REVIEW: Monsters University (2013)

Cal checks out the Animal House of Pixar films. 

Out of the entire Pixar oeuvre, 2001’s Monsters, Inc. was probably the one movie least in need of a sequel; the problems of both the characters and their world are resolved by the story’s end, leaving absolutely nowhere to go. To circumvent this issue, 2013’s Monsters University elects the prequel route, but that comes with its own set of issues as well. The big problem facing this movie is that Monsters, Inc. spent its entire runtime revealing the scare business to be one big sham, disproving the notion that infants at toxic, and discovering that there are alternate energy sources. It therefore goes without saying that University isn’t interested in the thematic relevance of the original movie, content to just be a fun college comedy (think Animal House or Revenge of the Nerds) based in the Monsters, Inc. cinematic universe. Luckily, judged as an entertaining time, the film is a big success. It would be nice to see Pixar going for broke and venturing into original territory once again, but I’ll gladly take Monsters University over the abominable Cars 2 or last year’s ordinary Brave.

Since childhood, diminutive cyclops Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) has dreamed of becoming a distinguished scarer, aspiring to be Monsters, Inc.’s most fear-inducing employee. He finally looks to achieve his dreams at Monsters University, and embraces the opportunity by studying all the textbooks he can. In class, he meets Sulley (John Goodman), who comes from a long family of scarers and therefore has a gigantic ego. Although Mike and Sulley immediately clash, they are compelled to put their differences aside in order to prove themselves as scarers, teaming up and joining outcast fraternity Oozma Kappa to enter the annual Scare Games competition. Also in their team are a bunch of kindly but non-scary members, including the middle-aged Don (Joel Murray) and meek pushover Squishy (Peter Sohn), leaving Mike with the tough task of training the ghouls to get the group into shape.

Writers Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson and Don Scanlon evidently want us to ignore a line in the previous flick that revealed Mike and Sulley have been best buddies since elementary school. It’s a conundrum that wasn’t given much thought. Added to this, since we know that Mike and Sulley will ultimately become best friends, some of the dramatic tension is undercut, and the animosity they share comes off as perfunctory. University also abides by a standard storytelling template, and there isn’t much room for emotion or heart, two elements that Monsters, Inc. had in spades. But the picture overcomes these flaws and problems by surprising in a few other areas, particularly the immensely imaginative final act that I personally did not see coming. At about the 70-minute mark, it looks as if the movie is about to wrap up, but there’s still more to come, and the subsequent climax is magnificent. On top of being exciting and tense, the finale of University delivers a few nice messages about facing the consequences of your actions, and sometimes needing to use alternate methods to accomplish lifelong goals.

What’s notable about Monsters University is its playful tone and script, which is the closest we’ve seen to the old Pixar charm since Toy Story 3. Although the movie is rarely laugh-aloud funny, it is very creative, getting plenty of mileage out of the college setting. Mike is depicted as a geeky, nervous freshman, while Sulley is a slacker who’s happy to coast through university on his single roar. And the depiction of the various college clubs and other students is amusing indeed. As to be expected, the animation is incredibly sumptuous, excelling in terms of texture and detail. Backing Monsters University is another outstanding score by Randy Newman, which helps set a light-hearted tone that director Scanlon maintains throughout. However, while the movie is fast-paced, it does run a fairly hefty 100 minutes, considerably longer than its predecessor. Perhaps some trimming may have given the picture an added zip.

It almost goes without saying, but Crystal and Goodman remain delightful as Mike and Sulley. Nothing here really stretches the range of either actor, but their delivery is great, and they’re adept at humour (which is especially fortunate for Crystal, who defaced his reputation with 2012’s Parental Guidance). The most notable vocal performer, though, is Helen Mirren as the school’s strict dean. Mirren plays this type of role well, and her aura of authority is often very compelling. Steve Buscemi is present as well, voicing the role of Randy. It’s interesting to see Randy’s origins, establishing the rivalry with Mike and Sulley glimpsed in Monsters, Inc., and showing what he was like before he becomes the villain. Meanwhile, Joel Murray is extremely lovable as Don, and Nathan Fillion makes an impression as the typical arrogant college bully.

Monsters University is not the most enrapturing Pixar flick, and older fans of Monsters, Inc. will not find it to be as emotionally affecting as the original picture. On its own merits, though, this prequel succeeds; it’s an endearing effort to pull Pixar out of the doldrums, showing us that the studio has not lost its touch after a very underwhelming couple of years. And be sure to stick around until the end of the credits for one of the funniest gags in the movie.

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