Weekend Movies: ‘Monsters University’ and ‘World War Z’

A hefty percentage of the plot to the prequel to Pixar's 2001 classic Monsters, Inc springs from an indisputable fact about the hero that the hero just can't accept: Mike (Billy Crystal), that wisecracking green eyeball with arms and legs, is just not scary. For all of Pixar's much lauded gift for and focus on "story story story" this basic truth at the heart of the film is never satisfactorily dealt with and only sort of wished away, in a dreams affirming way. The foundation itself is shaky but very few of the monsters are scary so we'll let it slide.

After a brief prologue in which Mike first becomes fascinated with Monsters, Inc on a grade-school field trip, we catch up with him again as he starts college. In the past Pixar has excelled at making movies for kids that are also resonant for adults. The concept here suggests a goldmine of the same since college is for adults-in-training. Sadly, apart from a few mediocre fraternity house jokes and one amusing bit about continuing education (one of the monsters is much older than Mike and Sully and seeking a career change), the setting is wasted since the college itself, the title character for chrissakes, has no personality. This could just have easily been called Monsters High or Monsters Elementary for how generic the jokes are. Think: intimidating teachers, shushing librarians, and school "clubs". 


For the first time ever in a Pixar feature (outside of maybe the Cars franchise) the visuals are also disappointing. There was precious little variety in the monster designs ('how many eyes do you want on this one, Lasseter?') despite a late-film "message" that everyone is unique and our uniqueness is our strength. Instead of an interesting story that might hold deeper meanings — we should expect that from Pixar right? — we get a contest plot without stakes since the outcome is assured and/or irrelevant by the small fact of this being a prequel. Instead of clever story beats we get potential video game levels (Mike and Sully and their friends must pass five tests (in different settings) to stay in school — many of them involving dodging objects or escaping other monsters.

In the absence of a good story and resonant emotional journey you busy yourself with engaging miniature details: the way one teacher's horns wrapped so tightly against her head that they looked like hair buns, the creepy sounds of the Dean's tiny crustacean legs on a giant dragon's body, an unexpectedly spooky/funny shot of the least scary monster of all motionless with every eye open by a child's bed. Despite a few smiles, Monsters University is a sad reminder that the once ambitious Pixar's days of glorious original programming are behind them. They're content to lean back into former glories now.

World-War-Z-poster-largeWORLD WAR Z

Things got a little better in World War Z despite its troubled production history. It's a worthier film for trying much harder and succeeding (in parts). It starts off exceptionally well, buying the film a lot of goodwill (which it will need), with a genuinely terrifying setpiece: an eruption of city chaos during a normal day's drive for Gerry (Brad Pitt) and his wife and kids. "Rabid" people are suddenly flinging themselves at fellow citizens, trucks and cars are careening through the streets with no sense of speed limits or lanes and soon the entire city is burning. As it turns out Gerry is good in a crisis, a professional even. After this nail-biting intro, the government (or what remains of it) demands he resume his previous UN funded dangerous activities and find patient zero and/or a cure for this apocalyptic plague.

World War Z is based on an acclaimed novel of the same name that was told from an unusual multi-character multi-city diary-of-events perspective. Occassionally one gets a sense of a truly original movie, a more faithful adaptation, peaking through but since they've chucked all perspectives but one (Gerry's) to the side, it's a much simpler movie than it seems to want to be, given its ambitions, visually and geographically. "Movement is life" and Gerry logs a lot of hair raising frequent flyer miles, with and without zombie passengers.

Despite at least two fantastic setpieces and the genuinely unsettling visual of dead people piling up like ant mobs to scale seemingly impervious walls, World War Z has three problems it can't resolve. First, they've forgotten to make Gerry a character so it's only Brad Pitt, Globe Trotting Philanthropist/Hero, you're seeing and without substantial supporting roles to augment him, he's less than usual. Second, the story just sort of runs out of steam, tossing up its hands via voiceover in a 'maybe we'll make a sequel?' shrug. But most damningly it just never fully answers the loud question of "WHY ANOTHER ZOMBIE MOVIE?"

