Monsters v. zombies at weekend box office

11:10 AM, Jun 21, 2013   |    comments
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Brad Pitt stars in World War Z, which opens across the US on June 21. (Paramount)

(USA TODAY) -- Two big movies open at theaters nationwide this weekend: Monsters University and World War Z.

It won't make honor roll, but Monsters U easily passes

Though Hollywood hasn't gotten the message, it's the rare movie that deserves a spinoff, sequel, prequel or reboot.

Monsters University, happily, is one of them.

Its predecessor, 2001's Monsters, Inc., was charming enough that revisiting its world is like happening upon the favorite stuffed animals of a now-grown child. The memories are sweet, and it's fun to see the characters again.

Monsters University (* * * out of four; rated G; opens Friday nationwide) may not be as inventive as Inc., but it's an amusing and amiable addition to Pixar's roster of animated coming-of-age stories.

While not likely to generate tears like Toy Story 3, it's no sputtering Cars 2, either. University is an enjoyable if slight prequel to the original, about a pair of colorful bogeymen whose job is to enter through closet-door portals and terrify children into screaming. Their shrieks fuel the monster world, which is made up of wild and woolly things of all dimensions and colors living together in spooky harmony.

Here, we learn how James P. "Sulley'' Sullivan (John Goodman) and Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) meet and became pals. They first encounter each other as college freshmen, but the friendship takes time to develop. In fact, the pair detest each other upon meeting.

A doggedly hard worker, Mike is judged more by his tiny, lime-green, skinny-legged appearance and pipsqueak growl than by his knowledge. But he yearns to be a scarer.

Meanwhile, the burly, horned Sulley barely has to open his mouth to emit a powerful roar. A big monster on campus and a legacy student following in the footsteps of his super-scary father, Sulley is seen as a natural.

Back when Mike was even more diminutive, he set his sights on attending the elite college and forging a career as a scarer for Monsters Inc. As the monster world knows, top-tier frighteners come from the hallowed, ivy-covered Monsters U.

Plucky bookworm Mike resents the privileged Sulley. But one thing the duo have in common is a sharp sense of competition. It's that spirit that results in their getting kicked out of the school's prestigious Scare Program.

To be considered for readmission, they have to join forces, along with a few other monstrous misfits, to prove their terrifying mettle.

Crazy, frat-style antics are just zany enough. Campus scenes are not only vividly colored but also filled with vibrant detail. (In the art club, a fuzzy, budding Jackson Pollack douses himself in paint and flings his head on a white canvas.)

The pair's mismatched personalities give the movie its energy. But the visuals are key. It's impressive how much animators can convey with Mike's one bulbous eye and toothy grin.

Only one other character is as memorable as the buddy duo: Dean Hardscrabble, a stern university official voiced to imperious perfection by Helen Mirren. But, alas, she's the only major female character in this fearsome boys' club. (She-monsters are relegated mostly to cheerleading roles or in the background as moms.)

While not exactly a furball Animal House, the crazy antics of these monstrous collegians do recall the raucous spirit of John Belushi and pals - with a far more family-friendly vibe.

World War Z wins battle for spectacle, loses war for originality

When - and if - one ponders the zombie apocalypse, it's not usually in the same thought bubble as Brad Pitt.

So World War Z (* * ½ out of four; rated PG-13; opens Thursday night in select theaters and Friday nationwide) gets points for juxtaposing the beastly undead with the beauteous movie star. Though, to Pitt's credit, he's playing a worried family man, not a dashing Hollywood icon.

Still, he's a credible action hero. There are more than a few moments when he cheats death and destruction with the equanimity of Jason Bourne.

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World War Z begins as a tense thriller about an ordinary family seeking to survive a deadly viral outbreak. Then, most of the film is focused on Pitt's Gerry Lane, a former United Nations investigator turned zombie hunter. Lane keeps an admirably cool head amid catastrophe. But his best moments are his most human, when he gently teases his daughter or awkwardly apologizes when he hears about the tragedy a health official has faced. He nervously assumes a viral "camouflage" as a snarling zombie menaces him in the film's most suspenseful scene. These Everyman chinks in his even-keeled armor are when Pitt's performance is at its best.

The movie toggles between Hollywood commercialism and a social statement about global instability. It has moments that border on profound, then pull back.

Based on Max Brooks' best seller and directed by Marc Forster, World War Z is actually closer in spirit to Steven Soderbergh's Contagion than to Night of the Living Dead.

There are palpable moments of terror, but once we've seen the flesh-eating hordes up close, it's hard not to laugh at their goggly eyes, incessant jerking and hideous gnashing teeth.

Lane, his wife, Karen (Mireille Enos), and their two young daughters begin a seemingly ordinary day amid TV news talk of a worldwide rabies outbreak. Oddly, no one seems too concerned.

In the car, they are suddenly mired in massive gridlock. Police helicopters buzz overhead as motorcycle cops race by. Then, out of nowhere, the city seems to go mad. Cars and trucks are overturned. Mayhem reigns.

A pandemic is spreading across the globe. Infected folks are relentlessly attacking the world's armies and legions of unlucky civilians.

Pressed into service by his former boss at the U.N. (Fana Mokoena), Lane safely transports his family onto a massive ship in the Atlantic Ocean and then heads off to find Patient Zero.

But why Lane? It's never explained how a U.N. investigator with vaguely defined past duties in global hot spots would be the obvious choice to single-handedly eradicate the zombie epidemic.

There are also glaring implausibilities: Gerry and an Israeli soldier (Daniella Kertesz) are the sole human survivors of a midair explosion and a spectacular plane crash. They brush themselves off and walk out of the fuselage and into a medical research facility.

A crucial missing element is a sense of loss. Terror reigns, but as family members are violently killed, no one grieves. A boy left orphaned joins Gerry and Karen without a backward glance or visible sadness.

The sight of legions of zombies scaling a huge wall in Jerusalem is chilling, but not nearly as disturbing as the realization that travelers are unknowingly trapped aboard a jet with bloodthirsty feral folks. Zombies are the new snakes on a plane.

The ambitious architecture of a mind-blowing movie is here. But not enough energy is devoted to the more shattering philosophical questions of what happens when rules, norms and structures fail and governments and armies are left defenseless.

Essentially, it boils down to familiar fare: a well-paced, entertaining, conventional action thriller where a reluctant hero saves the day.


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