill Hader, and John Ratzenberger.

Rated: G

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Story

Mike Wazowski (Crystal) has been dreaming of attending Monsters University since he was around the size of a pea. When he finally makes it there, determined to be a scarer, the odds seem stacked against him. How could a one-eyed walking green grape that talks with a New York accent ever be scary?

Making things harder and worse is Sullivan (Goodman), a big, naturally scary monster that comes from a long line of good scarers.

These two butt heads in their first days at MU, getting both of them in trouble. In order to redeem themselves, they have to learn how to work together, helping a team of scarer rejects become the champion scarers at the university in order to get back into Dean Hardscrabble’s (Mirren) good graces.

As they fight to become the best scarers that they can be, they make friends and enemies with all kinds of characters, one being Randy, who we remember was their sworn enemy in Monsters Inc. But in this prequel, he’s their friend. It’s nice to see how the bad blood came between these monsters.

We also meet Jonny Worthington (Fillion), a smug scarer whose fraternity is basically the royal blood of the university. This guy and the pride of Mike and Sully serve as the villains of the story in Monsters University.

Critique

As Disney/Pixar has become quite adept at doing, Monsters University delivers plenty of clever laughs for all ages, packaging a nice message and a story of a person or people who have to overcome their pride in order to win the day.

Formulaic? Of course. Formula is familiar and Disney/Pixar is a pro at serving up well-polished stories and characters and fun dialogue. Helping things along are all of the very talented voice actors. Also helping the movie stay entertaining is a cast of interesting side characters, each with their own quirks.

Made up of fun, freshness, and the familiar, Monsters University entertains for all of its 104 minutes, surprising the audience at times with its heart and understanding of relationships.

This is a well-crafted movie that knows how to hit all of its marks without being too obvious about being so smart.

Go ahead and give Disney some of your money; you’ll enjoy this one. Monsters University won’t change your life or even leave you with lingering questions, thoughts, or memories of the movie, but it’ll entertain you.

Content warnings: Cartoonish, silly violence and a scene or two of child-scaring.

Writing: 4.5          Acting: 5          Overall: 4

Be a sharing monster and spread this review and website all over the place. Seriously, go ahead. If you don’t, a possessed grape from New York will find you and scare you in your sleep.

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Wreck-It Ralph

There’s a reason that Wreck-It Ralph is getting a lot of good press: it’s darn good. Despite a slightly slow second act, this film has a ridiculously enjoyable and quality plot and it tells a story about people who make sense. It helps that Wreck-It Ralph also explores the world of video games far better than Tron.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released November 2, 2012

Written by Phil Johnston, Jennifer Lee, Rich Moore, and Jim Reardon

Directed by Rich Moore

Starring Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch, Mindy Kaling, John C. Reilly, Jack McBrayer, Adam Carolla, Alan Tudyk, and Dennis Haysbert

Rated: PG

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Story

Ralph (Reilly) is the huge, wrecking villain in a video game called Fix-It Felix whose hero is the  perky Felix (McBrayer). Ralph wants to be a hero too so that he no longer is left out and feels outcast. To that end, Ralph exits his video game, makes his way through Video Game Central (in a very clever and creative sequence), and pursues a hero’s medal from a game called ‘Hero’s Duty.’

During his adventures in the other game, he makes a mess of things and encounters the head shooter on the team, Calhou (Lynch). She’s a no-nonsense, tough, rules-following commander who has no time for Ralph’s bumbling. But Ralph gets the medal and it seems that the movie is headed for a too-simple denouement, but it’s just getting started.

He gets away from the game in a pod, carrying one of the ‘bugs’ from Hero’s Duty into a new video game that takes place in a sugary land. Ralph loses his medal in the escape, as well as the bug, which proceeds to make itself at home under the land, laying thousands of eggs in the process.

As Ralph tries to get his medal back, he meets Vanellope (Silverman– in  a role written for her specifically), a young girl who wants to be a racer– which is the main activity of this world– but is told she cannot race because she’s just a glitch. Running the sugar land is King Candy (Tudyk doing a phenomenal impersonation of the mad hatter from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland), a crafty, morally ambiguous fellow who is dead set against Vanellope.

