Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Double Review: “Monsters University” and “Despicable Me 2”

Harmless CGI fun for the whole family, or wholly subversive right-wing propaganda vilifying higher education, Mexican workers and the alleged Homosexual Agenda?

Maybe I’m reading too much into stuff these days, but after seeing “Monsters University” and “Despicable Me 2” in back-to-back screenings, I’m pretty sure both films were secretly bankrolled by Koch Industries as part of some super-subtle subversive public campaign to turn the tide against collectivist progressivism.

Yeah, it sounds a little far-fetched, I know (even though Pixar is a company headed by dudes with some fairly publicized right-wing leanings -- not to mention the producers of such Objectivist junior training propaganda as “The Incredibles” whilst being owned by an uber-conglomerate that’s more or less made a hyper-fortune by simply re-enforcing heteronormative cultural values.) Doubly suspicious is the notion that the makers of “Despicable Me” are a bunch of Frenchies in league with MSNBC that made quite a few liberally-tinged jokes in the first flick -- not exactly the kind of folks you’d suspect of promoting “anarcho-capital” libertarianism, surely.

That said, if you take in either of this year’s presumptive animated box office champs this summer, I reckon their sociopolitical messages might just surprise you. I sure hope you like (purely suspected) anti-academic, anti-immigrant and anti-homosexual sentiments alongside your CGI family fodder, folks…

Monsters University
Director: Dan Scanlon

Sully, seen here succeeding in life because he didn't go to college and get indoctrinated by liberal America-haters.

I wasn’t really a huge fan of “Monsters, Inc.,” and I was really disappointed by Pixar’s last two offerings. That said, I think the company rebounded mildly with “Monsters University,” a flick that really has a firm thumb and forefinger on the pulse of college-elitist culture -- make no mistakes, this is a very, very angry film, made by people that no doubt have lifelong grievances from their own college experiences. All in all, this film is about as much of a heartfelt tribute to the whimsy of university life as “Cannibal Holocaust” is a testament to the benefits of an all-red meat diet.

Only 40 percent or so of Americans graduate from college, so I’m guessing most of the people that see this movie are either children that are too young to attend university or their parents, who I’m guessing about 60 percent of whom never went to college at all. Unless you have a bachelor’s degree, I’m not really sure if you can fully appreciate the message of “Monsters University” -- although the film’s concluding “statement” is really an all-call to the great 60 percent that haven’t or will not seek post-secondary education in the States.

The movie pretty much nails all of the little trifles of college life -- the hippie roommates, the non-traditional “mature” students (represented in the film by arguably the greatest Pixar creation since Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear), the overly-peppy orientation leaders, the guitar-strumming campus green dingbats, etc. Of course, this being a G-rated movie, all of the sex, drugs and overt-politicking associated with college life has to be swept under the rug, but considering the content limitations here, Pixar has actually done a rather commendable job of recreating the American cosmos of higher education here. In fact, in some ways, I’d consider “Monsters University” to be a more realistic college movie than “Animal House.”

As far as the plotline goes, it’s really more of a rip-off of “Revenge of the Nerds” than “Ahh! Real Monsters,” which is what the story of the film, on paper and in principle, sounds more like. The two main characters from the first film -- a big blue teddy bear demon played by John Goodman and a little Cyclops booger voiced by Billy Crystal -- get kicked out of the titular university’s most acclaimed college, and to win their way back into the program, they have to team up with a ragtag group of nerds, dweebs and outcasts and outdo the preps and snobs in a series of college games. So, uh, yeah, it pretty much IS the plotline for “Revenge of the Nerds,” verbatim, only with considerably less subplots about rape and profiteering off the sexual exploitation of coeds.

The cast of characters is really solid, and the plot -- while predictable -- is executed rather nicely. In fact, it’s not until the film’s final act that things start to go downhill, which is still a remarkable rebound from the ten-minutes-in crash and burn that was “Cars 2.” Which brings us, of course, to the film’s ultimate message (and I mean “ultimate” in the traditional literary sense, since the big “moral of the story” isn’t revealed until literally a minute before the credits roll.)

