By: Paul Zecharia | www.stonesdetroit.com
Pixar Animation is not been as strong as it used to be. I think we can all agree that the Golden Age of this top-of-the-line animation company ended in 2010 when Toy Story 3 (one of the best threequels of all time) was released. With mediocre efforts like Cars 2 and Brave following that, you’d think that Pixar would need something strong and gratifying to bring itself back on top in terms of critical status. Monsters University is not the film that Pixar deserves, but nevertheless, it’s the one it needs right now. This was a decent rebound. It certainly does not match up to the brilliance of Monsters, Inc. What made the original 2001 feature a classic was the creative and original premise filled with enough humor, suspense, and heart that Pixar has always been good at. Monsters University, however, feels like an unnecessary plea from the Walt Disney Company to buy more products based on all the characters created specifically for this film. However, as solid family entertainment, Monsters University has nothing awful or offensive for kids and adults. If anything, kids will enjoy how colorful and playful the film is. Adults will probably enjoy some of the humor and nostalgia. Because if there is anything that Disney/Pixar has always been best at, it’s touching the hearts of everybody, no matter how old. I was nine when I saw MI in theaters. It’s still one of my favorite Pixar films and yes, it was nice to see Mike and Sulley on the big screen again.
Dan Scanlon, a story artist for Cars and Toy Story 3, makes his directorial debut as well as sharing writing credit with fellow story artists Robert L. Baird and Daniel Gerson. What is especially unique about Monsters University is that it decides to go back in time and tell the story of how Mike and Sulley first got started in the scaring business. They first meet as college students attending Monsters University, both majoring in Scaring. A rather interesting concept, but why college? It actually makes no sense. Because if you recall from Monsters, Inc., there’s a moment where Mike says to Sulley “You’ve been jealous of my good looks since the fourth grade, pal.” Continuity error much? Or was that just an exaggeration that Mike was making? It’s hard to believe that the filmmakers can overlook this detail. Maybe they did, but wanted to change things up a bit. It’s almost as if they are creating a whole new timeline for the universe of Monsters, Inc. Maybe you have your own interpretation of that line, but it’s the writers who are at fault for not taking it into consideration. Regardless, an animated prequel is still a very bold move. But it’s also a bold move to set a G-rated animated film at a university. Some mature humor and innuendos are expected in this case, but Monsters University does keep it grounded to a more family-friendly tone.
Monsters University is mostly centered around Michael “Mike” Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and his longtime aspiration to be a scarer. He makes this his goal after visiting Monsters, Incorporated as a six-year-old on a school field trip. In a scene mirroring the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, an accomplished scarer and Monsters University alum named “Frightening” Frank McCay (John Krasinski) tells little Mike (Noah Johnston) how impressed he was with his ability to sneak into a closet door in the human world and actually gives him his MU cap. This is what makes Mike want to be a scarer. Jump ahead several years later and Mike Wazowski, now eighteen years old with a retainer, has been accepted into Monsters University, majoring in Scaring, and is absolutely excited for his first day. His roommate is Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi), a shy nerd who would eventually become his rival. They share the same class taught by Professor Knight (Alfred Molina). Mike also ends up meeting James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman), who is well-known and already praised for being from a very prominent scaring family. This makes him the Big Man on Campus and an immediate rival for Mike. However, nobody believes that Mike can be a real scarer because he’s clearly not scary. Mike is more book smart, instead. He aces every major scaring exam and studies real hard. Sulley, however, is more brawn instead of brains. He assumes that the ability to be good at scaring just come naturally. His family fame also earns him a place at the fraternity Roar Omega Roar (ROR), lead by Johnny Worthington (Nathan Fillion).
