Making sequels means making money, or, at least that’s how Hollywood seems to operate these days. In some cases (like the Avengers) this is true. In other cases, it’s a gamble at best. Both “Despicable Me 2” and “Monsters University” were pretty much guaranteed to be hits this summer. If nothing else, they’re both movies that parents felt very secure about taking their kids to see.
As an animation fan, I’m often right there in the crowd a soda as big as my head and popcorn at the ready, trying to see what’s going to happen next on that screen. I think what continually draws me to animation time and time again is the sheer multitude of possibility available when telling the story. As long as you have someone who can either draw it by hand or draw it with the computer, then whatever was envisioned for that story can happen on the screen.
“Monsters, Inc.” was amazing to watch in a theater. It was the first time that I had seen a digitally rendered character that looked truly fuzzy. Not only that, there were several furry characters that had different textures of fur from Sully’s. The little details, like the melted snow cone stuck in the Yeti’s fur made every bit of that movie seem more realistic and better developed. Mike and Sully played well off each other and Billy Crystal and John Goodman’s voiceover work really made the pair come to life.
The movie was framed in a very small section of that particular universe, and it left room for other stories to be told. “Monsters, Inc.” has a cast with near infinite permutations. No two monsters look exactly alike. There are slimy monsters, crawly monsters, skittering monsters, furry monsters, and monsters that look a little bit plastic-like. What “Monsters, Inc.” did have was the kinds of MGM and pop-culture darling monsters that we had gotten used to seeing. Vampires did not intrude, nor did werewolves or zombies.
The movie was a big hit. The story was good, the characters were memorable, and people wanted to keep going back just to catch-all of the stuff that they might have missed. There were all kinds of things going on in the background and all kinds of visual references, like the nod to “The Right Stuff” on the Scare Floor of the company. “Monsters, Inc.” easily entertained both kids and parents.
With twelve years between the original movie and the sequel, I walked into that theater expecting great things. This was, after all, a Pixar movie. There was time to make a great storyline and really give some excellent back story to how Mike and Sully met.
“Monsters University” isn’t a bad movie. It was funny and it was cute. On the other hand, unlike with “Monsters, Inc.” I have no real burning desire to go watch it again in a theater. This is not just because of the price of movie tickets. “Monsters University” just doesn’t have as much going on in it as “Monsters, Inc.” did.
Part of it may be because I have seen this world before. It’s like ours, if we just took a little step to the left into a realm populated with monsters. The scenery reflects that, of course. There are fantastical gargoyles perched on the plinths at the gates of Monsters University. Some of the buildings are designed with entryways meant to look like a gaping maw. This is everything that I would expect to see in this world.
There are fun references to the college movies that came before this. They include some gags influenced by “Revenge of the Nerds” and a couple from “Animal House.” There may be a kid or two that sat in front of me who will forever remember watching “Monsters University” in front of some crazy lady who almost choked on her popcorn when one of the fratboys introduced himself as Kent. These are the kinds of things that adults sitting in a Pixar film expect to see. If the movie seems like it’s dragging, those are the things that they’re going to occupy themselves looking for, especially when there are references to, of all things, H.P. Lovecraft in a Disney film.
“Monsters University” follows Mike as he pursues his dream of becoming a scarer. Mike is just as enthusiastic and earnest as he was in “Monsters, Inc.” He wants his friends to succeed and he wants to go into the big, wide world and prove himself. One of the great things about Mike is that he has almost no concept of how little and cute he really is. He sees himself to be just as frightening as the other monsters around him and he applies himself wholeheartedly to his studies in order to ensure his inevitable success.
Sully is the real surprise here. He’s a slacker trading on his family name to open doors for him. Life has always been easy for him, right up until the point that he goes to Scare School. It never occurs to him that he might need to work at becoming anything. He has the same conviction that he’ll be a scarer, just like his famous relatives, but he also has the attitude that it will just happen because he is a Sullivan. It’s a rude awakening as the semester progresses and he learns that he may not be as awesome as he thinks he is.
Mike and Sully end up having to work together in order to try to get themselves back into the Scare School. Sully, of course, has to prove that he’s not as lazy as he seems. Mike has to try to show all of the monsters at Monsters University that he really is capable of being scary.
