Spoiler-free Monsters University Review

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We don’t go to the movies often, but Pixar movies are are never missed in the Toy household. So last Saturday, Sarabeth and I went on a date to see Pixar’s newest film, Monsters University. 

You’ll recall 2001’s Monsters Inc. being about monsters, but there was nothing scary about it (which actually made it even more brilliant). The prequel however, capitalizes on the scare factor, especially in the dark and phenomenal third act. I’m not sure how it received a G rating – just make sure your four year olds are okay with monsters creeping beside sleeping children’s bedsides.

And, actually, the above point is a compliment. I loved how much darker this movie was (though not quite Toy Story 3 dark, but definitely scarier). But upping the fear factor isn’t the only risk Pixar takes in Monsters University. The message itself is very bold, which serves as yet another strength for the film.

We all remember growing up watching animated movies tell us that we can be anything we want to be if we just believe enough and blah, blah, blah. Well, Ratatouille was the first film to tell children otherwise. “Not everyone can be a great cook…” A few more Pixar movies hinted at these harsh truths, then Disney itself started to jump on the truth-bandwagon (once Lasseter took the helm, it seems) with Wreck it Ralph (he still had to play the bad guy at the end of the movie).

Monsters University comes out and just says it: You might not be good enough at what you want to do; your dreams might not actually come true.

And I love that! It’s the truth every kid needs to hear but few people are brave enough to tell them.

As for the film itself, it won’t likely be my immediate go-to when I need a Pixar fix on a rainy day (it falls somewhere between Cars and Wall-e), but it was far worth our admission price. The jokes were slick and continuous, the story was fluid and engaging and if you liked Sulley and Mike in the first movie, you’ll absolutely fall in love with them in this one.

The new cast of characters is enjoyable and a welcome addition to the Pixar family (I especially liked Art, the dim-witted hippy). And Dan is a monster any man stuck in a dead-end job can relate to.

So the big question is: is it better than Monsters Inc.? Well, I’ll have to watch it a couple more times when I get it for my birthday in November (another tradition in our house) before I make that decision. (In my experience, Pixar movies get better with age, so I expect MU will be no different.) But I can say that it makes the original Monsters sweeter, and gives it more substance than it already had (as if it lacked any to begin with).

Can’t wait to revisit Monsters University, especially with kids. We’ll just hold them extra tight during the scary scenes, and those will be great memories to look back on in years to come. Go see it and let me know what you think!

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Why Pixar is Superior

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It’s almost impossible to turn a corner in the street or flip through the TV and not see an ad for Disney/Pixar’s newest movie, Monsters University, which comes out this week. Sarabeth and I don’t go to the theaters often, but every summer we make an exception to hit the newest Pixar movie. This Saturday, for us, will be no exception.

You would be hardpressed to meet a person – kid or grown-up – who hasn’t seen at least two Pixar films in their lifetime. I always feel so sorry for the people who refuse to see “cartoons” because they think they’re just for kids. (Silly people – it’s the movies, not Trix!) Now, I can understand if some people can’t tell the difference between a Dreamworks movie and  Pixar movie (or even that there is a difference). If I was uneducated in this complex, competitive field of arts, and I went and saw… oh, I don’t know, Monsters vs. Aliens (DW), I would probably swear off those dumb “Disney cartoons” too.

But here’s what I’d like to say to those people. There is a difference – many, many, many differences – between Disney/Pixar “cartoons” and other cartoon movies.

For the purposes of keeping this post short, I’ll only be picking on Dreamworks, since it is Pixar’s most jealous rival. I’d also like to hear from you, the readers, your thoughts on the subject, as I haven’t quite yet figured out all of the major differences.

Dreamworks has produced some great stuff in the past – don’t get me wrong. I’ll never forget how groundbreaking Shrek was (its immediate sequel remains my favorite of the series), and How to Train Your Dragon, which came out more than a decade later, was a poignant, memorable, and honorable movie, worth many revisits. Oh, and I enjoyed Over the Hedge, but still, it was an afterthought just now. 

