Sunday, June 30, 2013

Going To School With Monsters

The term "game changer" gets thrown around a lot these days. It's kind of like the word "classic" in that everyone wants whatever it is they've done to be an "instant classic" (an oxymoron if there ever was one) and a "real game changer." The truth, though, is that there are very few "game changers" out there no matter how much we like to throw the term around. For instance, in my lifetime, the only real game changer has been Apple, first with the personal computer, then with mobile devices. As far as society goes, there haven't really been any other real game changers except, maybe, mobile phones, which was not Apple but probably contributed a lot to what Apple did. Everything else is pretty much as it always was.

Of course, you can narrow your field and look for game changers within specific areas, so let's look at movies. What have been the "game changers" in the movie industry in the last four decades?
1. Star Wars. Star Wars changed the way people think about movies and the way movies are made. Within that, we can just say George Lucas, because he has continued to change movies with what he's done through ILM and digital technology which was, again, ushered in through Star Wars.
2. Blade Runner. This one isn't so obvious, but people within the film industry will often point at Blade Runner as bringing a pervasive look and feel to all movies that have anything to do with the future. You can see the influence of Blade Runner on everything from Minority Report to The Matrix.
3. The Blair Witch Project. Unfortunately. It started a whole new kind of movie making, and, while it's not saturating the marketplace, lots of people feel the need to dabble in it. Like Abrams with Cloverfield.
4. Pixar. Toy Story changed the landscape of the film industry, and Pixar rode that change for over a decade, producing some great and, even, classic films (Classic in that they are are the oldest examples of those types of movies, like Toy Story). Pixar's release of Toy Story in 1995 has probably had the largest effect on movies since the release of Star Wars in 1977. (Interestingly enough, Pixar was a company created by George Lucas and owned by Steve Jobs at the time that Toy Story was released. (It makes me want to say that the greatest shapers of culture in the last four decades can be traced to Jobs and Lucas.))

From the looks of things, though, it may be that it would be more appropriate to say that it was John Lasseter was the real "game changer," because, since he has moved on to other Disney-related projects, the daring and "game changer"ness has gone out of Pixar films, and they have moved to a more standard film formula. Monsters University is no exception.

I loved Monsters, Inc.; it's still one of my favorite Pixar movies. It's a touching movie about friendship and the lengths one monster goes to for a friendship even when he doesn't necessarily agree with his friend. And the relationship between Sully and Boo brought a tear to my eye in his willingness to let go of something that he loves to do what is best for that something. That something being Boo. However, it's the challenging of the norms that make the film standout. It's the demonstration that we ought to be constantly questioning the status quo and tradition so that we know whether there are better ways, now, than there were when those traditions were established that make the film really shine. [And I would bet money on it being a subtle jab at Disney, whom Pixar had fight every step of the way to get Toy Story out in the form we saw it in, because Disney wanted a more traditional story.]

But there is none of that in Monsters University. It is, in every way possible, a standard Disney film. Well, okay, maybe it's not standard Disney, but it's certainly standard. Two guys, rivals, have to learn to work together to overcome some great obstacle and, in so doing, they learn they are great partners. And, because of that, friends. It's the plot of virtually every buddy cop movie out there. Except Monsters U is in a school setting. There is nothing in the movie that is beyond typical.

Which is not to say that it's not enjoyable, because it is. Very enjoyable. It just doesn't feel like Pixar; it feels like Disney. Safe. Traditional. And that's disappointing. Because what we learned from Pixar is that traditional, for them, was challenging tradition. But that was before Disney. Don't get me wrong, Disney can make great films, but they are hardly ever challenging.

All of that said, Monsters U was enjoyable. It was fun to get to see Sully and Mike again and, even, Randall. Dean Hardscrabble was a great, new character, completely freaky, and Helen Mirren was excellent in the role. I wouldn't have wanted her paying any kind of personal attention to me. No, not even to tell me good job, because even "good job" from her would seem to carry some kind of menace.

Visually, the movie made no improvements over its predecessor. In fact, the animation seemed flatter. More plastic. But, then, it has been a while since I watched Monsters, Inc. so there may be some amount of idealization going on in my head as far as that goes. Still, after more than 10 years, you'd expect some amount of improvement, especially after the richness of the animation in Brave.

