Monsters University

Happy news! Pixar has made an excellent movie. Monsters University reclaims the magic. After the messy Cars 2 and the merely passable Brave, MU does what the best Pixar movies have always done: tell a great story in an entertaining way.

Does Monsters University break new ground? No. (Well, there are a few new monsters.) But two of Pixar’s most likeable characters, Sulley and Mike, return to the screen in a prequel (or, if you prefer, “origin story”) to 2002’s Monsters, Inc. Voiced by John Goodman and Billy Crystal, respectively, the duo is revealed not to have been chums from the beginning. In fact, there were hard feelings and resentments between the two. But circumstances in the film dictate that they team up to reach a goal.

Both wash out of Scare School at the U (for different reasons) and seek redemption in the school’s annual Scare Games. They make a deal with the stern headmaster Miss Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) that if their team wins the Scare Games, they’ll get back into Scare School.

The Scare Games are clever and entertaining. Will these underdogs and their fellow MU misfits make it through to the finals? Will they find the redemption they seek? Think you can guess what happens? Maybe not.

MU is a cute and funny film that will make you happy. Whereas Monsters, Inc. was a bit more about Sulley, Monsters University leans more toward Mike and his challenges. MU has a final act that takes them from the University all the way to the story that is told in Monsters Inc.

Regarding Pixar, Disney and branding: 2012 was confusing. Brave, a Pixar branded film looked like a Disney branded film whereas Wreck-It Ralph (officially a Disney film) had the story, look, voice-acting virtuosity and whimsy that have been Pixar trademarks. That branding may be further muddied later this summer when a Pixar-looking movie called Planes appears as a Disney nameplate movie. Disney, of course, owns Pixar.

Regarding John Goodman’s distinctive voice: My daughter was working at a busy retail establishment during last holiday season here in St. Louis. She said she heard Sulley’s voice and looked around. There was John Goodman standing in her checkout line.

At the end of every Pixar film, a list of babies born to production staff during the making of the movie is evidence of the time and effort that goes into making such a film. Sadly, at the screening I attended the film cut off before getting that far into the credits. That’s one reason to see it again. Another is that Pixar movies, for me, tend to improve with repeat viewings. Monsters University is rated G.

Wreck-It Ralph

“Wreck-It Ralph” is big fun for gamers of all ages. Gen-Xers, Gen-Y, boomers & little kids will find much to love in this Pixar-like animated feature.

Ralph, voiced by John C. Reilly, is the guy who wrecks things in an arcade game called Fix-It Felix. After 30 years, he’s tired of being the bad guy. Felix, voiced by Jack McBrayer, is the one who gets all the love and, at the end of each successful play of the game, a medal.

Ralph wants a medal and seeks one in a neighboring game in the arcade called Hero’s Duty where he encounters Calhoun, a violent babe with a killer bod, voiced by Jane Lynch. Once he gets the medal he escapes to another game called Sugar Rush, where he meets up with an extremely cute kid, Vanellope, voiced by Sarah Silverman. This is where the film’s plot really takes off.

“Wreck-It Ralph” is inspired by and has references to most of the great video games of the last three decades. Some of the film’s elements call to mind “Monsters, Inc.” Ralph is similar to Sully from that 2001 Pixar classic. Vanellope is not unlike any the three “Powerpuff Girls,” a Cartoon Network hit series from a decade or so ago.

“Wreck-It Ralph” is almost a Pixar film. It looks like a Pixar film. Executive producer is Pixar’s John Lasseter. There’s a memorable short cartoon before the movie. The credits mention help from the “Pixar brain trust.” And, as with Pixar films, the credits contain a list of “production babies.” Really, the only thing that keeps it from being a Pixar film is the absence of the bouncing desk lamp.

As with most Pixar films, the performances of the voice actors are uniformly excellent. The four mentioned previously, along with Alan Tudyk as King Candy, form one of the best voice ensembles in recent memory.

Among my favorite visual jokes in the film: the cops in Sugar Rush (a world populated by sweet treats) are doughnuts.

“Wreck-It Ralph” is both nostalgic and fresh, at the same time. It gets the high score for this weekend.