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Monsters University

With last year’s middling, but still solid, “Brave” and 2011’s “Cars 2,” the only movie ever to receive negative reviews from the otherwise untouchable Pixar, people began to question whether or not the animation studio had lost its edge. Their warm, emotional and downright brilliant movies like “Up,” “Wall-E” and the “Toy Story” franchise had devolved into kiddie fare (as opposed to the family friendly movies that had come before and were accessible to everyone) with simplistic themes and unimpressive stories. Well, it looks like they’re back on track with “Monsters University,” a wholeheartedly impressive movie that takes a subject from the wonders of a child’s imagination and injects it with a truthful examination on failed dreams and the meaning of friendship.

The movie begins with Young Mike (Noah Johnston). He’s a happy-go-lucky kid with a wonderfully positive attitude despite his classmates’ negativity towards him. While on a field trip to Monsters Inc., the company responsible for scaring children and powering the monster world with their screams, he finds his calling. He’s going to be the greatest scarer that ever lived. Now he’s all grown up and Mike (Billy Crystal) is headed off to college at Monsters University. His entire life has led up to this moment and nothing will stand in the way of him achieving his dream. However, when it’s decided he’s just simply not scary, he’s taken out of Scare School along with the unfocused Sully (John Goodman). But his determination won’t keep him down, so he partners with the dorkiest fraternity on campus, Oozma Kappa, and his newfound frenemy to compete in the school hosted Scare Games. If they win, they’ll all be allowed back into Scare School and Mike will have a second chance at achieving his dreams.

And if you’ve seen “Monsters Inc.,” you know he doesn’t. While Sully goes onto break records while scaring children at night, Mike is relegated to sidekick, the unsung hero who lives vicariously through Sully. Yet as a child and a college student, Mike just knows that if he works hard, his aspirations will naturally fall into place. He has a naiveté that many in his position share, unaware of the fact that no matter how much you want something and no matter how hard you work for it, it may not pan out. Life throws curveballs and takes you down different roads than you originally imagined.

It’s a brave stance to take in a kid friendly movie and is opposite of the “you can be whatever you want to be” message so many kids are exposed to these days. It may even seem like a negative stance, but the opposite turns out to be true. Although the movie takes an honest look at failed dreams and shows that life sometimes doesn’t work out the way you had planned, it’s ultimately a hopeful and encouraging movie because it shows that other skills can lead to happiness and success. It emphasizes the idea that one dream crushed is another dream created and even though Mike is initially disheartened by the sudden realization that his lifelong dream will never come to fruition, he discovers other opportunities in his strengths.

This is exactly the type of theme Pixar needed to tackle, one that is necessary for children, but also relatable to adults. Very few people have lived their lives and achieved their one lifelong dream, so many in the audience may be shocked to see such a truthful representation of themselves in a movie about monsters learning to scare children. As far as storytelling goes, “Monsters University” is nearly flawless, if only one little inconsistency that fails to connect the two movies didn’t rear its ugly head. In “Monsters Inc.,” Mike specifically says to Sully, “You’ve been jealous of my good looks since the fourth grade,” implying that they have known each other nearly all their lives. But in “Monsters University,” they’re meeting for the first time at college. Although relatively minor in the big scheme of things, the stories of the two movies don’t connect as they should, which is a cardinal sin for any sequel or prequel.

Nevertheless, the most important aspect of “Monsters Inc.” carries over without a hitch: its amiable charm. In terms of pure wit, this is perhaps the cleverest movie Pixar has done since, well, “Monsters Inc.” As Mike walks down the main university strip on his first day, for instance, he passes by the debate team led by a monster with two heads that can’t seem to agree with each other and the improv club that can’t even improvise their pitch to get him to join. These small moments are delightful and really give the film a humorous appeal.

I’ll admit, I was skeptical of Pixar after their last couple films, especially when those disappointments followed their three best and most mature efforts to date, “Wall-E,” “Up” and “Toy Story 3,” but they’ve renewed my faith in them after this. “Monsters University” is gorgeously animated, wonderfully voiced (with additional help from John Krasinski, Nathan Fillion, Charlie Day, Aubrey Plaza and Helen Mirren as the Dean of the school) and all around magical. It’s that rare film that mixes childlike wonder with adult themes while never neglecting the details that are needed to bring the world to life. “Monsters University” is a joyous experience.