Many people say that it's unfair to judge Pixar movies by their previous endeavors, but I don't really agree. That's kind of like saying you shouldn't judge a McDonald's cheeseburger by other McDonald's cheeseburgers. Pixar did, after all, establish what a Pixar movie should be like. They are also the ones that have allowed Disney to mess with their recipe, which it's hard to fault Disney for since they own Pixar, now. However, these new Pixar burgers don't taste quite the same, quite as good, as the old ones. So, it may be true that Monsters University is a fine a movie, which it is, but it's not a fine Pixar movie. Of that, it falls short.


  1. I love to use game changer sarcastically. For example:
    "I decided to eat a grilled cheese sandwich instead of a peanut butter and jelly one. It was a real game changer." :D

    I love that Pixar is not afraid to push the limit. Monsters, Inc. is one of my all time faves!

  2. I haven't seen Monsters University yet but my kids are dying to see it.

  3. At one point in my working life I moved from working in Non-Destructive Testing to the Computer Section. I hadn't been there long working on the Prime computer when we learned we could telnet to other locations. Soon we got PC's and shortly thereafter, Netscape - an internet browser. The internet! No one had ever heard of it. We brought our plant manager in to show him this new thing and he said, "it's going to be big."

    So Andrew I will disagree with you in a big way on what the game changers have been in the last 40 years. Because I could point to other examples,i.e., CNC machines.

    As for the movies I would begin with Bonnie & Clyde but that might have been a bit over 40 years ago. Certainly "God Father" and Quentin Tarantino's movies and "Saturday Night Live!" Okay, "Animal House" if you insist. I think though our differences are the result of what we have been exposed to. The amount of knowledge in the world has expanded so rapidly that I think there has been a change in how people handle the enormity of information available. At one time knowledgeable people knew a little about everything going on in the world. They can't anymore. There is too much. They have focused on the things that help and interest their particular personality. Alvin Toffler addressed this many years ago in "Future Shock."

  4. I have never heard of the term "game changer". I'm more out of sync with today's world than I thought.

  5. The Blair Witch Project totally creeped me out! I remember standing in line for an hour just to see it and then couldn't get to sleep that night.

  6. Are you making McDonald's cheeseburger references for Pagel? I think it is disappointing Pixar is stooping to the same lame prequels and sequels as everyone else. Have to wonder how Disney is going to mess up future Marvel and Star Wars projects. I suppose they'll just homogenize those the way they've done with Pixar.

  7. Disney does this kind of crap a lot, by beating the heart out of everything and just turning it into a money making franchise. Just look at Cars. That worked out well for them, so now they have a trilogy called Planes, starring Dane Cook. Tell me there's anything more terrible than this. Seriously, try.

  8. Samantha: I think they've moved away from that in the last couple of years. Unfortunately.

    Gillian: My kids were, too, which was the why of going.

    David: One: my list wasn't meant to be completely comprehensive. It was just talking big societal changes. The post is really about the movie, so I didn't really have the space to do a list covering every aspect of everything.

    Two: I thought about the Internet, BUT I think its influence only exists because of the PC. If we hadn't moved to personal computers, the fact that we could network computers over distances wouldn't have the impact that it does. Just my thoughts as a not-techie just looking at how it affects people like me.

    Three: As for the movies, I was looking specifically at movies that caused a change in the way movies are made. Tarantino hasn't affected the movie industry stylistically or anything. He has his own niche, but it didn't cause a shift in how things are done. Which, unfortunately, Blair Witch did with it's whole cheap, video style of movie-making. That's a thing now and is increasingly becoming a bigger thing.

    Again, not a comprehensive list. I was just trying to mention some of the big ones.

    Anne: Oh, no, it's fine. It just means you don't watch making of things about movies or sports analysts (I don't either) and things like that.

    JKIR,F!: I rented it way after the fact. It was interesting.

    PT: I did, actually, use that example just for Pagel.
    So far, Disney has been content to let Marvel do what they want. They seem to also be leaving Star Wars to the Lucas people. At the moment. I think the real issue with Pixar is that Lasseter is no longer there. He's just a name, now, because he's off at Disney doing other stuff.

    ABftS: I was upset to find out that Planes is just another racing movie. Next, it will be Boats. Or, maybe, Submarines. And, then, Spaceships. Cars was great, but it wasn't about the race. I think they've forgotten that.

