BOX OFFICE ROUNDUP: THE SUMMER 0F 2016

FROM BOX OFFICE SURPRISES TO BOX OFFICE BOMBS TO NEW LEVELS OFF ONLINE VITRIOL, THIS SUMMER HAD A LITTLE BIT OF EVERYTHING

With Labour Day right around the corner, another movie summer season is officially in the books. So with that in mind, lets take a look back at this summer’s winners and losers at the box office. 2016 was considered a down year for the annual summer spectacle, but among the disappointments and the controversies there were a handful of bright spots.

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THE SECRET’S OUT

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS MAY NOT BE IN THE SAME LEAGUE AS DISNEY OR PIXAR, BUT THERE’S STILL PLENTY TO ENJOY

Director: Chris Renault

Starring: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Kevin Hart, Ellie Kemper, Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress and Steve Coogan

Studio: Illumination/Universal

Rated: G

Running Time: 1 Hr, 30 Mins

A handful of heavyweights have risen to the top of the animation world over the years. Disney’s in house studio as well as their Pixar brand are easily the top dog (refer to the box office numbers of Zootopia and Finding Dory if you have any doubts) while studios like Dreamworks and Sony’s Blue Sky vie for second place. Universal’s animation division-Illumination Entertainment-is looking to challenge the status quo by building off the enormous success of their Despicable Me/Minions franchise and challenge Disney’s place on top of the animated food chain with the much-hyped Secret Life of Pets. While Pets falls a little short of that lofty goal, it’s still an amusing romp that’s more than worth the price of admission.

Video: Illumination Entertainment

Max (Louis C.K.) and his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) live the perfect life in New York. Katie adores Max and Max pretty much worships the ground Katie walks on. When Katie leaves everyday for work (her daily disappearance remains a complete mystery to Max, who tries every day to convince her to stay) Max dutifully waits by the door, eager for her return. While the other pets of the city spend their days partying, watching TV and raiding the refrigerator, Max pines away the hours until his beloved owner returns home.

But one day Katie returns with a new addition to their family-Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a hulking brute of a dog that’s all slobber and fur. Max’s exclusive place in Katie’s life is challenged and he immediately resolves to do everything in his power to get Duke out of their lives and back in the pound where Katie found him. Understandably Duke isn’t a fan of this and becomes determined to get Max out of the picture (strictly as self defense of course). As a result they both find themselves on the streets, trying to get home while on the run from New York Animal Control and Snowball (Kevin Hart), a psychotic rabbit that leads an army of abandoned pets called The Flushed that seek revenge on the human world.

Pets takes some time to get going, spending a good chunk establishing the characters, back story and premise. But when it does get going, it’s a roller coaster of laughs, sight gags and inside jokes. The animators perfectly captured the spirit of the characters and embedded them into their animal likenesses. Whether through body language or facial expressions, the visual imagery sells the character side of story.

Unlike some other animation studios, Illumination cast its voice actors from TV, keeping the budget reasonable (Pets estimated budget is around 75 million compared to the average Pixar budget, which easily surpass the 100 million dollar mark). But that doesn’t subtract from the impact the voices have at all. Albert Brooks is fantastic as Tiberius, the domesticated hawk that constantly wrestles with his predatory instincts while trying to make friends. Louis C.K. does a more then decent job as Max, really selling the conviction of the little terrier’s love for his master and his contempt for his new rival. You can truly tell that Kevin Hart had a blast as Snowball, the sociopathic, murder crazed bunny out for blood. But Jenny Slater steals the show as Gidget, the demur, polished toy poodle with eyes for Max and an addiction to Mexican soap operas. Gidget is the real star of the movie, going from prim and proper, long distance admirer to a pet-of-action, leading the search party for Max who eventually becomes a fierce engine of hand-to-hand combat. And Slater brings her to life with nothing short of perfection.

