Film reviews: Monsters University| We Steal Secrets

The Monsters learn to scare at university. Picture: complimentary
The Monsters learn to scare at university. Picture: complimentary
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Charismatic central characters in this belated prequel to 2001’s Monsters Inc help keep Pixar at the top of the class

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (U)

Directed by: Dan Scanlon

Voices: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Helen Mirren, Nathan Fillion, Aubrey Plaza

* * * *

In the last few years it almost seems as if Pixar has become a victim of its own success. The animation studio’s game-changing early films were of such impeccable quality that delivering anything less than boundary pushing perfection with each successive effort was always destined to incur a little bit of a backlash, especially given the Pixar-inspired ubiquity and box-office dominance of CG animation.

This began to happen with Cars, continued with Cars 2 and happened again, albeit to a lesser extent, with Brave (the imperfections of which actually made it a far more interesting movie than it was generally given credit for).

The thing is, at a time when technology has advanced to a point where visual wonders are a given and beautifully told stories that appeal to all ages are fairly common (just check out the likes of How to Train Your Dragon and Wreck-it Ralph to see the positive impact Pixar has had on the industry as a whole), it is perhaps also becoming a bit too easy to dismiss the second wave of Pixar films for merely being good rather than spectacular.

That’s certainly seems to be the case with Monsters University, a belated follow-up to 2001’s beloved Monsters Inc. Exploring the college-forged origins of Mike and Sully’s friendship, Pixar’s first prequel may be a further sign of the studio’s increasing reliance on pre-established characters, but it’s also an entertaining and well made film that serves up some of the subtle story twists and complex thematic ideas one has come to expect from the studio that delved into the existential dilemmas of toys, the parental anxieties of fish and the artistic proclivities of rodents.

Chief among these ideas is the notion that following your dreams doesn’t always lead to the actualisation of those dreams, a fairly radical idea for a family movie, the core audience for which is usually fed the lie that perseverance, hard work and tunnel-vision focus will always bring you what you most desire.

This lesson is gradually impressed upon the nervy, nerdy Mike Wasowski (Billy Crystal), who in Monsters Inc was the whip-smart assistant to the titular corporation’s star scarer James P “Sully” Sullivan (John Goodman), but here is revealed to be an aspiring scarer himself.

Having years earlier been awed by a school trip to the Monsters Inc factory (where energy is harnessed by closet-dwelling bogeymen from the screams of young kids), he’s set his heart on joining the elite ranks of those entrusted to sneak into the human world and frighten – but crucially, not traumatise – children.

This has led him to the titular seat of academic learning, where monsters on the much sought-after “Scare Programme” are trained in the art of assessing their targets’ primary fears and delivering appropriate jumps to elicit maximum energy with minimum psychological damage. It’s a fine art too, requiring a lot of study (something at which Mike is very adept) but also natural born talent (of which he has very little). Sully, the big purple-spotted monster whom we know will eventually become his compadre, is the exact opposite: the latest in a long line of scary monsters, he has breezed through life on his family name, and arrives in Mike’s class fully aware of his practical abilities and equally determined to perpetuate the nonchalant air of someone who doesn’t have to try.

Naturally they hate each other from the off and while genre rules – and the fact that this is a prequel to a buddy comedy – dictate that they’ll eventually realise that working together is better for both of them, the film avoids arriving at this point in predictable fashion, even as it takes on the guise of a sports movie by forcing them to join a fraternity of underdogs to participate in an annual scare competition in order to save their university careers.

Indeed the film, which has been directed with a lot of energy by Dan Scanlon, throws a surprising number of curveballs into the mix to find the silver lining in things not quite going to plan.

Where Monsters University doesn’t make the grade is in its supporting characters. As Dean Hardscrabble, the imperious-seeming head of Monsters Uni, Helen Mirren isn’t given a whole lot to work with; she’s entertainingly severe, but not especially memorable. Nor are the ragtag band of misfits with whom Mike and Sully end up joining forces.

Fortunately, its central duo is so entertaining that almost doesn’t matter. Crystal and Goodman, both now in their 60s, deliver bravado vocal performances, reprising their earlier roles, but injecting them with a surprising amount of youthful vigour and callow indignation. They sound like proper freshers; appropriate really since this ends up feeling fresher than its prequel status might have warranted.

Other new releases

WE STEAL SECRETS: THE STORY OF WIKILEAKS (15)

Directed by Alex Gibney

* * * *

Documentary maker Alex Gibney provides another typically clear-eyed account here of a major story, the repercussions of which continue to be felt every day. In tracing the story of WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange, he uncovers yet another contentious figure blinded by his own hubris who ultimately proves damaging to the cause for which he professes to stand.

All the major Assange talking points are covered in forensic detail – the founding of the website, the release of the Afghan and Iraq War logs, the Swedish sex scandal – but it’s the heartbreaking, relatively untold story of Bradley Manning, the US intelligence analyst who leaked the bulk of the information to WikiLeaks (and was arrested and incarcerated for three years; his trial has only just begun), that gives the film real emotional depth.