The nice thing about “Monsters University” is that it doesn’t go in completely for the “whatever you want to do, you just have to set your mind to it and it will happen” plot it could have been. Hard work and persistence certainly pay and a certain amount of natural talent can help. Not every dream comes true, unfortunately, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A lot of kids find out when they get to college that they either need or want to change their plans for any number of reasons. Mike’s plans have to change drastically, but, as we know from “Monsters, Inc.”, he and Sully both still turn out okay.
The biggest point of the movie seemed to be that Mike had to figure out what his real strengths were and use those to his advantage. Likewise, Sully had to realize that he wasn’t actually ten feet tall and bulletproof. He was facing his own weaknesses for the first time and having to admit that he was going to have to apply himself to circumvent them.
“Monsters University” was funny and it was enjoyable. It wasn’t quite as cool as “Monsters, Inc.” was and I don’t think for even a minute that’s just because I’m older and wiser. They can bill “Monsters University” as a prequel all they want, but it was the second movie in the franchise and some of that does show.
But, honestly, can a rival studio do any better? “Despicable Me” arrived on the scene in 2010. It was zany and a little bit nerdy, and a complete blast to watch. The mad scientist and evil overlord jokes came in at a phenomenal rate of speed and those little yellow minions completely stole the show. It not only added a big, new word to the vocabularies of small children across the nation, it made Gru and his dialog some of the most exciting movie viewing of that year.
Cue up “Despicable Me 2”. At least Illumination Entertainment makes absolutely no pretenses as to what this movie is supposed to be. It is an out-and-out sequel and they aren’t trying to act as if it’s something else.
I kept hearing criticisms of “toothless” and “disappointing” bandied about by critics. I wanted to see for myself, though. I’ll admit, the inner starry-eyed sprocket was over excited to see the return of the minions in all their glory. So, of course, I got my popcorn and my soda and away I went.
“Despicable Me 2” takes place after Gru has adopted Agnes, Margo, and Edith. Gru is trying to leave behind his supervillain past by creating a line of jams and jellies. Of course, he’s leaving all of that work to Dr. Nefario and the minions, and it doesn’t seem to be going so well.
While Gru is busy planning birthday parties and trying to make sure Margo doesn’t go too boy crazy, a new supervillain has arrived on the scene. This villain has stolen an entire Arctic station. Gru is kidnapped by Agent Lucy Wilde and pressed into service to help them find the new supervillain before he unleashes a plot that will destroy the world.
“Despicable Me 2” retains much of its sense of nerdish fun from the first film. Gru is still a mad scientist at heart. He wants to have gadgets and weapons, even if he’s using them to catch criminals instead of being one. The girls have been mostly faded back into a subplot to generate a little bit of drama here and there. The movie could, honestly, have just as easily done without them, which is a little sad, considering how central they were to the first movie.
The minions, on the other hand, are featured much more heavily. They’re not just comic relief in this movie, instead, they’re a very important plot point. We see a little bit more personality from the little yellow guys, who are apparently now getting vacation time and have managed to organize at least a little bit. The audience is also made more aware of the fact that at least a few of the minions have names.
In “Despicable Me 2”, there are visual references to, of all things, “The Shining” along with practically every adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ever made. More hilarious still are the nods to “From Dusk ‘Til Dawn” (which if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll absolutely know it when you see it) and practically every spy movie you’ve ever watched (including, but not limited to any of the Bond films and “The Pink Panther”). “Despicable Me” had more imminently quotable lines, while, mostly, “Despicable Me 2” will have some audience members making minion noises at each other and laughing.
Gru may have lightened up a little now that he has the girls, but he still proves to be a funny and surprisingly endearing character. He means well, even when his own issues make him stumble and fall.
The addition of Agent Lucy Wilde is also nice. She’s tough and smart and, above all, scarily competent. She is good at her job and she’s more than capable of keeping Gru in line.
There is a lot to be enjoyed from both movies. Kids are going to get a little bit more out of both of them than the average adult, but neither movie is going to end up making you feel like you wasted your money. Neither one is dull, it’s just that the prior movie for each franchise set the bar very high.
I really did enjoy “Despicable Me 2” more than I did “Monsters University”, simply because the minions make that movie. It’s a little bit smarter, a little bit snappier, and makes for much more fun viewing. Both of them are still DVD collection material, but I can already tell you, “Despicable Me 2” is going to get played much more often.