Pets plot is essentially Toy Story recycled. But instead of toys coming to life when their owners aren’t around, household pets reveal their true selves once their humans have departed for the day. The former favourite has to deal with the strange newcomer but soon they have to join forces to get home safe. Pets succeeds because while the writers borrowed the storyline from another movie, they heavily invested in creating a world of talking pets and vengeful bunnies, and then allowed their characters to explore the comedic boundaries. The jokes (and there lots of them) write themselves.

Unlike Pixar though, Pets doesn’t yank on any heartstrings, though considering the subject matter that’s probably a wise decision (few things are more devastating, especially for a child, then the loss of a pet). It flirts with a little genuine emotion before quickly returning to the jokes. That’s why it fails to reach the same territory as Pixar. Make no mistake, there’s pretty much the same amount of laughs for both kids and adults, but Pixar has perfected the recipe of brilliant visuals, comedy and just the right amount of pathos, while Pets prefers to focus on the laughs.

Pets even opens with an animated short-a new Minions adventure-but it doesn’t have the same presence that Pixar or Disney animated shorts do. It was amusing but not really memorable.

The Secret Life of Pets is a great family movie nonetheless. The kids will love it and the parents will love taking them. It’s a visual roller coaster ride full of laughs and you may never look at a poodle or a bunny the same way ever again. It’s the fun family movie that reminds us why summer is movie season. And while it falls a little short of Pixar, don’t be surprised if Illumination is soon challenging the creators of Toy Story, The Incredibles and Finding Dory for animation’s top spot soon (they’re already hyping their Christmas release Sing). Pets may even have a sequel in it too. If Max and company get into this much hijinks just welcoming a new dog, imagine what could result if one day Katie brought home a husband?

Shayne Kempton

 

NO QUITE LOST, NOT QUITE FOUND

FINDING DORY IS A FUN THROWBACK TO AN EARLY CLASSIC, BUT LIKE OTHER SEQUELS, PIXAR’S LATEST EFFORT DOESN’T EQUAL THE ORIGINAL

Director: Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane

Starring: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Hayden Rolence, Kaitlin Olson, Ed O’Neil, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Idris Elba, Dominic West, Bill Hader, Kate McKinnon, Ty Burrell and Sigourney Weaver

Studio: Disney/Pixar

Rated: G

Running Time: 1 Hr, 37 Mins

Pixar’s recent habit of mining some of their older material for new releases has met with varying degrees of success. While the two Toy Story sequels were well received by both audiences and critics alike, sequels to Cars and Monsters Inc. met with lukewarm receptions. They were well liked by audiences (success that was reflected by their strong box office) but it was also widely accepted that they fell short of the original movies that inspired them. While there is a lot to like about Pixar’s newest release, Finding Dory (a sequel to the 2003 blockbuster Finding Nemo), it falls into the same trap. It’s good but it also fails to grow beyond the shadow of its predecessor.

Finding Dory opens with a quick look at a painfully adorable baby Dory and her family. Dory’s parents (Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy) are dealing with her memory problems with patience and care and it’s obvious how much love and happiness the fish family shared before they were separated, most likely as a result of Dory’s inability to remember anything. Fast-forward a year after the events of Finding Nemo and Dory (Ellen Degeneres), Marvin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) have formed an informal little family on their corner of the reef. But Dory is soon haunted by memories of her parents and as the fragments of her childhood memories persist, Dory grows increasingly obsessed with finding her family. She soon sets off on a quest across the ocean to find her missing parents, a supportive Nemo and reluctant Marvin in tow.

Armed only with her companions and vague memories, Dory faces not only new dangers and an uncertain future, but self-doubt and insecurity as well. Dory soon realizes that if she wants to be reunited with her family, she has to rise above the challenges that face her and the limitations she’s always accepted. She stumbles across no shortage of forgotten friends along the way as well as plenty of new ones, and all of them turn out to be instrumental in helping Dory reach her goal.

