Review: Monsters University (2013)

Monsters University

Rating

Director
Dan Scanlon
Screenplay
Dan Scanlon, Daniel Gerson, Robert L. Baird
Length
104 min.
Starring
Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, Peter Sohn, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Charlie Day, Alfred Molina, Nathan Fillion, Aubrey Plaza, Bobby Moynihan
MPAA Rating
G

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Review
Was there a need for a prequel to Monsters, Inc., a film I consider to be one of Pixar’s weakest efforts? Crass commercialism likely played a large role in the decision to greenlight the film, but Pixar does its absolute best to create something fresh and engaging for the audience unlike the uncharacteristically bad Cars 2.

Choosing to go back in time instead of forward, Monsters University follows our favorite heroes from Monsters, Inc. as they take on university life in an effort to begin careers as scarers. Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) is a hyper-intelligent, cuddly, one-eyed green monster who views a career as a scarer as the ultimate equalizer, an opportunity to all the kids who picked on him that he could be one of the all-time great career men. James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman) is a legacy student who feels entitled to an easy education because of his father’s notability. He’s terrific at outright frightening, but lacks the interest and ability to step beyond his one-trick scares.

The veonmous and terrifying head of the scare department, Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) believes she can recognize talent in any monster. In Mike and Sulley, she sees no such career and after a series of blunders by both, she expels them from the program. Challening Hardscrabble’s authority, Mike concocts a brilliant plan to get himself back into the program by participating in the annual Scare Games, a Greek-based competition that pits fraternities and sororities against one another in an attempt to be named the top scarers at Monsters U.

Forced to inject himself into the friendly, harmless frat Oozma Kappa (OK), Mike and Sulley continue their personal rivalry in the face of mountin odds against them in the game, forcing them to improve their fellow brothers and develop team-based skills together or face abject failure and ejection from University entire.

Crystal and Goodman fall nicely back into characters that have been etched into Pixar’s storied history, but it’s the new voiceover talents that really make the film soar. Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Charlie Day, Joel Murray and Peter Sohn voice the four monsters (Hayes and Foley pair up as the two-headed monsters Terri and Terry) that comprise the OK fraternity. Their individuality adds spice to slight stereotypes, who then emerge as deeper characters as the film progresses. However, it’s Mirren who steals the show as Hardscrabble, a legendary scarer herself. Mirren’s disturbing, yet passionate performance adds something that the original Monsters, Inc. lacked even with the terrific Steve Buscemi (who makes a prominent return here) working on that film.

Pixar’s realm of gorgeous visuals expands with this near-perfect design execution. The minimalist corporate environment on display in its predecessor is enhanced and embellished in ways not easily imagined twelve years ago. They bring a crisp detail to even the smallest scenes. They create a depth to the environment that 3D would likely bring out much like the beautiful rendering of Up. The only quibble I have is that crowd scenes are too spread out. To showcase all of the wacky critters Pixar’s animators came up with, they give unnatural spacing to their crowds. You can see each monster without problem and that, in itself is a problem. Crowds cluster and blur, making things seem less detailed than they could be. This minor issue doesn’t distract too much, however.

Trying to wring new content out of a familiar story is a challenge. With Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, the general gist of the original film is still present, enabling the audience to continue their previously formed familiarity with the predecessor and still develop new attachments with the subsequent film. Cars 2 tried a brand new story plopping old characters (and not all of them) into a completely new and tonally different husk. The result was an uneven mess that became tedious relatively quickly in the proceedings. While Monsters University struggles to establish its own rhythm, the film eventually progresses to a point where the familiar is replaced with freshness and what came before merely influences the prequel. The story isn’t a rehash of the original, but resembles it enough to keep the audience engaged with minimal exposition. And while we know what ultimately happened with Mike and Sulley, the Scare Games finale and subsequent scenes twist our expectations and surprise us when we didn’t expect we could be.

Monsters University doesn’t feel necessary. The original film, one of the weaker in Pixar’s canon, didn’t cry out for sequelizing, but when parent company Disney wants to increase its merchandising revenue, Pixar is nearly powerless to stop it. They can merely try to accomplish something new and different without betraying their vision of animation as a constantly re-inventing medium. Cars 2 exemplifies Disney’s stranglehold on repetitive redesign, showing audiences that they care less about the end product than they do about how much money it can make them. And after the recent announcements that Finding Nemo and The Incredibles had sequels in development, those of us who were worried about the Disney influence when it purchased Pixar had cause to cringe.

This prequel cleans some of the bad taste left by these plaguing issues, but not enough to keep us from continuing to worry. The recent decision by Pixar to minimize the sequelizing gives us renewed hope, but it remains to be seen if Brave will mark the new normative for Pixar’s originality or if movies like Up and Ratatouille can again be made.

Monsters University has some genuine frightes, which might make younger viewers uncomfortable, but the film as a whole is a lively, friendly tale that will entertain kids and adults alike and maybe, just maybe the light praise the film is getting will help Pixar understand how to avoid becoming too much lik sequel-heavy DreamWorks or worse the abysmally controlled output from Fox Animation’s subsidiary Blue Sky Studios. Thankfully they haven’t plunged that far even if Cars 2 was cause for concern, and DreamWorks is doing well enough that even slight improvement over much of their film slate will still be pretty darned good.
Oscar Prospects
Guarantees: Animated Feature
Potentials: Original Score, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing
Unlikelies: Adapted Screenplay
Review Written
July 3, 2013

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