It has been a shaky couple of years for Pixar, the once untouchable Oscar factory responsible for the most significant family entertainment of the past 20 years. Their phenomenal run of success came crashing to a halt for many with the misguided Cars 2, and while last year’s Brave was a step in a more positive direction, it never really got the attention it deserved. Competing films from the likes of Dreamworks and Blue Sky have finally managed to catch up, and Pixar’s groundbreaking level of quality has been gradually eroded.
Part of me wishes that the film Pixar needed to put them back out ahead of the pack would be one of their spectacular original creations, not a revisit of past work, but as gripes go it’s a negligible one. Monsters University is an announcement that the Pixar we’ve been missing for a couple of years is back, and in grand, hilarious style.
Monsters University winds back the clock from 2001’s Monsters Inc. to tell the story of how Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and James P. Sullivan (John Goodman) met in the hallowed halls of the titular establishment. After being thrown out of the scare program by the sinister Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) for destroying a valuable university artefact, Mike and Sulley must put their rivalries aside and work together to take their tragic fraternity Oozma Kappa to the Scare Games, and face down the popular jocks of Roar Omega Roar.
Sound familiar? It should. Monsters University is more than anything else a bang on tribute to classic college comedies of the eighties, yet maintains the countless nods to horror and science fiction that peppered the original (the scaring school looks like Cthulhu!!). Surprisingly, what Monsters University is not is a film for kids. That’s not to say it’s inappropriate for youngsters, but the film is more Animal House than Play House, and while Pixar have always expertly balanced the kid content with adult, this definitely swings further toward the latter.
It’s certainly busy and colourful, but the film sacrifices some of its broad accessibility for more depth in its references. A treat for people who grew up with Revenge of the Nerds, not so much for those used to the mostly sterile, diluted children’s fare of recent times, as evidenced by the amount of chattering little monsters in the cinema towards the end of my screening.
It seems like the production line at the Pixar campus is advanced enough now to be able to crank high quality films out with greater regularity than in the past, and recent reports have suggested that the studio will scale back their production of sequels in favour of original properties, which is terrific news. However, Monsters University restates the promise of the Toy Story films, that many of their creations can have legs beyond one film. More exciting is the prospect of the studio exploring more specific genres, like they do here with the college comedy. They appear to have learned from their recent mistakes, and with the full weight of Disney behind them, Pixar have shot back to the head of the class.
The latest in what seems to be a run of troubled mega-budget summer blockbusters, The Lone Ranger is nothing more than two hours of bland, uninspired build up to an admittedly thrilling final sequence. Director Gore Verbinski and Disney’s drawcard du jour Johnny Depp do little to disguise the fact that this is a shameless stab at franchise creation, trying to repeat the success of previous behemoth series Pirates of the Caribbean, but with almost none of the charm and surprise.
Given that they’re working with such an archaic property (in Hollywood terms at least), Armie Hammer’s character of the Ranger is for all intents and purposes an unfamiliar face for the audience The Lone Ranger is aimed at. Framed with an unnecessary story of a very old Tonto (a digitally made-up Depp) recounting the adventure to a young boy (Bryant Prince), it’s essentially a superhero origin story transported to the wild west. Strait-laced lawman John Reid (Hammer) arrives in a rugged frontier town, intent on bringing some civility to the justice system of the west, only to be dragged into the hunt for vicious outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) following a tragic ambush on the band of Texas Rangers led by Reid’s brother Dan (James Badge Dale). It’s a needlessly complicated plot given the lack of interest anyone seems to have in the project, especially Verbinski, but more on that later.
It’s always a treat to see Monument Valley on the big screen, but associating such forgettable fare with the majesty of the landscape is a real shame. The Lone Ranger snoozes its way through its interminable two and a half hour runtime right up until the last twenty minutes or so, when the final train chase manages to finally grab some of that magic that made the first Pirates film such unexpected fun. Besides that, Johnny Depp’s mugging elicits the occasional chuckle, and some of the weirdness that Verbinski brought to his previous western Rango rears its fanged bunny head from time to time, but for the most part every story beat can be seen lumbering down the tracks from a mile away. There’s the villain, the obvious real villain, and a love interest so pointless and underwritten it really feels like Verbinski was sitting on set with a pen and a clipboard, ticking off each dull element as he goes.
Or was he? It might take a second look that I’m not really willing to waste time on, but there are at least a couple of moments where, to me at least, it seemed the director was almost poking fun at his own film. It’s hard to believe that he would feature a scene in the middle of The Lone Ranger where Johnny Depp literally kicks a dead horse and not foresee the looming flood of jokes, a scene so obvious it almost begs every self-important film blogger to guffaw their disdain onto the internet.
He also calls attention to gaping plot holes as they are happening, only to come back at the end and jog our memories in such a ham-fisted way that I can only believe he either wasn’t trying at all, or it’s some elaborate inside joke at the audience’s expense. While I could certainly be wrong about either scenario, both possibilities come off as kind of bratty. I’ll be very interested to see what Verbinski decides to do next however.
There’s probably many people who will be troubled by the racial politics involved in The Lone Ranger, but it’s hardly worth mustering the effort to pry any deeper into the movie. It’s a little odd that Tonto’s spiritual eccentricities seem quite important early on, only to be undermined later by an actual tribal Chief who dismisses Tonto as crazy, and there is rather wholesale slaughter of at least one tribe of Native Americans that passes without much weight. Really the only hate crime The Lone Ranger commits though is wasting so much time and money on a film that only Disney’s auditors will remember in six months.