It’s been thirteen years since we last saw Dory, Nemo and Pixar’s vibrant underwater world and you can tell that the animated juggernaut hasn’t rested on its laurels. In 2003, the quality of animation was definitely top shelf but looks a touch antiquated now. With a new coat of paint and some new tricks, Pixar continues to remind movie goers why they’re at the top of animation’s quality food chain. Dory and company continue to look fantastic today and marine landscapes really allow Pixar to stretch its creative legs. And as usual, the voice casting is a perfect compliment to the beautiful animation. Idris Elba and Dominic Cooper as a pair of lazy yet territorial sea lions are Finding Dory’s comedic stars and are this movie’s version of Nemo’s greedy sea gulls. Ed O’Neil voicing Hank, a cranky octopus who is afraid of the ocean is equally inspired and Katilin Olson as the near sighted whale shark Destiny and Ty Burrell as the hypochondriac beluga Bailey round out a great new supporting cast.

There are a lot of laughs in Finding Dory, it looks great and your kids will instantly fall in love with baby Dory during the flashbacks (expect lots of Finding Dory themed merchandise on Christmas lists in a few months). And it is well worth the price of admission (especially if you catch it in 3D), but like many of the sequels Pixar has done, it falls noticeably short of the original. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, except it seems to happen with all of Pixar’s sequels with the possible exception of the Toy Story movies (and let’s be honest, the nostalgia hurt from Toy Story 3 is what makes it stand out in our emotional memory). This should probably inspire some concern considering that sequels make up nearly everything Pixar has on their scheduled slate over the next few years (Cars 3 next year, Toy Story 4 in 2018 and The Incredibles 2 in 2019, with one lone original property, Coco, scheduled for release in November of 2017). Even the pre film short Piper, while cute in its own way, feels a little less then many of the other shorts Pixar is renown for.

Now might be the best time for parent company Disney to ask what’s preventing their coveted animation brand from returning to the drawing board to pursue original ideas, especially while Pixar is raking in mad cash. As it stands now, many (myself included) would argue that Disney’s own in house animation studio, which gave us the billion dollar mega hit Zootopia a few months ago, may have passed the house that Toy Story built in terms of fresh, bold ideas (Zootopia tackled ideas of discrimination while Disney’s November scheduled Moana will be the first animated feature to concentrate on Hawaiian culture).

Regardless, Finding Dory is an entertaining spectacle for movie fans of all ages. If you can, catch in 3D to really appreciate the quality of the animation, which really lends itself to underwater environments. And you definitely want to stick around for the post credit scene. Even though it doesn’t live up to the original, its full of laughs and the story was reasonably well done. It’s the perfect summer movie for families.

Shayne Kempton

OK DINOSAUR

DISNEY/PIXAR’S GOOD DINOSAUR ISN’T TERRIBLE, BUT IT FAILS TO LIVE UP TO PIXAR’S USUALLY LOFTY STANDARDS

Director: Peter Sohn

Starring: Raymond Ochoa, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Anna Paquin and Sam Elliot

Studio: Disney/Pixar

Rated: G

Running Time: 1 Hr, 40 Mins

Disney/Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur took a long time to get to the big screen. Originally slated for release in 2013, it was pushed back several times, with Pixar going back to the drawing board entirely at least once, replacing the director mid-production and Frances McDormand was the only member of the original cast to survive the creative purge. The finished product isn’t horrible but falls well short of Pixar’s usual standards and it might have been interesting to see what Pixar had up its sleeve before scrapping the original plans.

Millions of years after a massive asteroid barely missed Earth, a pair of Sauropods welcome three new additions to their family. Among them is Arlo, the smallest of the children who is skittish and timid from birth. The dinosaur family live on a farm growing corn and raising chickens (who more than occasionally bully the young Arlo) and have to contend with regular visits from a mysterious thief who raids their food stores. Arlo’s constant fear keeps him from being as valuable to the farm as his siblings and his confidence wanes further as he witnesses their personal achievements grow.

When tragedy robs Arlo of his beloved father, the family find themselves struggling to get by and further events soon see Arlo stranded in the wilderness, terrified and desperate to get home. His only ally is the “critter” responsible for stealing their food and leading him and his father on a fatal goose chase. The two must co-operate in order to survive an unforgiving wilderness and get Arlo home. And there is no shortage of danger confronting the two, from more deadly weather to other, carnivorous dinosaurs.

