10:42 a.m. June 28, 2013

Monsters Ugh

“Monsters University,” the new film from Pixar Animation Studios, just opened. It’s a typical Pixar film, so loaded with gloppy sentimentality and sugary-sweet candy-colored characters and naggy moralizing I see no reason why it shouldn’t make three hundred million dollars, easy.

Still, it’s technically excellent, as Pixar movies always are. And the Pixar short film running with “Monsters U.,” called “The Blue Umbrella,” is even more amazing-looking, starting from a point of complete photo-realism before moving just a hair off that into animation. Quite an eerie effect. It’s a city street scene in early evening, just as it’s starting to rain, and a close-up of the street grating starts to reveal a face within the metal lines and bolts. I wish it had just stuck to that minute level of animation throughout, but instead — typically! — a story got shoved in about a cute blue umbrella with an animated face awkwardly stuck on it, who gets infatuated with a red umbrella (an indication of eyelashes on the eyes is a sign that this is a female umbrella, because even umbrellas are straight heterosexuals in Pixar movies), and then they get separated and the boy umbrella has to escape from his owner to chase the girl umbrella and all the animated street objects start helping him and blah blah blah.

I’m beginning to think the Pixar obsession with story is a big part of what’s so obnoxious about them. They’re absolute slaves to story, and they brag about it a lot. What’s worse, their stories are always morality tales of vanilla love and friendship and libertarian-light tributes to individual achievement. You’ll never see a whole Pixar film about a rabbit dedicating himself to revenge in response to unprovoked aggression (Bugs Bunny, “Of course, you know this means war”), or about the havoc created by a single crazy duck motivated by greed or ego or God knows what (Daffy Duck, “Woo-hoo, woo-hoo, woo-hoo!”), or about the counter-espionage adventures of a moose and a squirrel…well, let’s drop the subject, it’s starting to upset me.

“Monsters U.” is a prequel to “Monsters Inc.,” and it’s about how the two monster-buddies from that 2001 smash hit meet at college and are enemies and rivals before becoming friends. Of course, they’re enemies and rivals for the most clichéd reasons — one’s a jock-type, one’s a bookish nerd, the central opposition in every college film dating back to Harold Lloyd’s “The Freshman” in 1925. Only instead of athletics, becoming a “top scarer” is the goal…

Boring! Moving on!

Because of the nothing-new quality of “Monsters U.,” the critical consensus seems to be that this latest Pixar film constitutes undeniable proof: Pixar Studios is in a modest decline. Not declining financially — God, no, they’re rolling in money, papering the walls with it, shredding the smaller bills to use as confetti at the next staff birthday party — but declining aesthetically. The overall quality of their films has dropped, the typical argument goes, from the glorious Olympian heights of that string of 2008 – 2010 masterpieces, “Wall-E” and “Up” and “Toy Story 3,” to the merely very, very, very tall and splendid mountains of “Cars 2,” “Brave,” and now “Monsters U.” As critic Dana Stevens of Slate says, “Because Pixar’s rep has been polished to such a high sheen over the course of three decades, the slightest bit of tarnish really shows.”

Though Todd McCarthy of Variety takes a darker view of “Monsters U.”:

“…an alarmingly lame effort from Pixar, the Oxbridge of animation studios. A prequel arriving 12 years after its progenitor, ‘Monsters, Inc.,’ this marks the third sub-par film in a row from Pixar, after ‘Cars 2’ and ‘Brave,’ suggesting that the brain trust in Emeryville has lost a bit of its edge. Certainly, this genial and inoffensive G-rated lark about cute characters doing their darndest to become scary monsters will play well enough with its intended audience (most members of which weren't even born when the original came out), but it will register as a notable artistic underachiever with people who expect the best from its maker.”

Several critics also observe that this Pixar decline resembles the downward trajectory of Walt Disney’s studio back in the old days. After Disney’s incredible string of boldly experimental animation masterpieces — “Snow White,” “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia,” “Dumbo,” “Bambi” — the company seemed to lose its way and started making far less impressive works, some outright misfires and a lot of factory-made “products” in the established Disney mold (“Make Mine Music,” “The Sword in the Stone,” “Cinderella,” etc.).