Monsters University receives 5/5


Safety Not Guaranteed

WARNING: Heavy spoilers follow. My reaction to the film hinges very much on key plot points, including the ending, and to put my reaction and accompanying score into context, it’s impossible to avoid them.

Safety Not Guaranteed has all the ingredients for a great movie. It has (mostly) charming characters each with their own defined backstories and personalities, an odd but interesting story and relationships that ring true, but it doesn’t capitalize on them. There are a number of nagging issues with all those aspects. By the time the end credits roll around, your initial reaction of greatness will have faded to mere adequacy, but it’s not that Safety Not Guaranteed is particularly bad. It just has so much potential and fails to live up to it.

Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is not the happiest girl in the world. Her father is in a poor state, her mother was killed years ago and she can’t find a job. The best she can do is land an unpaid internship at a Seattle magazine where she is underappreciated by her boss, Bridget (Mary Lynn Rajskub), and given menial tasks to do, like changing the toilet paper in the bathrooms. One day, she lands a story with journalist Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) and another intern named Arnau (Karan Soni) investigating a strange ad that recently popped up in the papers: someone is asking for a partner to join him in time travel. Believing this man to be nothing more than a kook, the three head out to his neck of the woods and apply for the job. While Arnau and Jeff stand back, Darius befriends the man named Kenneth (Mark Duplass) who begins to train her in preparation for their eventual journey.

Safety Not Guaranteed could have easily been a mean-spirited movie, one that poked fun at Kenneth for believing in something that many think is impossible. It could have made him look like a mentally challenged madman and in another, less sophisticated film, that probably would have been the case, but here he is treated with respect. His willingness and wanting to go back in time is so sincere you can’t help but love him, a notion the filmmakers rightfully realized early on. His relationship with Darius is tended to so well that she begins to believe that he may be the real deal, as does the audience.

Of course, the realization that his plan won’t actually work floats around in the back of the viewer’s mind while watching. This story is grounded in reality (and is actually based on an actual Backwoods Home Magazine ad from 1997) and such a story would never go so far as to actually send them back in time. But then it does. The film culminates in Darius hopping aboard a time travelling machine with Jeff and heading back to 2001, a time period chosen so Darius can stop her mother from being killed and Jeff can try to win the affections of a young crush named Belinda (Kristen Bell). This ending is baffling, comes out of nowhere and somehow manages to both succeed and fail on parallel levels.

Because the story is about time travel and, more specifically, about a man who is wanted by the government for stealing high tech equipment, a realistic ending would not be sufficient. Had the time travelling machine failed, Jeff would have immediately been shipped off to jail and Darius along with him for being an accomplice. A happy ending would be impossible, so by sending them off together, the film nails the emotional ending it was striving for. However, because the film built their relationship to a certain romantic point, where they had fallen in love with each other, their motivations for going back in time become moot. Jeff no longer needs to go back to 2001 to win over Belinda. He has Darius (his last line of the movie is actually along the lines of, “I’m not going back for her anymore, I’m going back for you”), so what’s the point? Similarly, if Darius were to stop her mother from being killed, as she would understandably want to do, her entire life trajectory would change, meaning she never would have met Jeff and none of this would have happened.

The ending also brings to question many of the scenes that came before, including why Jeff would insist on survival training (which includes the usage of firearms) if they were only travelling back to 2001. Had he just been crazy or living out some absurd fantasy, his irrational behaviors would have made since, and do at the time, but they don’t upon reflection because he’s not crazy. He’s more sane than anyone in the movie. This off-the-wall ending works on basic human levels and will provide an emotionally happy ending for those wanting one, but it also punches numerous holes in its plot, some so gaping you could fit an aircraft carrier through them.

Aside from the main plot, there are also a couple side stories involving Arnau as he learns how to win ladies over and Jeff as he tries to rekindle an old flame, but both are merely filler, uninteresting diversions that stretch out its runtime to an already bare 85 minutes. Up until that ending, though, the main story will grab ahold of you. The characters are well written and the performances bring them to life. Despite some key dramatic moments being punctuated by uncomfortable bits of humor, the movie makes you care, but that feeling of disappointment lingers on. Safety Not Guaranteed looked like it could have been one of the best of the year. Instead, it’s merely serviceable.

Safety Not Guaranteed receives 3/5