There are moments in The Good Dinosaur where Pixar does what it does best; tug at your heartstrings. There are also a few moments of genuine comedy, particularly when the two dine on some berries that have some interesting psychological side effects. The animators do an excellent job of building a convincing, frontier landscape (there’s a definite old west feel to Dinosaur, whether it be the family roughing it alone on the plains to the T-Rex cattle herders to the wide open, Grand Canyon-like vistas) as well as granting their non-human characters genuine human emotions.

But unlike previous Pixar efforts, Dinosaur seems more content to settle for mediocrity rather than explore it’s own potential. The entire movie feels like its satisfied to merely scratch the surface of what it could do.

In the Cars movies, Pixar did a brilliant job of building an entire world around talking automobiles. They created a fantastic alternate timeline in The Incredibles where super heroes not only existed but were once the world’s greatest celebrities. In the Monsters movies they imagined an entire world populated by monsters that were afraid of the humans who lived in the world right next door. Pixar has always excelled at building the worlds it creates for its characters and exploring those fictional places to get a better handle on the protagonists. But in Dinosaur we only get see a little, isolated corner of a world that is supposed to exist millions of years after the catastrophe that drove the dinosaurs into extinction happened. There are only a dozen speaking characters throughout the entire film and the entire movie feels limited.

The voice casting also lacks the same gravitas Pixar is usually known for. Nothing against the remaining cast but they just seem to have the same presence as a Toy Story or even last summer’s blockbuster Inside Out. While Spot (the little Neanderthal) can communicate through facial expressions, he pales in comparison to how well Wall-E was able to emote with a pair of eyes and some beeps. And unlike previous Pixar movies, Dinosaur doesn’t really have a primary villain. There are a few bad guys that wander through here and there, but the primary adversary in Dinosaur seems to be nature herself. It just isn’t as satisfying seeing a character overcome a raging river or a thunderstorm as it is watching them battle a cursed demon bear or outwit a pack of malevolent toys.

The Good Dinosaur isn’t a bad family flick (though it does have a few uncharacteristically startling moments), but like it’s main character, it seems afraid of its own potential and is unwilling to try and be something more.

Shayne Kempton

RETURN OF PIXAR

INSIDE OUT REPRESENTS A SUCCESSFUL RETURN TO WHAT MADE PIXAR GREAT-AND IT BROKE THE BOX OFFICE ON ITS WAY BACK

Director: Pete Docter

Starring: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Lewis Black, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, Richard Kind and Kaitlyn Dias

Studio: Pixar/Disney

Rated: G

Running Time: I Hr, 34 Min.

There has been some genuine concern at the House of the Mouse this movie season. While Avengers: Age of Ultron has been a huge financial success, it hasn’t matched the box office performance of 2012’s original Avengers (who watched its record for the highest grossing weekend of all time stolen last week by Universal’s monster hit Jurassic World-pun totally intended). In fact, Universal has outshone Disney and it’s various affiliates all year long, ruling the box office first with Furious 7 before Jurassic World conquered theatres. Toss in the hundred million dollar bath Disney expects to take on the tanking Tomorrowland and 2015 hasn’t been the spreadsheet dream year Disney shareholders were expecting. Until, that is, Pixar rode to the rescue like an animated cavalry with its most recent blockbuster, Inside Out.

12 year-old Riley’s family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, leaving her friends, her hockey team and the only home she’s ever known. Dealing with a new school and a new neighborhood would be tough enough, but the family’s furniture and possessions end up in Texas and her father’s barely around as he tries to prevent the new company he’s working for (and the entire reason they moved) from going under before it even gets off the ground. Riley tries to keep a happy face and act as the family’s morale, but eventually the stress of the move and the burden of leaving everything she’s ever known eventually begins to get to her.