The lack of variety in today's cinema may be the scariest monster in our collective closet. If we all bought a ticket to Before Midnight, Frances Ha or Mud again (the three best movies of the summer) each time a new superhero or monster movie opened, Hollywood would have to change its ways. But first we'll have to. I'm part of the problem: I never remember until a new blockbuster or sequel or reboot is over that it's just like seeing the last one again. Variety is an illusion! 

 To quote Buffy the Vampire Slayer, an early precursor to today's monster mania but wise enough to continually mock its perpetual apocalypse…

"the earth is doomed". 


Nathaniel Rogers would live in the movie theater but for the poor internet reception. He blogs daily at the Film Experience. Follow him on Twitter @nathanielr.


  1. Caliban says

    I’ve almost been dreading World War Z because I liked the book so much. It and “Handling The Undead” by John Ajvide Lindqvist (author of Let The Right One In) are the best takes on the zombie genre I’ve seen. World War Z is a deeply imagined fantasy novel (How do you fight an enemy that is growing exponentially, can’t be intimidated, and doesn’t care about casualties?) It’s global in scope and doesn’t have a main character, which was refreshing, so no matter how good he is in the role he’s still the guy who fvcked up the whole dynamic of the novel because filmmakers weren’t innovative enough to make a movie without a POV character.


    Handling The Undead takes the zombie idea to a whole new level of creepiness by not having them do anthing but show up. You’ve mourned them or you’re glad they’re gone, but what if the dead came home and just sat there looking at you and you weren’t sure if that person was still in there or you’re just projecting? Warm Bodies was kind of interesting as an allegory for how you can become a zombie in your own life but living again is an option.

    End Digression. 😉

    IMO, “WHY ANOTHER ZOMBIE MOVIE?” misses the point. Why another domestic drama, movie based on a classic novel, movie about addiction or mental illness, etc. etc. etc? It’s ALL the same sh!t, different day. The only meaningful question is whether it brings something new or interesting to the table. (And not for nothing, but based on the trailer that zombie swarming thing is creepy as sh!t!)

  2. says

    the behind-the-scenes reshoots for WWZ are enough to raise an eyebrow or twenty.

    as for Monsters University, BOOURNS! what a shame to read that. the original is a bloody masterpiece. i mean, that chase through all the closet-doors? EPIC.

    and the final shot makes me tear up like a baby, every time.

  3. jaragon says

    I saw the very serious “Man of Steel” Henry Cavil might the hottest looking Clark Kent ever-that you wish his costume did not cover so much .

  4. Rrhain says

    WWZ suffers from the same problem all zombie movies have: Basic biology. If all you eat are the brains of the living, then after about a week of not having any brains to eat, you die from dehydration. The second law still applies and your body runs out of the chemical stores it needs to function. Your muscles simply cannot contract when they’re dried out, the blood coagulates, etc. And if you don’t have any blood to circulate, the cells eventually lyse due to toxin buildup.

    There was also the problem of timing: How on earth did this infection ever make it anywhere outside of the original location in which it happened? It takes only 12 seconds to convert someone from alive to zombie. So how did it make it across any ocean let alone any city? How on earth did it show up worldwide at the same time? The only explanation is that it was deliberately released (but that’s never examined.)

    And then there are the various idiocies: Eventually, the protagonist needs to walk through a field of zombies without being attacked. OK. But wait! You have access to the telephone system in the various halls and offices of the building he needs to go through? And they’re attracted to sound? Then why not make the phones ring in the areas of the building the hero doesn’t need to go through, opening up a pathway for him? Oh, that would be too easy.

    Oh, and tell him the code for the door and what he’s supposed to be getting *before* he leaves to go get it.

    And if these zombies are attracted to sound, why weren’t they following the vans and trucks bringing in refugees to the walled city? Why did they only notice a single set of loudspeakers rather than all the hustle and bustle taking place over there?

    And why was that set of loudspeakers even there? If it had never been used before, why was it there? And if it had been, why hadn’t they been attacked earlier?

    And how convenient that in a flight fleeing a city under siege, the first two seats in first class were open and available for the hero and his companion.

    And on and on and on. But, for a mindless zombie movie, it wasn’t too bad.

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