Guest Movie Review: Monsters University
For the past eighteen years, Pixar Animation Studios has been arguably the most creative and most profitable brand in Hollywood. Ever since the first Toy Story was released in 1995, the company has become known as a paragon of storytelling, not only producing such crowd-pleasing and excellent fare such as Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E and Up, but routinely out-performing its peers in the recently-booming industry of computer-generated imagery. While usually focused on creating stand-alone and original tales, Pixar has occasionally gone the franchise route, with two sequels to the incomparable Toy Story and the blatant (albeit extremely lucrative) merchandising cash-grab that was Cars 2. But with Monsters University, the company has produced its first prequel, and to one of their earliest “great” movies as well, Monsters, Inc.
Monsters University chronicles the early days of Inc heroes and friends Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and James “Sully” Sullivan (John Goodman). Unlike the previous film, in which Mike and Sully were best friends, University shows that the pair were not always on good terms. Mike wants desperately to be a great Scarer and studies and tries harder than anybody despite not being particularly scary, while Sully has excellent talent but never seems to apply himself. These differences cause the pair to clash on more than one occasion, and they manage to garner some negative attention from the headmistress of the school, Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren). With few friends and little chance of reaching the end of their first year, let alone graduation, Mike and Sully are forced to start working together if they are to make it all the way to Monsters, Inc.
Obviously when it comes to prequels, there’s not a lot of surprise going on. Everybody who has seen (or even is familiar with) the original film knows that Mike and Sully, shown feuding right from the start, will end up best of friends by the end. With that in mind, director Dan Scanlon and his crew have to create an interesting enough story to keep the audience from getting too complacent. Fortunately, there are two things going for the film. For one, the characters and monster designs (especially those transitioned from Monsters, Inc) are original and compellingly. New characters look as impressive and original as anything seen on the big screen this decade. Featuring the talented voices of Mirren, Nathan Fillion, Peter Sohn, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley and Charlie Day (among a ton of others), the cast is full to bursting with interesting and unique personalities. But despite everything new, the returning characters – such as Mike & Sully, color-changing Randy Boggs (Steve Buscemi) and a few others – are just as inviting now as they were in 2001, thanks to a CGI sheen that retained the original’s classic imagery without causing it look too aged.
Second is the fact that the screenplay was cobbled together by people who loved old screwball college movies, obviously a major inspiration for this story. There are tons of references to the genre, hearkening back to the likes of PCU, Revenge of the Nerds, and Animal House. There’s even a bit of Rudy kicking around, and the story benefits from that underdog tale in a few turns. The upside of this picking-and-choosing approach is that it guarantees there’ll be something to appeal to both kids and adults. The downside is that anybody who has seen these types of movies before won’t be remotely surprised by what actually happens. Obviously, it’ll be fresh to children, but the high standards of Pixar’s movie-making means that such derivative filmmaking takes things a step down for discerning adults who were hoping for another Incredibles or Up. Or, you know, Monsters, Inc.
I don’t want to make it sound as though I didn’t like Monsters University. On the contrary, I loved it very, very much. The humor is instantly infectious, and the return of the iconic characters was an entirely new and worthwhile experience, benefiting from the nostalgic memories of the original. Heck, people who actually shelled out tickets to see Monsters, Inc. in 3D last year might be those best off, as the recent memory of the movie no doubt helped pick up on all the inside jokes and Easter eggs that litter the story. The new movie is well worth buying a ticket, even if you don’t have children of your own. But there is an intangible that makes most Pixar films different from their animated brethren, and this one just doesn’t have it. That’s likely due to Scanlon, a first-time director who probably wishes he were as good a filmmaker as John Lasseter, Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich or Pete Doctor, from whom he inherited this franchise. There’s no doubting Scanlon’s technique; he’s an artistically-proficient director whose biggest contributions to the studio came in the post-Cars era, and he seems to have a “kids-first” approach to filmmaking that would feel more at home at rival animation company Dreamworks. Again, he makes a nice movie. It just doesn’t particularly feel like a Pixar movie.
Fourteen computer-animated films in eighteen years is a great accomplishment. Creating them in addition to attaining the level of excellence that Pixar has achieved is nothing short of astronomical. Though the effort put into every single one of their movies is more than obvious, and they have already produced more modern classics than many live-action studios finish in their lifetimes, there are bound to be a few missteps along the way. That said, Monsters University is not a misstep. This is a very funny, very charming, very good movie that will entertain kids of all ages and keep their parents amused at the very least. But it’s been a few years now since Pixar put out a best animated film (don’t believe Brave’s Oscar; 2012’s best CGI flick was Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph), and this year seemed like the perfect opportunity for the studio to get back on track, opposite Disney’s Frozen, Illumination Entertainment’s Despicable Me 2 and Dreamworks’ pair of releases Turbo and The (admittedly excellent) Croods. But instead of leading the pack, Monsters University seems content to become just part of it, and is certainly one of Pixar’s second-tier theatrical releases. There’s still a great, great time to be had for the film’s full 104-minute runtime. Just keep your expectations a bit more realistic, and you’ll be more than happy with what you get.
John C. Anderson is a freelance writer and movie enthusiast living in Boston. His other reviews can be found at Hello, Mr. Anderson (http://latestissue.blogspot.com)