That’s because Riley’s emotions, lead by the ever-bubbly Joy (Amy Poehler) begin running amok in her head. The emotions who control everything from her emotional Command Centre are struggling with the upheaval in Riley’s life as well, and Riley’s Sadness (Phyllis Smith) becomes a more prominent emotional presence. And before they know it, Joy and Sadness are yanked out of Riley’s Command Centre and find themselves desperately trying to return before her remaining emotions-Anger, Fear and Disgust-make a complete mess of everything.

As per Pixar usual, the voice casting is beyond inspired. Poehler is perfect as the hyper energetic, uber-bubbly Joy while Smith (most well known for her role as Phyllis from TV’s The Office) is an equally brilliant choice to bring the pessimistic, beyond melancholy yet eventually empathic Sadness to slouchy life. Bill Hader as Fear and Mindy Kaling (another Office vet) as Disgust are equally perfect. Richard Kind as Riley’s one-time imaginary friend Bing Bong moves between slightly irritating to genuinely touching effortlessly. But caustic political comedian Lewis Black steals the show as Anger. If Oscars were handed for voice actors in animated movies, Black would be getting some serious votes next February. And while Pixar more then hits it out of the park with the voice casting, they manage to find a way to raise their industry leading standards for animation even higher. Inside Out’s art and design team invested serious effort into imagining Riley’s emotional landscape, from her personality islands to the labyrinth that houses her growing inventory of memories to the various productions studios responsible for her dreams. It’s clear from the first shot that Pixar’s artists were given creative carte blanch when building this animated world and they ran with it.

Inside Out’s story ranges from cute to adorable to subtly tragic, with plenty of jokes and rapid fire quips peppered along the way for good measure. While Inside Out has no shortage of magic to appeal to kids, both young and old, its story doesn’t skimp on the gravity, much the same way Up and Wall-E embraced more mature themet. You’ll go from laughing out loud to having a heartstring or two tugged and be back to laughing again all in the same scene. Inside Out sees Pixar returning to what made the company great; swinging fearlessly for the creative fences.

Inside Out’s 91 million opening weekend was well beyond everyone’s most liberal estimates, and while this is the first time a Pixar release hasn’t occupied the number one spot in its first weekend (Jurassic World maintained its hold on the top spot at the box office for the second straight week), it is the second highest opening in Pixar’s history and is the highest debut for an original property (something that isn’t a sequel, prequel, remake or adaptation) in Hollywood history, usurping Avatar’s 2009 opening haul of 77 million. In short, Pixar is back and it should be interesting to see how Inside Out’s box office fares against that of another highly anticipated animation juggernaut, Minions (yet another Universal release). It will also be interesting to see how this sets up The Good Dinosaur, Pixar’s November release (this is also the first time Pixar is releasing two titles in the same calendar year, making up for last year’s Pixar absence). Either way, Mickey has reason to walk with a little more swagger this week.

Shayne Kempton

TURBO HAS ITS MILDLY HUMOROUS MOMENTS BUT UNLIKE PIXAR OR PREVIOUS DREAMWORKS EFFORTS, IT WILL PRESENT LITTLE APPEAL TO ANYONE OVER THE AGE OF FIVE

Director:  David Soren

Starring:  Ryan Reynolds, Paul Giamatti, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Pena, Bill Hader, Louis Guzman, Richard Jenkins, Michelle Rodriguez Ken Jeong and Snoop Dog

Studio:  Dreamworks Animation

Length:  1 Hr and 36 Min

Rated:  Family

Pixar is considered Hollywood’s reigning heavyweight when it comes to computer animated features; and with good reason.  But Dreamworks Studios is a more than solid second, responsible for the enormously successful Shrek and Madagascar franchises, the brilliant How To Train Your Dragon and this years The Croods, a movie that not only debuted strong, but whose persistent success (it was still attracting movie goers four months after it opened in March) convinced Dreamworks to schedule a sequel for a 2017 release.  So suffice to say that they know a thing or two about cranking out successful animated features, ones that make the grown-ups laugh right along with the kids (though usually for different reasons).  Which makes Turbo just a little more disappointing.  While this tale about a supersonic snail has its cute moments, it falls flat with anyone whose daily curriculum no longer includes nap time.