But the rest of their movies? They just seem to rely on pop-culture icons as fallback jokes, unnecessary innuendos that you can probably find in any Jim Carrey movie, and big-name stars as their voice actors that really don’t seem like they fit the character they’re playing.

Shark Tale, Flushed Away, Shrek the Third, and Bee Movie happen to be among the worst movies I’ve ever seen – (Megamind was the end of the road for me.) And the rest (save for the three mentioned above) were highly forgettable.

But a Pixar movie? Those are the ones that stay with you for a long time. I’ll give you Cars 2. That one was a mistake and shouldn’t have been made. But 1 out of 13 ain’t bad, right? And judging by the early reviews of Monsters University, it looks like it’s about to be 1 bad apple in 14.

The thing with Pixar movies that sets them apart from others is that their characters are flawed, and relatable, and in the end, selfless and loyal. I love that Pixar – and Disney, really – are still imparting these virtues to our children, and reminding us adults what it means to love and be faithful. These are the themes that bleed from these films, and never in a cheesy way.

Speaking of values and morals, I hear Monsters University takes its viewers in a very bold direction, and imparts a bit of  the world’s harsh realities to its younger viewers. I can’t wait to see this movie. I have refrained from watching the full trailer, so I’ll be in for many fun surprises. The video I have posted below is not a trailer nor a spoiler. It’s just a fun 30 second promo to get you pumped for seeing Monsters University.

Monsters University Acceptance

Toy Story 3: The Wilderness of the Playroom

Being an emotional guy (it comes with the territory of being a writer), it’s rare that I don’t cry in movies. I seek out unity and beauty in storytelling, and when all the pieces flow together like a great symphony, I’m a goner.

Now, it’s fine to let the floodgates open in the privacy of your own home, but poor Sarabeth and I had no idea what sort of emotional toll was waiting for me at the theaters when we went to see the latest Toy Story installment.

Those who have seen it know what I’m talking about. During the closing scene, when Andy is giving all of his beloved toys away, Sarabeth, being more of a rock than I am, turns to me and can practically see the entire movie screen in my wet eyes and drenched cheeks.

“Are you okay?” she asked. I could only nod my head, not fully convincing her that I was. She rolled her eyes and shook her head, probably thinking, “I married such a sissy.” Needless to say, we had to wait until the lights came back on in the theater to make a safe and somewhat dignified departure. (Recently I asked her when she had seen me cry the hardest and she said it was during Toy Story 3. I personally thought it was when we watched My Dog Skip.)

To make myself feel better, I googled the question, “How many men in their 20’s cried during Toy Story 3?” The vast number of confessors helped restore my masculinity. But why such an emotional response? I’m sure there are many answers to this question: Nostalgia; saying goodbye to childhood; leaving Andy; we’re all just a bunch of saps… I would like to propose another answer. I think somewhere deep down we envy Woody’s loyalty. He’s not perfect by any means, and he could be faulted for a lot of things, but his biggest fault could be his steadfast devotion to others. And it’s not even his loyalty to Andy that we envy, it’s his loyalty to fulfill what he was meant to do – to be played with. But the passage of time had stripped him and his friends of that opportunity.

We have all been caught in the wilderness. With an abundance of motivation and a large supply of talents, we’ve been stopped in our tracks and refused permission to proceed with our goals. Maybe you’re waiting for your adoption papers. Or you don’t have the funds to invest in your talents. Maybe the economy turned your dream job into a nightmare. Or you’ve got plenty of love to give, but no one to give it to. These are all situations where we should feel most at home with many characters from the Bible, particularly the Israelites who were forced to wander the wilderness for forty years for their sins. Many of us are in the wilderness because of our sins – laziness, lack of faith, fill in the blank. And others of us are just suffering the consequences of a fallen world, or you just haven’t reached Gods timing yet. We can list off a hundred different reasons why we’re in the wilderness, but the fact is the wilderness is chillingly real and we are very much in it.

But the point is, what will you do while you’re in the wilderness? Will you follow my lead and pout, stomp your foot and complain to God while feeling sorry for yourself in the corner of a room? Or will you follow Paul’s lead and find joy in the darkness of a damp prison? Or Jesus’, spurring the temptations of the Devil? Or Joshua and Caleb, holding steadfast to the God they love even while everyone they know and love is falling dead around them and their day-to-day lives are more mundane than our own 9-5’s?