If Pixar is doing a Disney here, this is no surprise, as it seems Pixar has long been following in Disney’s footsteps so doggedly that if Walt Disney had died by jumping off a cliff, Pixar/Disney Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter would already have the date circled on the calendar when he, too, would jump off a cliff, preferably a slightly higher one. This copycat impulse has been there from the start, especially with Lasseter, who studied with retired Disney animators at the Disney-founded California Institute of the Arts, worked his first job on the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland, and began his career as an animator at Disney Studios. Lasseter even adopted the same hobby as Walt Disney, who went through a phase when he obsessed over and collected model trains, finally having a huge one built around his home to 5/8ths scale of a real train that he liked to drive himself. Not to be outdone, Lasseter has model trains running through his whole stately mansion, plus a “train library” reached via a hidden staircase and, outside on his thousand-acre Sonoma estate, an actual full-size train chugging around so he can play engineer just like Disney did.

When discussing that long-ago (and always ongoing) Disney creative decline, what isn’t generally remembered is that Walt Disney’s studio took a long time to stabilize financially, and a money crunch played a big role in it. Those early masterpieces, other than “Snow White” and “Dumbo,” weren’t big hits with audiences on initial release. And it was Disney’s tendency to plow all profits from a hit right back into his obsessive quest for animated perfection and expanding the state of the art, without regard for budget projections or sensible scheduling. So for years the company was operating in the red, according to the mammoth Disney biography by Neal Gabler. Finally the bank wouldn’t extend any more credit unless the company started running in a more pragmatic, profit-generating manner. This was terrific news for Roy Disney, who was in charge of the finances and perpetually tearing his hair out, but not so terrific for his brother Walt Disney, who could hardly sustain any interest in a project that he wasn’t fiendishly micromanaging down to the last animated blade of grass.

When Disney Studio product “declined,” according to Gabler, it was because the studio had to start making money fast or go under, and because Disney himself consequently distanced himself from animated filmmaking and found other obsessions, Disneyland being one. (Disney was also reacting badly to the bitter 1941 labor strike by Disney Studio animators, which permanently soured his relationship with his employees and turned him into one of Hollywood’s leading anti-Communist fanatics, a “friendly witness” at the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, a fervent participant in the blacklist, and other shameful things.)

Financial pressure is very unlikely to be driving a Pixar decline. After its early pre-feature-filmmaking struggles, Pixar is now just as famous for the “insane profitability” of its animated features as for their aesthetic achievements. As Business Insider lovingly reports, even on the rare occasion when Pixar fails, it still succeeds in the long run. Just look at “Cars 2,” budgeted at $200 million but making a mere $191 million on initial domestic release:

“The studio's first critical miss was a blatant cash grab to renew ‘Cars’ merchandising sales. This movie may not have earned back it's [sic] budget domestically, but it's far from a loss for the studio once everything else is factored in…

“Bottom line: Until something drastic changes, a new Pixar film remains a license for the studio to essentially print money.”

If it’s not a money-squeeze forcing Pixar to cut corners creatively, you have to wonder if imitating Disney no matter what has become the overriding Pixar logic. Let’s check the trajectory so far:

Phase One: Pioneering Short Films. Disney establishes a big name in the industry by experimenting with sound and then color in a series of revolutionary and hugely popular short cartoons, like “Steamboat Willie” and “Plane Crazy,” featuring Mickey Mouse, and the Silly Symphonies series such as the award-winning “Flowers and Trees.”

Pixar establishes a big name in the industry by experimenting with digital animation in a series of revolutionary and hugely popular short cartoons like the award-winning “Luxo Jr.,” “Red’s Dream,” and “Tin Toy” (all directed by John Lasseter).

Phase Two: Moving into Features. Disney releases the fabulously ambitious “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” after a protracted, difficult, technologically revolutionary production process that led to famously-wrong jokes about “Disney’s Folly.” Doubters wonder who would want to sit through a feature-length animated film? Answer: pretty much everyone.