Theo (Ryan Reynolds, a busy boy who stars in the science fiction-comedy R.I.P.D also released this weekend-and who voiced the forward thinking homo-sapien Guy in the aforementioned The Croods) is a speedster who dreams to be a race car driver.  He rushes home from work to watch it every night on a banged up old TV in the garage, he collects VHS tapes on racing and idolizes the sport’s current franchise celebrity, French Canadian driving sensation Guy Gagne (Bill Hader).  The problem is Theo is a snail, and work is the local garden where he and his fellow slugs eat the overripe, unwanted tomatoes that fall of the vine.  Chet (Paul Giamatti) is Theo’s older brother as well as the safety manager in their garden.  Despite being Theo’s exact opposite, living a life of complacent caution and acceptance, Chet has been looking out for his wide-eyed little brother their whole lives.  Theo is the object of ridicule among his fellow snails until a freak accident grants him super speed.  Unfortunately, before he can adequately get a handle on his new powers (which also include headlights in his eyeballs and a luminous stereo system in his shell), an accident gets him and his brother fired.  The two then get caught up in a snail racing ring, run by a group of business owners who haven’t seen a paying customer since George Bush was President (George Bush Sr. that is).  The desperate merchants are headed by Tito (Michael Pena), who runs a Taco restaurant with his brother Angelo (Louis Guzman), who like Chet, disapproves of is younger brother’s endless dreaming.  But once Tito discovers Turbo’s amazing speed, he hatches a plan (with Turbo’s subtle prodding) to enter the super powered snail in the Indianapolis 500.  Accompanied by racing snail Whiplash (Samuel L. Jackson) and his posse of misfits and the reluctant Chet, Turbo soon finds himself headlining the biggest race car event in the world.

Turbo offers younger viewers a nice lesson in following their dreams despite the scorn of others as well as on sibling love and acceptance.  It’ll tickle the funny bone of most toddlers and has a handful of nice little sight gags.  And while Jackson’s turn as the borderline crazy Whiplash offers more than his share of laughs (then again, when have you known Jackson not to deliver, even when it’s only his voice?) Turbo just doesn’t seem to share the same heart, the same magic, as many of Dreamworks other family fare.  The majority of the laughs are aimed at the half pint crowd, and while that’s fine, it’s less than what people have come to expect from Dreamworks given their impressive resume in the animated genre.  And in a summer where it finds itself competing against proven properties like Pixar’s Monsters University and Universal Studios’ current box office juggernaut Despicable Me 2, Turbo will likely get lost in the animated shuffle.

Shayne Kempton

ENGINES STALLED

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY LACKS SOME OF THE MAGIC OF THE CLASSIC MONSTERS INC., BUT ITS STILL A FUN FLICK THAT WILL APPEAL TO YOUR INNER CHILD

Starring:  John Goodman, Billy Crystal, Helen Mirren, Nathan Fillion, Steve Buscemi 

Director:  Dan Scanlon

Studio:  Disney/Pixar

Length:  1 Hr 51 Min

Rated:  G

     They’re back.  Or should I say, they’re here.  Monsters University brings back loveable monsters Sully and Mike and introduces a fresh batch of characters in this prequel to Disney/Pixar’s 2001 animated hit Monsters, Inc.  University is the prequel that tells the story of how the gruesome twosome met and became the best of friends while also becoming the greatest Scarers in Monstropolis history.  While it isn’t as good as the original tale, University is still a nice little tale about the value of friendship gift wrapped in a slick, colourful package that kids will find a laugh riot.  And there’s still enough of the old juice to appeal to the inner child locked away in most adults as well.