I think it’s appropriate that Disney/Pixar’s most evil villain is not a dragon or a witch or even a puppy-snatcher. In fact, Lotso, Toy Story 3’s antagonist, is probably one of the most evil villains in most movies combined. Satan comes to us in the form of a loveable, pink teddy bear who smells like strawberries. God might put us in the wilderness, but Satan is there to meet us head-on. He’ll convince you that a) the wilderness isn’t so bad, that life isn’t meant to be enjoyed so you might as well accept the status quo, or b) you deserve better than this, how dare God leave you in such a wretched state; curse Him, spit on Him, leave Him!

Brothers and sisters, no matter who you are or where you’re at in life, you’re in the wilderness right now. Life is a wilderness of wandering and finding truth, waiting out the storms and fighting the good fight. Those who trust in Jesus Christ know that there will be an end to this wilderness and we will live in Paradise in the end. But to those of you who do not put your hope and trust in God, this is the greatest paradise you will ever know and your wilderness will be waiting for you on the other side and it will never ever end, and once you’re there, trusting in God will do no good.

But while we’re here, trust n God that this meaningless wandering will come to an end, and that when you’re in Jesus, there is actually nothing meaningless at all about your wilderness stay. Joseph trusted God in prison. David praised God in hiding. And Joshua and Caleb? They were the only ones who had enough faith in God to see the promised land at the end of the 40 years, and their efforts were greatly rewarded.

Woody held out until the very end to do what he was meant to do. Even in the face of adversary from his friends, apparent abandonment from his owner, hostile adversaries, betrayal and even death, Woody never once lost sight of who he was supposed to be and what he was made for. And we shouldn’t either. We are here to praise God and worship Him. That’s our purpose for being here. I wonder, if they made a movie about Joshua and Caleb, if I would cry in the end of that one too, because I certainly envy and long for their loyalty. And you should, too.

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Letting Go

Here’s a fascinating and insightful take on Pixar films as a whole. This is taken from the book The Art of Up by Tim Hauser:

Taken as a whole, Pixar’s films can be viewed as serialized chapters in a single life: from sibling rivalry, early attachment (Toy Story), and socialization (A Bug’s Life), to maturation (Monter’s Inc.), separation, and parenthood (Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo); from protecting the nuclear family (The Incredibles), shifting out of the fast lane (Cars), and rekindling passion (Ratatouille), to planning for future generations (WALL-E), and, finally, accepting death (Up). 

Up is more than just a picture of moving on from death. To me, it’s one of the greatest images of love that Hollywood has ever placed on the silver screen. Throughout his whole life, our character Carl is set on keeping his wife’s promises. He never goes back on his word – no matter what. This is a lesson many of us, myself included, need to be reminded of. Too often I’ll make a promise to Sarabeth and I won’t go through with it either because “I forgot,” or I just didn’t feel like it because it suddenly wasn’t convenient for me. Up convicts me as a Christian.

But as wonderful as a (true) love story this is, I would like to focus on another aspect of the film that is sometimes overlooked and is pertinent to this blog. In the movie, Carl has his life set to a certain standard, and his goals are fixed without room for interruption. But interruption knocks on his door (2,000 feet in the air) and presents itself. Throughout the story, Russell the boy slowly but surely wedges his  way into Carl’s heart. And slowly we begin to see the ideology of an adoption form. We learn that Russell is fatherless and Carl steps in as his surrogate. But the only way for him to do that is by letting go of what’s closest to him.

Often, if not always, that is what ministry of any kind requires. Make no mistake that adoption falls under the category of ministry. We all can attest that it’s not easy giving things up, because it seems that what is required of us in order to do our ministry effectively, is what’s most dear to us. It could be a call to part with money, a house, comfort, or even a sin that we’re harboring in our hearts. I believe this is the reason so many Christians refrain from partaking in true self-giving ministry (myself included). In a sense, ministry is not free – there is a cost to following Jesus, and a lot of times that cost is high to pay. But we must learn to see it as more of an investment, because God promises that He will repay us in Heaven for all we have given Him on earth.