  9. That's a good point about the PC. Had it not been for that - we wouldn't be doing this.

  10. I haven't seen Monsters U but I can think of some game changers:

    1) Microwave
    2) ebooks. Rise of electronic writing is putting paper out of business.
    3) digital cameras. Kodak is now extinct because it changed the game.
    4) Ipad applications (they put Dynavox out of business. Only a year ago they were a dynamic company, now their stock is 7 cents).
    5) 3D Printing (this one is gonna be huge). Manufacturers are gonna go out of business by the thousands.
    6) self-driving cars (this is gonna put taxi drivers, bus drivers, etc. out of business).

    Those are all game changers.

  11. David: Exactly, which is why I think it's the PC that was the real changer there.

    Michael: Hmmm...
    1. I'm not sure I'd call the microwave a game changer. It just made cooking faster, but you still have to do it.
    2. ebooks are definitely a minor changer, but I think they fit in with the mobile device change. ebooks wouldn't be a "thing" without mobile devices.
    3. Same as 2.
    4. Same as 2.
    5. I think 3d has the potential to be a game changer. I'm still waiting to see.
    6. Same as 5.
    Part of what I'm looking at is whether whatever the changer is is dependent upon some other changer. If it is, it's not really a game changer; it's just something that adapted to some other game changer.

  12. I totally agree with you about Lucas and Jobs. Have always thought that. My kids, decades after Star Wars came out, are immersed in its culture: video games, Legos, re-watching the movies, talking about CGI, marveling at how ILM could do what they did WITHOUT CGI.
    Toy Story is one of my all-time favorite movies. I remember seeing it and The Engineer saying, "This little movie is going to change movie making forever. There is now no limit as to what they can do or make us feel, real or imagined." For a man who 1) Isn't much of a movie buff and 2) is a man of few words, I'll never forget that, and boy was he right.
    I would call the microwave a game changer in that it ushered in the era of "I must have it faster" which has led so far as to "I'll overnight those papers to you for you to look at" and you can buy a house with a FAX while at a car dealership waiting for the emergency fix on your vehicle.
    Great thought provoking stuff here, Andrew. As always.
    And hey look! Remembering to subscribe the first time!
    Tina @ Life is Good

  13. Tina: I don't think the microwave started that trend; it was just another step in it. We've been trying to do and go faster for centuries. At least. The pony express. Trains. Telegraphs. Cars. Airplanes. All of that has been part of our urge to have whatever it is we want NOW. The only real change microwaves made was in popcorn.
    Congrats on hitting that subscribe button!

  14. I remember seeing Star Wars in the theatre in about 1977,(whenever it was that it came out). One reason we enjoyed it so much is that we had never seen anything like it before. The special effects were above and beyond anything we had seen to that point.
    Also the PC for sure was a game changer...remember the days when no one had a computer and there was no internet? In those same days we didn't know who was calling until we answered the phone! What a strange world that seems like now!

  15. Let me go off-topic here: Offutt's right that 3D printers are game changers. "Santa Claus Machines" are a sci-fi concept that would allow a machine to make anything, given the matter and a blueprint. That's a 3D printer. Once they become commonplace, shopping as we know it will end, or at least change dramatically. As I said in the note to my book "Santa, Godzilla, and Jesus Walk Into A Bar" (which features a Santa Claus Machine), once people can print/create any item they want, the only limits are enough matter and the program to make it. Look how many people took up writing/publishing once they were free to create as many as they wanted? Imagine when the entire world is App-based and you can be a shoe manufacturer just by creating a program to create a better shoe? Right now, if you want to get some "Air Leons," Andrew Leon has to design a shoe and patent it and then find someone to make it. 10 years from now, you may be able to use your tablet computer to design a shoe, have the computer write an app for it, and then start selling that app for people like me who want shoes but don't want to design their own.

    I'm gonna love the future, especially because we're already in it.

    As for the rest? It's tempting to say that Jobs simply borrowed other ideas, but so did Microsoft, and Lucas used an old storyline from a Kurosawa film, according to what I think I remember. So I'll give them credit: they recognized the disruptive force of their ideas, and made them a reality. (Disruptive forces are technology that displaces other technology, the way smartphones displaced laptops and made the invention of the tablet computer inevitable: once you have a SMALL tablet, i.e., Iphone, making a larger tablet isn't any harder, and in fact is probably easier. The iPhone spelled the end of regular computers like transistor radios killed off whatever radios there were before.)

    I hadn't thought of Pixar as a disruptive force, but you're right: it is, because 2d animation doesn't really exist anymore, and Toy Story was the first commercially successful such venture.