Pixar makes the fabulously ambitious “Toy Story” (Lasseter directing again) after a protracted, difficult, technologically revolutionary production process that supposedly had owner Steve Jobs wondering, at certain rough points in the production, if anyone might like to buy a computer animation company. But thanks to the Disney legacy, at least no one wondered about whether people would sit through a feature-length animated film. Again, pretty much everyone in the world did.

Phase Three: Critical Endorsement, Embracing “Significance.” Disney is lionized by everyone from established film critics to fellow filmmakers as diverse as Sergei Eisenstein and Alfred Hitchcock to high culture luminaries like Walter Benjamin and Salvador Dali. Mickey Mouse is everyone’s hero. Disney reads his own reviews and increasingly despises “gag” humor that had once driven his short films, chasing after snob credibility and “significance” in features.

Pixar is so universally praised that Armond White’s negative review for “Toy Story 3” generates a storm of controversy and “First Bad Review for ‘Toy Story 3’” headlines, plus ruining the film’s perfect 100% critical approval score at the Rotten Tomatoes site. Armond White is nobody’s hero (I should hope), though he did say a few things that needed to be said about Pixar movies. And Pixar, with Disney animation history used as a model, chases critic-pleasing “significance” from early on.

Phase Four: Doing it for the Money, Critical Disenchantment, but Unabated Popularity.

The decline of Disney creatively in animated film has frequently been charted by Mickey Mouse’s degeneration from ratty, resourceful, half-naked little punk beloved by all to a bland, fully clothed corporate-brand representative, the bane of animators because he’s no longer allowed to do anything funny or interesting, but is endured by all because he’s familiar. The highbrows change their tune and start writing articles about Fascist authoritarian “Papa Disney” and his ideologically sinister products, but audiences are too dependent to resist, and even fifth-rate Disney movies do well. Disney Stores cover the globe.

As for Pixar, well, that’s today’s Topic A.

Phase Five: Unassailably Established Company as Paragon or Capitalist Villain

In this phase, the successful company is considered a symbol of either a) the absolute gold standard in family entertainment, or b) the bloated evils of capitalism and rote regressive animated content force-fed to children forever and ever and ever. Or both, because those who believe b) still tend to seek out a) when they have kids who are driving them nuts begging them to see Disney/Pixar films. Disney and Pixar are united in corporate heaven, jointly owning the “quality animation” brand. Mission complete!

Which brings us back to “Monsters University,” and the argument that Pixar may be descending into Phase Four.

Clearly the dam has broken when it comes to bad reviews of Pixar films, starting from “Cars 2.” The “Monsters U.” ones are exemplary. Most critical complaints center around the fear that if each new Pixar film isn’t breaking new ground, it’s in fact regressing. (Interestingly, this was Walt Disney’s motto in his early years working on animated films.) “Monsters University” is a sequel that doesn’t even live up to the 2002 original, “Monsters Inc.,” they claim, in either inventiveness or emotional impact.

I have less invested in comparing the two because, though I saw “Monsters Inc.” when it opened, I couldn’t remember a thing about it except a blur of pretty colors. Then I started reading the reviews, and it all came back in a sickening rush: Oh, yeah, that’s the one with the two monster buddies working as a team of “scarers” in a factory that generates energy off the screams of children. On the “scare floor” of the factory, the monsters go through closet doors that are portals to children’s bedrooms, which all sounds kind of sick when you put it that way, and frighten the kids, and then they bottle their screams that power the community of Monstropolis. Then one day a kid — a nauseatingly adorable little girl called Boo — manages to get back through the door into the monster world, and ironically all the monsters are scared of children, who are considered toxic —

Well, it ain’t so ironic, actually, because I don’t know any kids who aren’t scarier than these Pixar monsters. They’re all as cute as cuddly stuffed animals, which makes sense, because the company’s got the merchandizing to think of, so the monsters all get sold as stuffed animals or some kind of toy anyway, like everything Pixar makes. Sully, the lead monster, is a tall furry bearlike creature, aquamarine with pink spots, and his sidekick Mike looks like a one-eyed green six-ball that’s a fugitive from a game of pool, with dangly arms and legs. Of course, these monsters come to adore the kid Boo in the most excessive possible way and don’t want to be scarers anymore. But it turns out that children’s laughter has even more power than fear, and this is lucky since contemporary children have become so cynical from exposure to the media that they don’t scream much anymore, and as a result there’s an energy crisis in Monstropolis. But now the laughter thing solves all the problems, and the monsters change their job descriptions to entertaining the kids at night instead, and Monstropolis is saved. The End.