But we’re so finite! We lack the eternal sense that there is a life beyond this, where what we do here will actually matter for an eternity. Even the best of us feels pain when we part with something we would rather keep. There’s a reason why it is emotional every time a balloon pops in the movie, because we feel Carl’s pain of letting go. When his house, which is a representation of his wife’s memory, creaks, and groans and falls apart, we are witnessing someone losing the most cherished (and only) possession he has. And sometimes we feel that what we hold closest to us is all we have.

But here’s the good news. God will always replace what is lost with something richer, and more appropriate for the season of life we’re in. When my good friend Nick died of heart problems when I was a sophomore in high school, God sent a new friend into my life to fill that role. He has been my best friend from that time until now, even though we haven’t lived in the same state for several years. Or maybe God will replace something you lost with His presence, or a subtle sense of joy, or peace, or fulfillment. Carl needed someone to share his life with, because he was wasting the last days of his life away in solitude. But in order for him to accept Russell into his life, he had to let go of his past, and be willing to move forward into the next season of his life.

If you’re holding onto something today that you know you need to part with, pray that God will give you the courage and strength to do away with it. Look around at what you know God has given you, and live accordingly.

 

Summer Books for Your Kids (Part 2)

I consider myself to be a treasure-hunter. Part of that means storing up treasures for my kids to inherit in the future. This is one of the reasons why I read children’s books on occasion. Buried somewhere under all the Harry Potter and Captain Underpants influenza is a Tuck Everlasting , or a Charlotte’s Web. Stories that carry on into people’s lives. Stories that stick with you forever in some way or another …are treasures. Here are some finds I have come across over the years that you can feel safe having your kids read, or that you can read to them, no matter how young they are.

Special Note: I have listed the following books on the right of this page. If you purchase any through those links you’d be supporting our sponsor and helping us reach our goal with adopting James.

Little Women

As a 28 year old male, I am comfortable enough in my masculinity to admit that this is one of my all-time favorite fictional books. I love it as a storyteller, a dreamer, a prayer, a hoper. It has the most wonderfully optimistic view of life – a great remedy for prone pessimists like myself. I’ve read it a couple of times (it’s so long… but not long enough), and it never ceases to bring me to tears. A tougher read for kids under 9, but a great bedtime story to build lasting memories, I’m sure.

 

 

 

 

Little Men

For people with boys running around the house. Here’s the alternative (and sequel) to Little Women. It’s about Jo’s married life and the orphan boys she and her husband take into their school. It’s full of sin, repentance, and great lessons for parents on why discipline is so absolutely necessary for the nurture and care of children and how it can bring about a redemption in their lives at a young age. Yes, I am saying that this is an excellent parenting book.

 

 

 

 

 

Around the World in Eighty Days

This is one of Jules Verne’s shorter books, so it can be read quickly, depending on your child’s interest in world travel and reading. I read this a few years ago, and was honestly on the edge of my seat for most of the book. It’s about a man who makes a rather large bet that he can travel around the globe in just 80 days or less, but he is often delayed, which causes the blood to rush a little faster, and the heart to pound a little quicker. Lots and lots of good fun.

 

 

 

 

 

No Wonder They Call Him Savior

No, this is not an intended children’s book, and I don’t recommend Max Lucado for mature Christians who are past the need for milk and honey but desire meat and heavier nutrition. But I read a lot of Max Lucado as a junior higher, this one being the first, and to this day, I can sense a lot of his imprints on my thinking process in terms of relating spiritual matters to everyday life. A great start for spiritually hungry children.

 

 

 

 

Bone

Back in the days of yore (the 90’s), my parents paid for my subscription to the Disney Adventures magazine (which I mistakenly called “Disney Afternoon” magazine because I never took the time to read any of the covers). But for a good year or so, they published snippets of the first of the Bone story, and I was hooked. Yes, it’s a graphic novel, but it’s family friendly …think Lord of the Rings meets Mickey Mouse. The books (there are 9 of them) have reemerged and are now finding their way into the hands of kids of the ipod generation. Just good old-fashioned fairytale fun. The only graphic novel I ever read, and if I had them in my possession, I’d read them again today.