    As for the quality of their stories, remember that anything novel becomes stale after a while. I love me some McDonald's Cheeseburgers, but I've taken a hiatus from them while I try other things. So Pixar may seem not as fresh because we're more used to them.

    Also, depending on how you break down the story, all stories seem based on an earlier story. "Monsters, Inc.," was a typical "Corporate bad guys need to be set straight by well-meaning bumblers," storyline, albeit inventive. Toy Story, certainly, was nothing new in its basic plot setup. Finding Nemo, either. That being said, they were remarkable technical and storytelling achievements that seemed fresh and brought a new perspective.

    One thing that's easy to do, for example, is create a character who acts like a human: Woody and Buzz could've been just people who happen to be shaped like toys. But they instead acted like toys who are toys -- having toy motivations and toy feelings and otherwise seeming to be what toys would really be if they were alive. The same with Nemo and Dory and Marlin.

  16. PART II

    So the problem may be that as they grow more comfortable/corporate, they're relaxing and just letting their characters be boring. Lightning McQueen doesn't act like a CAR, he acts like a human who is shaped like a car.

    But the reason we're seeing more sequels is because of the Mountain Dewification of the world. People are more apt to go see something if they know what to expect, which is why soda companies so rarely introduce a new flavor without tying it into an old one. With the expense of making a Pixar movie, they have to make sure they'll recoup their investment, and I imagine the powers that be said to market some known stuff for a while.

    In other words: we have ourselves to blame for sequels, because we won't go (en masse) to see something new generally, which is why even novel movies tend to be marketed as if they were regular old movies.

    As for whether sequels are good or bad, I go back to "They're good if the movie is good." People like James Bond movies, and "The Dark Knight" and "The Dark Knight Rises," all of which were sequels. Nobody said "Oh, UGH, ANOTHER BATMAN SEQUEL?"

    The Monsters, Inc. world was one I thought deserved a little more exploring; it's a fascinating world, if done right, so a sequel wasn't unwarranted, any more than "Prince Caspian" was. Apparently, they didn't make a GOOD movie, but that doesn't make the decision to revisit the world a bad one; it just means they did it wrong.

    Anyway, Pixar movies tend to be like pizza: Even when they're bad, they're better than many alternatives.

  17. Eve: I was young enough when Star Wars came out that I didn't realize that I was realizing that I was seeing something new: it was instinct. I knew what I was seeing was the most amazing thing I had ever seen.

    Briane: I tend to agree with you about the 3d printers, but we haven't seen the change, yet, so I have to withhold judgement. After all, it -could- end up being another Betamax.

    To a certain extent I completely agree with you about Pixar. And I have no problem with sequels in a general sense (although I disagree with you about the Dark Knights). Still, I think the last few Pixar movies have lacked that ineffable quality the early movies had. It's not just that we've grown used to them; it's the soul the early movies had is gone. The thing that made me tear up at half of them, and that's not something I do.

    The thing about the early Pixar movies is that, despite being predictable, they did that in unpredictable ways. But MU wasn't like that. It was predictably predictable and lacking in any real emotion on top of that. Which doesn't make it a bad movie. It was a GOOD movie. I laughed. I liked it. It just wasn't quite Pixar.

  18. I love that Pixar fought for their vision with Toy Story. I guess that's how you become a game changer.

  19. MP: Me, too. It was mostly Lasseter that did that, though, and I guess he does't have time for that kind of thing anymore.

  20. I recently saw Monsters Inc. for the first time. It is / was fresh storytelling. It is hard to argue for the originality of any story, since most can be boiled down to component parts that seem familiar. Originality is all in the telling. As far as I'm concerned, the world needs more corporations-get-their-due stories.

    Too bad Pixar's getting Disneyfied. I thought Disney didn't buy Pixar until 2006, which would make Toy Story and Monsters non-Disney films.

  21. Elizabeth: Yes, Disney's purchase of Pixar went through in 2006. The next few movies to come out, which were already under production when the purchase went through, are pretty much all Pixar. In truth, Disney has mostly allowed Pixar to just continue doing their thing; the issue has been that John Lasseter took on so many other duties at Disney that he really hasn't had his hands in the Pixar pie so much.

    It is true that there really aren't any original stories anymore (at least, not very often), but there's a gap between what isn't an original story and one that's cliche. Monsters University approaches the cliche. It's entertaining, but there's no heart in it like with the first one.