         Monstropolis is powered by the screams of terrified children, and the monsters who venture through portals into the human world to frighten those screams out of unsuspecting young tots are known as Scarers.  They’re the rock stars of the monster city, revered like professional athletes, complete with trading cards.  Every monster aspires to be a Scarer, and one-eyed Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) is no different.  An outsider his entire life who never really fit in anywhere, Mike is determined to be a Scarer from a young age.  He devotes every waking moment to studying the art of scaring, earning acceptance to the Scarer’s program at Monster University against the odds.  Even at Monsters’ U though, Mike fails to fit in, looked down on by the other monsters training to be Scarers as too small and not scary looking.  Mike has his work cut out for him, with countless hours of study ahead of him to make up for his lack of natural scariness.  Enter Jimmy “Sully” Sullivan (John Goodman), a hulking brute blessed with fangs, claws and a bone rattling roar whose the latest in a long line of accomplished Scarers.  Sully’s coasted by on his natural talent and his family name his entire life, and thinks that study is a waste of time.  A natural-born Scarer, things just click for Sully, even when they’re the result of Mike’s hard work and ingenuity.  The two quickly find themselves on opposite ends of a fierce rivalry, but through a reckless turn of events by the feuding monsters, they get themselves thrown out of the Scarers program, their only salvation lies in winning the Scare Games, an event between fraternities to determine the best scarers on campus.  Mike and Sully reluctantly find themselves on the same side, teamed up with the least scary outcasts at Monster U.  If through some miracle they win the scare games the whole team of adorable rejects are back in the scare program.  If they lose, Mike and Sully are expelled from Monsters U forever.

     Pixar has earned itself a reputation for gathering all-star voice casts, and Monsters University is no exception.  Memorable standouts include the draconic Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), a legendary Scarer who puts chills into other Monsters, and Johnny (Nathan Fillion) the charismatic head of Roar Omega Roar, the most popular fraternity on campus and the defending Scare Games champs.  Mike and Sully’s band of misfits are also perfectly cast, with sitcom veterans Sean Hayes and Dave Foley voicing the two-headed, dancing monster  Terry/Terri, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s Charlie Day voicing Art, the New Age Philosophy major who resembles a furry purple slinky.  Alfred Molina gives life to Professor Knight, a hard-nosed scare instructor, Steve Buscemi returns to voice the slithering chameleon Randy Boggs (and we discover the root of the rivalry between the devious Randy and Sully in Monsters, Inc.) and John Ratzenberger makes his traditional Pixar cameo.  All in all, Pixar continues to assemble the best voice casts of any of the major animators.

     But the truth is Monsters University just isn’t as good as Monsters, Inc. was.  It lacks the same energy, the same freshness that the original boasted.  It doesn’t stretch the imaginative boundaries the way it’s predecessor did, the way Pixar has come to be known for.  I’ve been a huge fan of Pixar’s since they exploded onto the scene with 1995’s Toy Story, but this seems to be a recurring theme as of late.  While 2011’s Cars 2 was a box office success, it didn’t enjoy the same level of financial success as previous Pixar efforts (or the same level of critical praise; more than one critic referred to it as Pixar’s first “dud”).  Last summer’s Brave was pretty successful at the box office as well, especially when it found itself competing with the likes of The Avengers, The DarK Knight Rises and the Amazing Spiderman, but it lacked the epic scope Pixar had mastered in the past.  Even Monsters University’s preceding mini-feature, The Blue Umbrella, seems forced, a motion to go through because people expect it.  While I enjoyed all three movies, it just seems that Pixar has lost some of its original charm.  The fact that two of three aforementioned titles are sequels can’t be a coincidence, and while I would love to see a sequel to The Incredibles, it may be time for Pixar to return to mining new material instead of trying to catch lightning in the same bottle over and over again.  Alas, with a Finding Nemo sequel (Finding Dory) scheduled for the summer of 2015 , Pixar seems intent on seeing just how many more dollars they can squeeze out of established properties.  Although having said that, I have high hopes for next May’s Pixar release, tentatively titled The Good Dinosaur.

     But while Monsters University  seems destined to live in the shadow of its original namesake, it’s still a pretty decent flick in its own right.  You could do worse this summer season, and if you can, take it in with a bunch of kids (trust me, they’ll find the slapstick hilarious).  And with a little luck, there should be enough magic in University to tease a few laughs out of your own inner child.  you know, the one who still believes there’s a monster hiding in your closet.

Shayne Kempton

MONSTERS SQUARED