Wall-E …Much Deeper Than it Seems

I’ve always considered Pixar’s films to be deeper than most others, and for many years I made the bold claim that there had to be a Christian somewhere in that studio making right decisions. Then a couple of months ago I came across an article from Christianity Today with interviewer Mark Morning, and discovered that Andrew Stanton, one of the Pixar originals and director of Wall-E and Finding Nemo is a proclaimed born-again Christian, as it shows in his movies. Unfortunately the article has been deleted as it’s so old, but I managed to go around and collect some snippets of it from various sources. Enjoy, and please pray for those brothers and sisters in Hollywood making a difference.

There seem to be some biblical themes in this film. WALL•E is sort of like Adam, the only “guy” on earth, lonely, longing for a companion …

Andrew Stanton: Yes, and that’s certainly why I picked EVE as an appropriate title for the female robot. But “Adam” just didn’t have the underdog ring to it as the main character. WALL•E was a little bit more sad sack—and I could find an acronym that could work for that. But definitely it had that first man, first female theme. But I wasn’t trying to replace man in the bigger story. I just loved the poetic-ness that these two machines held more care for living and loving than humanity had anymore.

There’s also a bit of Noah’s Ark story here, with the humans on the space station, waiting for a chance to repopulate the earth—but having to wait till EVE comes back with plant life to indicate it’s okay.

Stanton: I wasn’t using the Noah’s Ark story as a guide, but through circumstances, I loved the parallels of EVE almost being like this dove, of going down for proof that it’s time to come back. It just worked in that allegory, so I ran with it.

This next snapshot is from: http://lookingcloser.org/2008/06/christianity-todays-mark-moring-interviews-andrew-stanton/

Apparently the idea for Wall-E was first born in 1994?

Stanton: At the time, it wasn’t a whole story. It was just the foundation of a great character‚ and it was literally born from the sentence, “What if humankind left earth and somebody left the last robot on, and it just kept doing the same futile thing forever?” And I thought that was the saddest, loneliest character I ever heard of in my life. [Co-writer] Pete Docter and I loved that idea, and thought we’d love to see a movie like that.

But since we hadn’t even finished Toy Story yet, our next sentence was, “Nobody would ever let us make a movie like that.” And we put it on the shelf and got caught up doing all these other things. But the idea stayed with me all these years, and when I was writing on Nemo, I started thinking about WALL-E again‚ and I couldn’t stop. That’s when I realized that I was attracted to the pure loneliness of this character, and the opposite of loneliness is love‚ so it should be a love story. From then on, suddenly the skies opened and I just couldn’t stop writing.

And I love this…

Moring: Some Christians want more “message movies,” and they want them to be movies where the gospel is preached loud and clear. But when movies get too driven by their agenda, you often end up with a crummy movie.

Stanton: Yeah, I’m right with you on that.

Moring: But guys like you and others at Pixar, and other Christians like Scott Derrickson and Ralph Winter, are bringing biblical themes into the movies without making them feel “preachy.” Where are you on all of that thinking?

Stanton: I agree with what you said. Just because you’re strong in your faith doesn’t mean that you suddenly have to be dumb and pander to a certain audience. When did that become a rule? I think you were given a brain to use it, and I think you were given talents to use it. And so the same intoxicating, seducing talents and cleverness and wisdom that you see in what may be considered “secular” entertainment, there’s no reason that those things should be held back for anything else, I like to think.

Here is another great article that says that Wall-E is not what it seems on the surface. It’s much, much deeper than an environmental movie.

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A Sect of Supers Blending In?

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve sort of been composing a Pixar theme around my most recent movie discussions. You can check out Finding Nemo here and Monsters Inc. here. It’s for no other reason than building anticipation for Disney/Pixar’s newest movie Brave, coming out July 22, and I’m just going mad waiting for it. Poor Sarabeth has to put up with crazy/anxious me every spring until Pixar’s annual summer movie comes out, then we go see it and I find that it’s better than I expected and I rave and rant impatiently until it comes out on DVD in the fall. And the next spring the whole process starts all over again, but she is gracious and patent with me.