So, this Mike character (the green booger guy) studies, and works, and learns and puts a ton of effort into his schoolwork. He makes all As, and despite his diminutive size, puts all his might into passing his classes. However, at the end of the day, the film decides to wedge in this bizarre Randian statement, in which every other character in the film of narrative significance agree that, despite Mike’s work ethic, he’ll never be a good “scarer” based on a lack of natural attributes and abilities. Meanwhile, Sully, the giant bear fella, doesn’t give a shit about learning things and is more or less deemed diegetically superior and destined for excellent things because of his natural attributes and abilities, in spite of his lousy work ethic. That’s a fairly uncommon statement for a film targeting children to make, but that’s still not the kicker here: that comes at the very end of the flick when, after being expelled from college altogether, Mike and Sully instead choose to become low-level mail clerks, whom over time and obsessive dedication to menial labor, go onto become professional scarers despite a lack of education and basic occupational knowledge. In other words: “Monsters University” is an anti-college movie, a film that encourages children to forego higher education and work their way up the corporate ladder the way they used to in the ‘40s and ‘50s -- you know, that “The Secret of My Success” GOP-fantasy that only exists in the heads of Reaganites and Peter Schiff acolytes. And if you think that’s the most brazenly neoliberal message a kids movie could possibly make at the cineplexes this summer…think again.

Despicable Me 2
Director(s): Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud

Minions agree: immigrant workers suck and DOMA should've never been repealed. 

In this summer’s battle of the CGI kids fare, I think “Despicable Me 2” bests “Monsters University” on two fronts. On one end, I think it’s a mildly more entertaining film throughout, and as far as subversive right wing agitprop goes, “Despicable Me 2” manages to cram in far more sociocultural subtext -- and in a much subtler way -- than “MU.”

The first “Despicable Me” was a film with a fairly solid “anti-banker” message -- and depending on who you ask, the minions can be construed as either testaments to the union worker OR the foreign laborer. This follow-up, however, has a much more nativistic vibe to it than the original, with a major plotline endorsing the heteronormative, nuclear family. And, because not all political messages need to be thinly veiled, the primary bad guy in “Despicable Me 2” just so happens to be a crude Hispanic stereotype -- a mustachioed, salsa-making rogue in a luchador mask named “El Macho” (allegedly, he’s so virile, he managed to survive being exploded inside a volcano while tied to a shark with dynamite. I’m guessing this means Chuck Norris turned down the producers’ first offer to play the bad guy here.)

In a way, “Despicable Me 2” can be viewed as a warning for the traditional American family, which -- diegetically -- are faced with the dual threat of Mexican invaders AND homosexual interlopers. Of course, this depends on whether or not you choose to view the minions -- in the film, kidnapped by “El Macho” and transformed into bright purple monsters with a penchant for destroying everything in sight -- as symbolic stand-ins for contemporary cultural forces. In that, do the “evil minions” represent a legion of Mexican immigrants who are here to destroy the “American family” by means of cultural intrusion, OR do the “evil minions” represent a destructive, homosexual political group that threatens both heteronormative cultural constructs AND the nuclear family itself? Just note that the final sequence of the film involves a mishmash of two songs -- Boyz II Men’s saccharine ode to heterosexual partnership “I Swear,” and the unofficial national anthem of Gay America, the Village People’s “YMCA.” In fact, the very last image of the film is the last remaining purple minion crashing Gru’s wedding…serving, literally and figuratively, an immediate threat to Gru’s new heteronormative nuclear family.

And yeah, I guess I just gave away a good 80 percent of the movie, and I don’t care. All in all, it’s an enjoyable romp, a slightly inferior sequel that, while a bit aimless at times, never drags, and has a few moments that are almost LOL-worthy. I especially liked the bit about Gru’s girlfriend drugging her boyfriend’s blind date, and then driving around with her unconscious body atop their roof -- culminating in life threatening injuries a plenty. The grotesque Chinese stereotype that works in a wig shop and El Macho’s son being a clichéd Lothario don’t hurt either, really. And any film where a guacamole-filled nacho sombrero plays a pivotal plot point is at least worth considering a view, I say.

Needless to say, the commercial success of both films may in fact lead to more -- and more abrasive -- anti-progressive animated flicks in the future. Could “Frozen” ultimately serve as a fiery indictment of affirmative action, while “Free Birds” addresses the purported constraints of modern day free market liberalism? And lord only knows what sort of statements a film like “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2” has to say about Big Government and the insidious impositions of bureaucracies like the FDA and USDA. And let’s not forget that Pixar’s next animated opus is a mysterious work titled “The Good Dinosaur” -- whether or not that title is intended to draw parallels to the neo-con sentiments of fogies like Pat Buchanan, we will just have to wait and see for ourselves.


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