10/29/13: Monsters University, Family Tree S1, R.I.P.D.

Monsters University (G, 2013, Disney)
Pixar fully ripped the spotless record bandaid off when it finally released a total misfire in “Cars 2.” And with “Monsters University,” a peripheral involvement in the straight-to-video “Planes” and a “Finding Nemo” sequel following behind, one might get the impression that the studio’s days of creating one groundbreaking new world after another have given way to a roadmap that may as well be cribbed from Dreamworks or Sony Pictures. But maybe we’re just overthinking this whole thing. “University” is exactly what its name might lead you to believe it is: a prequel that (a) shows us how Sulley and Mike first became friends and joined forces and (b) an amusing excuse to combine one of Pixar’s universes with the college movie and everything (frat parties, scary deans, campus mayhem) that entails. On that level, “University” coasts in a way “Monsters, Inc.” never really did, and while it builds on the ingenious concept of scaring as an industry that’s as glamorous to young monsters as professional sports are to young humans, it doesn’t apply any similarly brilliant twists to our heroes’ formative years. But beneath the pedestrian surface lies an attention to detail that easily and repeatedly justifies “University” as a worthy prequel. What it lacks in overarching vision, “University” redeems in extremely funny throwaway lines, immense amounts of unexpected little visual touches, and an entire university’s worth of clever monster designs and personalities — many of which won’t even be discovered until a second or third viewing. If and when Pixar gets back to the business of creating worlds none of us have ever visited before, few will object. But the sheer volume of ingenuity hiding beneath “University’s” plain premise is, beyond a confirmation that the studio remains a cut above, a perfectly wonderful way to bide some time until that happens.
Extras: Animated short “Blue Umbrella,” filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, 10 behind-the-scenes features, set flythrough, art/promo galleries.

Family Tree: The Complete First Season (NR, 2013, HBO)
Tom Chadwick (Chris O’Dowd) is at a crossroads. Or that’s perhaps what he’d have you believe. Mostly, he cannot get over being dumped by both his girlfriend and employer, and apropos of nothing, he suddenly has a box of mysterious stuff a distant relative he never even met left as an inheritance. And because he’s at a crossroads (translation: no job, nothing to do, and that box has some cool stuff in it), he’s embarked on a journey — with the help of his socially-damaged ventriloquist sister (real-life not-so-normal ventriloquist Nina Conti), a dad (Michael McKean) who’d rather watch television, a mom (Lisa Palfrey) from another planet and a friend who is no help at all (Tom Bennett) — to discover just how deep the Chadwick lineage goes. As one might expect from Christopher Guest’s presence as series creator, or as one might just assume based on a pretty easy educated guess, the family Tom finds is mostly strange as well. Weirdness pretty much carries the day in “Family Tree,” which has the interesting dual problem of feeling too cramped by its half-hour runtime and stretched too thin by a premise that could get old in a hurry if it doesn’t evolve. The good news is that “Tree’s” first season eventually does evolve, albeit slightly, beyond simply being a weird-relative-of-the-week show. The better news is that “Tree” is frequently funny throughout the season and rarely rates below amusing even at its most cramped or strained. Guest’s productions have a way with deadpanned words that countless writers have imitated but few have really understood and properly utilized, and while the sitcom format tests that mastery in new ways, “Tree” passes with just enough flying colors to make it easy to recommend.
Contents: Eight episodes, plus deleted scenes, music from the show and clips from Keith Chadwick’s (McKean) favorite 1970s sitcoms.

R.I.P.D. (PG-13, 2013, Universal)
Detective Nick Walker (Ryan Reynolds), much to his dismay, is dead — shot dead, in fact, by his own partner (Kevin Bacon as Hayes) on the force. But death is merely a recruitment tool for the R.I.P.D., an elaborate undead police force tasked with exposing and eliminating rotting souls who torment the living under the guise of normal, living people. That’s the cool part. But then Nick meets his new partner: Roy (Jeff Bridges), a lawman from the 1800s who apparently spent no part of his extremely lengthy tenure learning how not to be a caricature. And with each passing exchange between Nick and Roy, we’re treated to a little dismay of our own, because “R.I.P.D.” is similarly incapable of any kind of ability to just move on. Nick is the straight man with surprisingly few questions about his newfound afterlife, Roy is the tough-talkin’ ol’ cowboy with a spin-the-wheel assortment of spoutable cliches, and every conversation they have serves no other purpose than as a springboard for Bridges to ham it up hard. It’s funny at first, cute shortly after that, and increasingly more tiresome the more it repeats itself without going anywhere. Any hopes of a rescue from outside grow dimmer by the minute: Following an extremely promising introduction, “R.I.P.D.” loses its appetite for clever fiction and just kinda settles for being a loud mix of a buddy comedy on a treadmill, a predictable and binary good-versus-evil chase, and a monster movie that’s loaded with guns and special effects that amount to lots of empty noise and maybe a headache.
Extras: Alternate openings, five behind-the-scenes features.