Not too messagey, huh? Laughter Beats Fear, the Media is Bad, Kids These Days, Energy Crisis….Yeah, Pixar writers really try to avoid loading more than seventy-five tons of message into each film, because it’s so important for each individual in a free society to think for him or herself. Oh wait, that’s another message, isn’t it? Well, so they went a little over, what’s a few more messages among friends? Everyone needs friends, you know, in order to achieve his or her best self! Oh dammit, that’s the main Pixar message of all! Cue up the millionth chorus of Randy Newman’s immortal hit, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.”

As a result of all this message-mongering, there are approximately ten-thousand reviews and blog posts and literary articles opining about what “Monsters Inc.” means. Very Phase Three stuff. Everybody knows it’s an allegory for something, but what exactly is the question. A sampling:

Reviewer Paul Byrnes states, “The film is an allegory of American business.”

In “Escaping Monstropolis: Child-friendly Cities, Peak Oil and Monsters, Inc.,” scholars Paul J. Tranter and Scott Sharpe argue

“Monsters, Inc. can be seen as an allegory for changing conceptualisations of children, for the problems created for children by a reliance on a particular form of energy, for the expected responses to an energy crisis, and perhaps even for some solutions to the problems likely to occur when global oil production begins to decline.”

In “Monsters, Inc.: Notes on the Neoliberal Arts Education,” Elizabeth Freeman contends,

“…the film strikes me as an apt allegory for the humanities within the university within global capitalism because it was produced with the very cybernetic technologies that some professional academics fear may replace us altogether. And it thematizes the impact of these technologies not only on work but on intergenerational encounters. In other words, the film explores what might be called the industrialization, or postindustrialization, of attachment, fantasy, and reaction between older and younger beings.”

Eric Herhuth, “Pixar’s Alien Child: Fear and the Reproduction of Exploitation in Monsters, Inc.”

“…I argue that Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. is about the fear and energy produced through contact with the other, and about the narratives we create to rationalize and control the forces of that contact. It is about how we cope with our fears by watching our fears cope with us.”

My personal favorite, “Anonymous,” blogs that “Monsters Inc.” is a homophobic allegory of gay culture:

“In the closet world, though, it’s clear as day that they’re nothing but a horrible hidden city of grotesque monsters. Of course they’re homo-sexuals, so…this monster world is full of teal and lavender and fuschia and lime green. It’s all soft edges and warm light and colorful midcentury graphics. Even the monsters aren’t very scary, just freakish and generally disgusting. But that’s okay, homo-sexuals “love” all kinds. If you like “bears,” why, here comes James P. Sullivan, the biggest, cuddliest, belly-est furball you could want! Look, he’s walking with Mike, his one-eyed love goblin, out in plain sight for all to see. But’s that’s normal here.”

Finally and most pertinently, back to Paul Byrnes:

“The first is that ‘Monsters, Inc.’ can be read as a film about Disney….I think Monstropolis is a coded version of the way Pixar then saw Disney. They're in the same business - making money from children, but there's something nasty about the industrial way they do it.”

For Byrnes, the movie is Pixar’s tribute to itself and the way it reformed Disney from within once the companies joined forces, just as Sulley becomes CEO of the factory and reforms the way the monsters do business, makes it nicer.

Well, fine. If that was the idea, you can see how people would freak out about “Cars 2” and “Monsters U.,” recognizing the early warning signs of a return to mean, exploitative Disney practices, cranking out junk to sell the suckers addicted to Disney from babyhood onward. But frankly, it was always clear, the Pixar determination to pursue Disney practices good, bad, and indifferent.

John Lasseter means to drive that Disney-Pixar train right off the cliff on the appointed day.