Now Ralph, who was ready to disingenuously pass himself off as a hero instead of a bad guy, must find the ability to be a true hero- which will demand sacrifice. Using his particular talents, he has to help Vanellope, save her video game, and become a real good guy. Along for the ride is Felix, who is a lot more than he first appears to be.

Critique

Wreck-It Ralph is one heckuva good movie due to its writing (plot, characterization, setting), voice-acting, and unbelievably polished and thoughtful animation.

For starters, the writing. This is a seriously good plot, intricate and heartfelt and deep. Everything that happens occurs because of choices made by characters. There are consequences for choices and prices paid and all kinds of craziness that come from these choices. The characters are thoughtfully written as well. Not one of these characters is a one-off static plot device. Winchell and Duncan, the two donut guards, are great examples of fully fleshed out side characters.

Then there’s the setting. What a fully realized world these characters inhabit. Every question you might have about how this world could exist in the same world as real human beings live in is answered. Smart people created this world, filling it to bursting with great ideas based on actual video games, actual people, and with a healthy respect for the comedic.

The voice acting comes up aces as well. Sarah Silverman has found her true calling: voice acting. Please, Sarah, never do anything other than voice acting. John C. Reilly has a large, warm voice– perfect for Ralph. Jack McBrayer and Jane Lynch– wow. Their characters would have been so much less if anyone else had done the voices.

But Tudyk is the winner. How talented is this guy? He delivers a performance that doesn’t sound at all like him and could have descended into caricature, but skates right along the edge of goofy and awesome.

Now let’s take a look at the animation. As you see in the clip above, it’s obviously bright and robust. But it’s also thoughtful. One of Pac-Man’s ghosts is in this film, and he behaves and moves exactly as such a ghost should. Same goes for the people in the building that Ralph wrecks in his game. They are technology peers with old Mario games, and they move like those characters move– jerky, pixellated, and with cool sound effects. This thoughtfulness informs the entire movie.

Disney has crafted a non-Pixar animated film that is easily as good, and obviously informed and influenced by, the Toy Story franchise. Funny that The Lorax is the single worst film of the year and Wreck-It Ralph deserves to win an Oscar for best animated film.

Content warnings: Some mildly rude humor and some video game violence.

Writing: 5          Acting: 5          Overall: 5

Hey, don’t wreck the love. Fix it up real nice and share this post.

(This may be my worst movie tie-in encouragement yet. Sorry.)

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Brave (Pixar)

Brave has some very lovely and nuanced animation, with the main character Merida’s face really expressing emotions honestly and nicely. Unfortunately, the story is not as nuanced or light-handed as the films Pixar usually turns out.

Here’s a preview:

The deets:

Released June 22, 2012

Written by Brenda Chapman, Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, and Irene Mecchi

Directed by Brenda Chapam, Mark Andrews, and Steve Purcell

Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly, Craig Ferguson, Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd, and Julie Walters

Rated: PG

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The Story

Brave follows the story of Merida (Macdonald), a flame-haired, teen Scottish princess whose mother, Elinor, (Thompson) is trying to raise her to be proper, but who would rather forge her own way. When she was a young child, her father, Fergus (Connolly), gave her a bow and now she’s a master archer.

Can you guess where this is going? Yep, Hollywood is trying to make strong characters, and Pixar’s getting in the game, but when Pixar wasn’t trying so hard, Pixar was doing better.

As you guessed, Merida’s mother’s planning takes them to the point where three young heirs to the other clans arrive to vie for Merida’s hand in marriage. Merida beats them all at their game and runs away when her mother flips out. Merida finds a witch ( Walters) who promises to give Merida a spell to change Merida’s mother.

Now here’s an issue. Merida, when she’s with the witch, never asks for a spell to change her mother’s mind. Instead she asks for a spell to change her mother. This is a very fine and very convenient spot on which the major plotline depends. It bothered me, because it’s a cheap way to advance the plot and we all know what Merida wanted– to change her mother’s mind. Why didn’t she say that? So the plot could move forward. I don’t want the characters to mold to the plot that’s been set out, I want the plot to follow proactive characters.

Needless to say, of course the witch gives Merida a less-than-perfect spell which messes everything up and forces Merida to go on an adventure to fix things. So yes, it’s sounding like The Little Mermaid. Unfortunately, like Ariel, Merida breaks the rules, endangers everything, and does she pay any kind of real price? You make the call.