What’s fascinating too, though, is the way Gibney contextualises the WikiLeaks saga within the larger story of the information age, exploring how the subtle paradoxical change that happened after 9/11 – when the US intelligence services began sharing more information while simultaneously attempting to classify more – created a pressure that made the leaking of sensitive information inevitable.

THE DEEP (15)

Directed by Baltasar Kormákur

Starring: Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Jóhann G Jóhannsson, Theodór Júlíusson, María Sigurðardóttir

* * *

After helming last year’s so-so Contraband, Baltasar Kormákur returns to his native Iceland for this miraculous based-on-true-events tale of survival in the face of extraordinary adversity. Set in 1984, it’s the story of Gulli (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), an overweight commercial fisherman who smokes and drinks too much and is prone to getting into bar fights. His life changes irrevocably when his trawler sinks in the North Atlantic, plunging him and his crew into near freezing nightime waters.

With no hope of rescue, the only choice is to swim for shore, a horrific decision Kormákur makes more intense by shooting at sea level to intensify the disorientation and the hopelessness of their task. What happens to Gulli, though, takes the film into unchartered waters as swimming to shore proves to be just one of the major problems with which he has to contend in order to survive. Mixing in flashbacks to Gilli’s childhood survival of an volcanic eruption that gutted the family home where he still lives with his elderly parents, what ultimately emerges is a low-key study of the faith, superstition, luck and tragedy that binds together communities living in extreme environments.

PARIS-MANHATTAN (12A)

Directed by: Sophie Lellouche

Starring: Alice Taglioni, Patrick Bruel, Marine Delterme

* *

Save for the anomalous Midnight in Paris, the declining standard of Woody Allen’s output seems to be having an adverse effect on those he’s influenced, if this French-made rom-com is anything to go by.

Revolving around the romantic travails of a Woody Allen-obsessed pharmacist (Alice Taglion) battling her family’s desire to marry her off, the film pays tribute to Allen by having its heroine’s neuroses about life and love manifest themselves in the form of an ongoing dialogue with him, particularly as she begins to form an unlikely friendship with an unsentimental burglary alarm salesman (Patrick Bruel). The conceit is a specific homage to Play it Again Sam, which saw Humphrey Bogart (played by Jerry Lacy) fulfilling the same role for Allen’s film critic protagonist.

The crucial difference is that where Allen was talented enough to write authentic Bogey-sounding dialogue himself, Paris-Manhattan’s writer/director Sophie Lellouche merely samples Allen’s actual films, thus adding witty and philosophical profundity to a movie that hasn’t really earned it. That said, Allen seems to have been charmed enough by the idea to make a cameo appearance, so easily pleased fans of the New Yorker might find it a delight. Sadly, I just found it slight and trite.

CITADEL (15)

Directed by: Ciaran Foy

Starring: Aneurin Bernard, James Cosmo, Wunmi Mosaku, Jake Wilson

* *

Another high-rise horror clunker, this Glasgow and Dublin-filmed supernatural tale limps into cinemas with little fanfare after having its release pulled earlier this year. It’s not hard to see why. It’s a fairly inauspicious feature debut for writer-director Ciaran Foy, who fails to give the film the kick needed to make its fanciful plot – about a young agrophobic father convinced that the gang of feral kids who fatally stabbed his wife are now after his baby daughter – work.

Up-and-coming actor Aneurin Bernard mostly looks baffled as the film’s traumatised protagonist, which makes it hard to buy into the notion that what’s unfurling is really a manifestation of some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, a point of view we’re encouraged to share courtesy of a kindly nurse (Wunmi Mosaku) who takes an interest in Bernard’s character, Tommy. Not that the film is particularly interested in maintaining a sense of ambiguity for long. From the moment James Cosmo turns up as a vigilante priest hell-bent banishing Tommy’s demonic tormentors from the Earth, the film descends into a form of silliness which is at odds with its somber tone.

PACIFIC RIM (12A)

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro

Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi

* *

Guillermo del Toro’s most distinctive visions (Cronos, Pan’s Labyrinth) have always emerged from darkness and silence – so why has he given in to making the same loud noises as everybody else? In the summer’s biggest disappointment yet, human-piloted robots clash with sea monsters and a bereaved pilot hero (Charlie Hunnam) re-enters battle alongside a female partner (Rinko Kikuchi).

There are fun footnotes – cities get clogged with monster dung – but any nuance gets squashed amid rusty plot and splurgey effects. The actors come cheap and uninteresting: we’re meant to be stirred by Elba’s rewording of Bill Pullman’s Independence Day peptalk.

Marginally better-natured than every other spot of dollar-chasing out there, it’ll nevertheless stand as del Toro’s most anonymous, safest bet to date.