Saturday, June 29, 2013

Monsters University Movie Review

Movie: 8/10

I gotta admit that I was not expecting a lot from this film, seeing that Pixar has been apparently rehashing their old franchises in recent years, with Cars 2 being the biggest disappointment of them all. And the loud and noisy trailers didn't improve my first impressions of it either. But when I saw this film, it was truly a pleasant surprise, and dare I say it, I enjoyed it even more than Brave. This is the rare Pixar movie in recent years that actually knows how to slow down and have character development and not just throw a whole lot of noise at the screen to keep the kids in the theatre entertained.

Before Mike Wazaoski and James P. 'Sulley' Sullivan (Billy Crystal and John Goodman) worked at Monsters Inc, they, of course, need to study the skill of scaring at Monsters University. On his first day in campus he meets his new roommate, who is, surprisingly, not Sulley, but Randall 'Randy' Boggs (Steve Buscemi). To the parents and kids who watched Monsters Inc 12 years ago, you'll probably already know that Randall Boggs and James Sullivan were rival scarers in Monsters Inc, and its very interesting to see how the relationship between Mike and Randall turn from being friends to being the most well known rivals in their work in Monsters Inc, although admittedly, the whole movie isn't entirely focused on this subplot.

Who really was the rival of Mike during his college days was Sulley, a lazy, arrogant student who just relies on his family legacy of scaring to get through his college. He thinks he has it just because his dad and family name are famous. He doesn't even bring a pencil on his first day of class, he believes "you don't study scaring, you just do it", whereas Mike studies the art of scaring like a nerd, memorising every theory of scaring, like the factors of a good roar, assessing a child's fear to extract his or her scream, and so on and so forth.

A petty fight between the two led them to a certain minor accident, which makes the Dean of the college, Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), to kick them out of the scaring program. So Mike decides to join the Scare Games, a competition to test the monsters' scaring abilities, to prove Dean Hardscrabble wrong, and makes a deal to let him back in the scaring program should they win. Hardscrabble agrees, but warns them that if they lose, they will leave the university. So Mike joins a fraternity, Oozma Kappa, to be eligible to compete, but they are short of one member, so Mike reluctantly recruits Sulley into Oozma Kappa, because his long time room buddy Randy joins the rival fraternity, Roar Omega Roar, because Randy wants to join "the cool guys".

One thing's for sure about this film is that, it doesn't have a character that is the emotional centre of the whole film, which Monsters Inc had, and that was Boo. But while we missed Boo from the previous film, we all know this wasn't her story. This was a simple story of how the relationship of Mike and Sulley changed from rivals to best friends during college, and you can say that the film is less ambitious as a result. But still, the character development of Mike and Sulley during this film is still fascinating enough to make this movie engaging, and it was even surprisingly moving, which I totally did not expect.

Monsters University also looks great from an animation perspective, with improved rendering techniques like optimised global illumination and more prominent sub-surface scattering on the shaders of the characters to improve the image, while keeping to the art style of the original film. It should be mentioned that after watching Monsters Inc again after seeing this film, I've also noticed subtle improvements not only in lighting and rendering, but also the actual character animation itself. I could tell this film has character rigs that give more control to the models that they did 12 years ago, which results in subtle improvements to the fluidity of the animations.

Well before I end this review, let's halt for a while, because I would like to share an anecdote of how this film made me reflect on my Polytechnic days studying animation. Like Mike in this movie, who wasn't really able to physically scare kids despite his tedious study of the skill, I was an animator who ironically was never good at drawing, despite my best intentions. And my first few years studying animation in Poly was a rough, rough ride, because the first few years our lecturers drilled HARD on us in drawing, and no matter how hard I tried, I just felt so angry at myself at how bad I was at drawing, I even felt myself a disgrace to animators, so needless to say, my first 1 and 1/2 years in Poly was a depressing experience.

But then we were introduced to 3D character animation, and after trying it hands on, I actually discovered that even though my forte was not in drawing, perhaps I was built for another aspect of animation production, the actual animation of the 3D character models. This was a skill that not a lot of my classmates were extremely good at, because most of whom I knew were more oriented to 2D animation or illustration. I found myself enjoying the process, and getting better and better at it. Of course even while I liked it, I didn't think of myself as being the elite at it, because I was still a student, and there is a lot more to learn about the skill of character animation alone when you are actually working in the pipeline. This was made even more clear to me when during my graduation show, two of the top level guys from Tiny Island Productions came to see our final year works and portfolio. One of them, whose name I will not mention, saw my friend's booth and said "Hmm, this demo reel looks very professional", and then he came to mine, and he gave a lot of criticism/room for improvement to my animation work. When I first heard this, I was thinking to myself "Damn, I think I'll never reach the industry standard in my character animation", and I was pretty depressed to myself for the rest of the show. But the company announced to us that they urgently needed animators in his studio for their TV series, so I just tried out anyway, thinking that I will never make it past the animation tests. But surprisingly I got a message from the lead animator that I was shortlisted for the second round of tests, which really caught me by surprise, and so I went for the second test as well, an I got through that too, and so I was really thrilled, when I got the call that I was hired as a freelance animator to work on the TV series temporarily until the time came to start my National Service. My short time working in that company was really the happiest time in my life as an animator yet, I got to meet and learn from pretty experienced animators who have been in this field for years, and it was really fun.

So looking at my journey so far in my animation career, and looking at Mike and Sulley's journey in their scaring career, I think there's something we can learn as animators from this parallel in scarers/animators. But I don't like to preach, so I leave that learning experience up to you.

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