Critique

My only critique of Brave is the plot. I think it tells a story we’ve all heard or seen or read before. I think the characters are good; I love the animation; I love the voice-acting; I love the music. I love the accents. Merida’s hair is a joy to look upon.

But the story is old and Brave doesn’t really succeed in creating all that great of a character in Merida. Tangled‘s Rapunzel was a far better character: more complex, more interesting, more of a person. Merida is a hot head and doesn’t want tradition holding her back– and that’s it. Her epiphany about her place in the world is slow coming and is a little bit of a cop-out, despite the fact that I agree with it. Plus, seriously, she’s kind of dumb and I don’t like watching a film where the characters conveniently (for the plot) can’t understand what everyone in the audience can understand.

What’s more, many of the side characters are there for plot and humor convenience; they don’t occupy their own space and have their own story.

Now. Some people deride the decision that Merida makes; that’s the best part of the plot. Her force of will DOES change tradition, but she does not just ABANDON her duty.

Brave is a good, fun film with plenty of laughs, some of them a little too low-hanging fruit-like, and a few good characters. But it’s from Pixar, so it’s disappointing that it’s not better.

Content warnings: some potty humor, some potentially scary images of bears, and some cartoon violence. 

Writing: 2.5          Acting: 4.5          Overall: 3.5

Compare my review with those on Rotten Tomatoes, then watch the movie and see for yourself! Also, caring is sharing. So share if you care. Dare to care and share!

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Toy Story 3

Bittersweet. Deft. Frequently hilarious. Brilliant. Moving.

These are the adjectives that I think describe Toy Story 3 best. I am proud to say that my 11-year-old and 9-year-old were visibly affected by this film and as we discussed it afterwards, they got emotional. Fair enough; so did I.

I’ve never been a huge fan of the movies. I thought the first two were perfectly lovely; they were deft and sentimental and very enjoyable. But I never became a wild fan. Thing is: if it doesn’t have a dragon or ghosts or a science fiction element, I don’t get too excited.

It’s like the Beatles. I recognize why people go nuts over them and love them. I enjoy them here and there, but can’t really get into it. But the Toy Story movies were a little different, because I actually quite enjoyed them.

So when we saw we could stream #3 on Netflix, we decided to make a family night of it.

What a perfect film. I have no critiques- nothing negative whatsoever to say. Where it could have gone sappy and sentimental, it held back and deftly finished the story.

The film begins with a sequence of all of the toys being played with over the years by their beloved Andy. Then we find the toys running an operation to have Andy find his cell in the toy trunk in the hopes that he will remember them and play with them again.

But Andy is off to college soon and the fate of the toys is in doubt. Soon, with some confusion and attempts at heroism, the toys end up at a daycare, which initially seems great. They will be played with endlessly– for eternity! But the day care has a dark underbelly for the toys, and soon our friends are trying to escape the tyranny of a jaded teddy bear.

Meanwhile, Woody has ended up in the home of a little girl who loves her toys and plays with them endlessly. She is sweet and kind. And Woody finds out about the situation his friends have found themselves in. Now he must help them escape.

This cues up a brilliant sequence where the toys effect their escape. And be sure to enjoy the hilarious Ken and his interactions with Barbie– sheer genius. Also, try to keep your gut intact when Potato Head goes undercover. Whoever had that idea at Pixar needs a raise.

When they’ve just barely made it home and when we think the toys will end up in an attic, Andy saves them. The ending is very touching and is done with such a light touch. There is no preachiness, but themes such as friendship, loyalty, forgiveness, courage, heroism and transcendence are dealt with throughout the movie. What is more, there are genuinely harrowing scenes- one of which seems completely inescapable. And as the toys resign themselves in an extraordinarily touching moment, the perfect way out comes to them.

Spasmo, my 11-year-old, expressed well the feelings that I think most audience members have when this movie ends. He said, “I just don’t want to leave those characters. It’s like I always want to be able to see what they’re doing.”

Thanks to the excellent work at Pixar, the story that we will see is at an end, but we know that the toys’ story will always go on.

Pens (writing): 5

Cameras (acting): 5 The voice acting is excellent.

Screens (the entire experience): 5

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