‘Monsters University’ a surprising cut above its predecessor

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Monsters University

Directed by Dan Scanlon

Written by Daniel Gerson, Robert L. Baird, and Dan Scanlon

USA, 2013

It’s 2013, and in the world of pop culture, most of us comfortably take Pixar for granted. Here is a studio that, from 1995 to 2010, churned out financially successful films that were also unique, exciting, fresh, and captivating in ways other movie studios could only dream of. The relatively dark days arrived with Cars 2, a sequel to a movie that wasn’t as well-liked (rightly so) as Pixar’s other work. Though the doldrums lifted slightly with last year’s Brave, an original effort whose ambition was admirable even if the execution was muddled, news of sequels, prequels, and a potentially long-running lack of originality have made people think Pixar has lost its edge, or even its soul. So it’s gratifying to watch one of those dreaded continuations, Monsters University, turn out to be confident, charming, and consistently entertaining.

What Monsters University does correctly from the outset is take cinematic world-building almost literally. In 2001’s Monsters, Inc., we may have gotten the gist of the monster universe adjoining our own—monsters are real and do scare children in their bedrooms, but only because it’s their job—but the story was deliberately claustrophobic, mostly taking place in the titular factory. Monsters University, which takes place roughly 10 years before its predecessor, allows us to get a fuller, more detailed picture of what it’s like to grow up in this strange world, one that constantly demands lowered expectations of many of its denizens. This time, of the lovable main duo, it’s Mike Wazowski who takes center stage instead of his big, furry pal James P. Sullivan, or Sulley. Of course, as the story begins, Mike and Sulley aren’t friends, but incoming freshmen at the hallowed halls of Monsters University. Mike is book-smart and dead-set on being the greatest scarer of all time, while Sulley (in one of the film’s many clever flourishes) is a laid-back legacy student, presuming that he can coast through his classes on his family name. Both end up reevaluating their attitudes when they’re forced to work together with the Oozma Kappa fraternity, the low rung on the Greek ladder, in the annual Scare Games for a final chance at getting a degree in scaring.

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY

The basic structure of Monsters University is similar to Revenge of the Nerds or National Lampoon’s Animal House, in that it pits the rich against the poor, the haves against the have-nots, the snobs against the slobs. But like most of Pixar’s best recent films, the message in Monsters University is equally compelling (if a bit more spelled-out than necessary). Mike gets it in his head from a young age that the world of scarers is a level playing field, so he has as much chance as a huge, furry creature of being the best in his class. But anyone familiar with Monsters, Inc. knows he’s the coach, while Sulley is the scarer. By adding in this character detail, writers Daniel Gerson, Robert L. Baird and Dan Scanlon (the latter of whom directed the film) tackle the precarious problem with prequels—a lack of suspense, because the target audience knows where the characters end up—and handle it with aplomb. We know Mike will somehow be convinced, or come to the realization, that he’s not cut out for scaring. In essence, the climax of Monsters University isn’t about whether Mike and Sulley, and their group of unexpected friends, will win the Scare Games; it’s watching Mike accept that his dream can, as he imagined it, never really come true. The last 20 minutes, in which Mike finds out, are unexpectedly heartfelt and thrilling, because for once, the film is legitimately unpredictable.

Like Pixar’s earliest films, such as Toy Story or A Bug’s Life or, yes, Monsters, Inc., Monsters University has a back-to-basics feel. These animators and filmmakers watched the same live-action movies we have over the years, then grab at a number of clichés to spin them into a new, familiar-yet-different, outfit. The college comedy is full of comfortable tropes that are slightly skewed here, from the no-nonsense Dean, now a dragon-centipede hybrid voiced by Helen Mirren; to the arrogant leader of the snobs (Nathan Fillion, cheerfully pompous); to the ragtag group of misfits who band together at the right time in the right way to make an unstoppable team. Not only are these characters winning and funny, but they allow Monsters University to deeply populate its world, letting the movie breathe outside of Mike and Sulley’s antics.

Billy Crystal and John Goodman, as Mike and Sulley, do get plenty to do, specifically Crystal. And whatever his live-action persona has become in the last few years, his performance as Mike is energetic and moving. It may be a bit much to buy an ostensible teenager with a retainer sounding like a Borscht Belt comic, but Crystal’s as committed to selling this character arc as he is to wringing laughs out of punny one-liners. The same goes for Goodman, playing a younger, brasher, dumber version of the lovable lug from Monsters, Inc. There may be no Boo here for Sulley to latch onto emotionally, but his growing humility and respect for Mike’s bookish ways are well-drawn. Another vocal highlight comes courtesy of Steve Buscemi, who returns as Randall Boggs. Suffice to say, Boggs is less villainous here (at least in the beginning), and his introductory scene is a sharp, witty bit of writing.

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Technically, what is there to say about a Pixar animated feature that has not been said before? It would be news if the film was not animated crisply, brightly, and brought to life with immense detail, so much so that there are likely more layers to discover on multiple viewings. (The 3D upconversion adds nothing, also unsurprisingly.) The animation quality, now frequently achieving something close to non-distracting photorealism, is a good example of how we ignore the craftsmanship on display in Pixar’s later films. In Monsters, Inc., it was jaw-dropping to see the detail on Sulley’s fur, every hair waving as if it was its own animate object. By 2013, that’s the baseline of animation prowess, not the apex. Monsters University is not Ratatouille or Up, its story not as creatively groundbreaking from top to bottom. The film, instead, is a product of a company returning to one of its most beloved stories and worlds, and injecting new life where it was desperately required. Even more, Monsters University is, shockingly, a cut above its predecessor, a rapid-fire, imaginative, lively, and thoroughly enjoyable and expansive entrée into a universe hiding just behind the bedroom closet.

Note. As is the standard, Monsters University arrives in theaters attached with a new Pixar short. As surprising as it may be that Monsters University is a grand return to form, it may be more shocking that The Blue Umbrella is, sadly, a step down from most of Pixar’s recent short films. The story is uncomfortably similar to Paperman, the achingly beautiful short from Walt Disney Animation last fall, and the animation style is the first time that Pixar’s dabbled in photorealism that’s even remotely off-putting. Like any short, The Blue Umbrella is slight, but coming on the heels of La Luna, Presto, Lifted, and Partly Cloudy, it’s something of a disappointment.

— Josh Spiegel




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