Whether it’s intentional or not, I feel like The Incredibles is just saturated with so many deep-rooted themes about the importance of family – in the traditional sense. If you’re having marriage problems, I seriously recommend watching this movie because the makers of this film really get people. (Watching a movie won’t solve your problems, but sometimes it can help identify what you’re really feeling and why you’re acting the way you are.) Then read Love and Respect  if you’re serious about getting your marriage back on track.

But we’re not going to focus on the marriage aspect of the film here. What strikes me during this movie is how Christians can relate to the Parr family in The Incredibles universe. You’ll recall how some people are born as Supers (people with super-human powers). Back in the 70’s they were revered by citizens all over, respected, honored. Then as lawsuits became more of a common practice in America, people who were injured while being saved by a Super would sue their hero, some even claiming that they didn’t even want to be saved. The Supers had no choice but to disappear, or blend in, and become average citizens, not using their super powers.

So let me ask you: Have you been blending in with the rest of the world? Have you been refusing to operate out of the conviction of the Holy Spirit? Maybe you’ve been hurt too many times by people telling you that they don’t want your Jesus. Maybe, you’ve thrown your hands up in surrender saying, “If they don’t care about their own soul, then why should I?” Well, the thing is, we’ve got to remember that anyone who isn’t alive in Christ is dead.

Literally, spiritually dead. So, how can a corpse care for himself? That is why we have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to shine the light on them and let the Holy Spirit do His work. Now, we cannot bring people to life, but God can. We are just the messengers, or the nurses in the great operating room of life, if you will. When the doctor asks for a q-tip, we bring the doctor a q-tip. In the same way, when the Holy Spirit beckons us to talk to the difficult customer in a loving, God-honoring way, we must do just that, and shine the light of Jesus in their direction so that the Holy Spirit has an advantage to work on their heart. (Not that the Holy Spirit is dependant on us to do His work in any way; think of it as a father allowing his son to help change the oil in the car, even if he doesn’t quite know how.)

Brothers and sisters, we have been empowered to do a work that is unique from anyone else in the world, but the world doesn’t want us doing that work. Jesus predicted this. He said that the world will hate you (but it’s really hating Him). The world will stop at nothing to silence us, and make us blend in with the rest of the fallen human race. Go to work, get your work done, come home, and do it all again the next day.

Don’t you get it? That’s the kind of mundane meaningless existence the world is calling us to! That, and do whatever you please when you’re not punched in on the clock. But God has called us to live a much better, more purposeful, more dangerous kind of life. He is calling us to engage in warfare! We are to be battling the demons that are keeping the caskets locked on your co-worker’s hearts and whispering lies to your unsaved friends. We are to be battling them daily, all the while keeping their filthy claws out of our own lives.

We must not pull back from the War and go about our lives as though it didn’t exist, and that we are here simply to just live and let live. Engage in the battle. It may not be fighting giant robots on tropical islands, but it may be learning to open back up the communication lines between you and your spouse, or becoming more involved in your kids’ lives. Helen Parr imparts this wisdom to her daughter: “Your identity is your most valuable possession. Protect it.”

If you’re a true Christian, your identity is in Christ Jesus. You must protect that, and live like that is true. You will be noticed, and people will call you out on being a Christian because you’re different from everyone else. But that is a very good thing – that is exactly what God wants! Because what better opportunity to enter the battleground and share the Gospel with them so that you can be a part of possibly escorting that person to the Gates of Heaven?

Don’t squelch the powers God has given you in His name. Use your gifts, your talents, your resources in order to bring honor and glory to Him. Blending in is exactly what the enemy wants us to do. Not seeing our family as a great adventure is part of our enemy’s grant scheme. Don’t give in. Stay strong, and persevere. Step onto the battleground, reveal your identity, and fight the good fight.

The video is corny, but here’s a song I tend to listen to when I need to be reminded that we are fighting in a war. It’s featured at the end of Prince Caspian, and it brings me to tears every time: The Call

Keep on eye on The Incredibles director Brad Bird.

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