Mike and Sulley learn that in order for them to continue with the Scaring program at MU, they must complete the final exam at the end of their semester. Unfortunately, they both fail due to heavy tension and competition between each other. They are kicked out of the Scaring program by Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren). But Mike is determined to show Sulley, Hardscrabble, and the rest of the university that he is a good scarer. So he decides to enter in the Scare Games, a campus-wide competition among the fraternities and sororities of MU. But none of them will accept Mike as a member. So he must resort to the lowest of the low: Oozma Kappa, a fraternity consisting of pretty much the losers of the school, including middle-aged Don Carlton (Joel Murray), a two-head monster named Terri and Terry (Sean Hayes and Dave Foley), a wimp named Squishy (Peter Sohn), and a purple hairy monster called Art (Charlie Day). Sulley is forced to join as well after getting kicked out of ROR (they accept Randall instead). Mike proposes a deal with Hardscrabble: if Oozma Kappa wins the Scare Games, he, Sulley, and the rest of Oozma Kappa gets readmitted into the Scaring program. If they lose, Mike will leave Monsters University. Hardscrabble accepts the deal. Mike and Sulley must now work together with the rest of the failing fraternity to win the games through heavy training and constant motivation. It’s a basic Revenge of the Nerds-style plot, but with more Pixar.
One strong element of Pixar films that Monsters University certainly has is its splendid voice acting. Goodman and Crystal bring so much personality and heart to the college-aged versions of Mike and Sulley. When they are introduced in Monsters, Inc., they are established as being a solid duo bent on being the top scare team at MI with Mike’s Napoleon Complex and Sulley’s roaring confidence. Here, they are immediately shown as rivals with differing personalities. Mike’s uppity bookworm attitude juxtaposes Sulley’s hot-shot image. The majority of the supporting voice actors also do well with bringing a lot of humor and energy to their characters. Even though Buscemi does not get enough screen time, he still manages to stick out a little bit to build up his eventual rivalry with Mike and Sulley. The members of Oozma Kappa also get a good laugh once in a while, especially Charlie Day. I mean, if you haven’t watched “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” or Horrible Bosses, you’re missing out on Charlie Day. Tyler Labine and Aubrey Plaza voice Claire and Brock, the leaders of the Greek Council in charge of the Scare Games and prove themselves to get a laugh every time they commentate the games. Helen Mirren is one of the best actors in the whole film. Not only does Dean Hardscrabble have a great half-dragon/half-centipede design, but Mirren brings a calm but intimidating demeanor with a wonderfully dignified persona.
But aside from some funny side characters and neat designs, it all comes down to the story. Sadly, the story for Monsters University is not up to par with the stories of past Pixar films. Even as its own creation, it certainly has very formulaic story elements when it comes to the typical underdog story with the losers against the jocks. It’s a shame, because the world that the film takes place in should lend itself to some creativity. The monster world is very similar to the human world in terms of schooling, working, and social life. But obviously it is also very different in many respects. Each monster is a different shape and size, they have distinguishable physical features (like suction cups, hair, and wings), they eat garbage in their cafeteria, and their power and electricity is built on the screams of children. The film does not take you into many surprising directions in the first two acts, mainly because a college setting for a children’s film is not particularly interesting. But without giving away the end, it does take a refreshing turn which makes it one of the more redeemable parts of the film. After competing in the Scare Games and developing the relationship between Mike and Sulley, you’ll actually find yourself satisfied with what they are given at the end. It’s very mature and very realistic. In the monster world, at least. IF anything, the resolution is the best part of Monsters University.
Even though Pixar has had a critical slump recently, even its lamest products can still showcase some creative elements. Not many good things can be said about the pointless Cars 2, but at least it had some good visuals. Brave deserves credit for tackling a mother-daughter relationship that’s pretty much never seen in children’s films. Monsters University is funny, nostalgic, and it has a great ending. Was it an unnecessary film? Absolutely. Should it cause any damage to the Monsters, Inc. franchise or even Pixar’s reputation? Absolutely not. Is it entertaining? Of course. But Pixar should go back to the drawing board with its new ideas. And now that it has been officially confirmed that a sequel to Finding Nemo (my favorite animated film of all time) is being made, I think we can all agree that Pixar’s Golden Age has turned into the Sequel Age. If anything, The Incredibles is the Pixar film that deserves a sequel. I remain skeptical about Finding Dory, but I look forward to it, nevertheless. Pixar is still a strong animation company, but for now it’s living in the shadows of Disney and DreamWorks. As for Monsters University, there is no shame in seeing it to revisit those memories of the first one and to see your favorite characters on the big screen again. You may enjoy it, but your kids will definitely enjoy it. It’s pointless, but harmless.
Three and a half out of five stars.
Monsters University is rated G.
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