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6/20/2013

Review: Pixar's 'Monsters University'


Pixar has raised the bar for animated movies to such a ridiculously high degree that they're now in the position of only having to best themselves. They certainly have an embarrassment of animated classics for riches, and a reputation for producing edgy, smart, and charming films everyone can related to. But when your parent company is Disney, which frequently emphasizes franchising over ingenuity, that puts Pixar in an awkward place of finding new ways to present familiar characters. Audiences savaged the globe-hopping Cars sequel for being too much of a departure, and the knives seem to be out for Monsters University, a prequel to 2001's Monsters, Inc.

Save your venom for Toy Story 4 or Cars 3 or something, because Monsters University has all of the heart and humor we've come to love from Pixar, and is easily their most enjoyable film since Toy Story 3. While it'll surprise nobody to learn that the studio was capable of making the best animated feature of the year so far, what's truly remarkable is that they did it in a story nobody was aching to see. Prequels are notoriously difficult by nature, and in this case there was the potential to ruin that unique chemistry between monster work buddies Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and James "Sulley" Sullivan (John Goodman).

When we first meet Mike, he's just a kid with a dream of becoming a "scarer" someday. A field trip to the Monsters Inc. scare floor only motivates him further, after he meets one of his heroes and proves his mettle by venturing into the world of humans. From that point on, Mike's goal is to attend Monsters University and become the best, but there's just one little problem: He's too cute to be scary, and everybody seems to know it but him.  Thankfully skipping his formative high school years, we meet Mike during his first day on the college campus, a brace-faced newbie with hopes of excelling in the prestigious Scare Program.

It's as Mike makes his way around the campus grounds that we see just how much effort Pixar and director Dan Scanlon put into this film. It looks absolutely gorgeous, colorful with literally hundreds of different monsters of varying shapes, sizes, and social order. Monsters, Inc. was quite the technological achievement twelve years ago, but now we see just how far Pixar has progressed in imaginative breadth and scope. We see monster versions of all the expected college social cliques: stoners, art nerds, jocks, underwater students...it's quite remarkable. And at the top of the college food chain are the born scarers, who are destined by their sheer size and terrifying visage for a career haunting little kids.

One of those who think he has a free ticket to greatness is Sulley, a slacker coasting on his family name and natural ability to frighten. He has everything Mike will never have, and the two are immediately rivals. Sulley is content to depend on his roar, using it to get a sought-after spot in the Roar Omega Roar frat, while Mike is technically brilliant and studious, using his brains to excel. Not that it matters to the winged Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), who recognizes immediately that Mike isn't scary, and that Sulley is a loser. When both are kicked out of the program, their only recourse is to enter the Scare Games and win back their spot.

If people were upset by Cars 2, it's a wonder what they'll think of Monsters University, which becomes Revenge of the Nerds meets Animal House at this point. Not that the little kids going to see it are going to get all of that, but parents will recognize it right away. Rest assured there are no panty raids to be found, though, just plenty of geek vs. Greek action. Forced to join the dorky Oozma Cappa frat, Mike and Sulley's teammates leave a lot to be desired. There's Terry and Terri, a two-headed monster constantly arguing with itself; Don Carlton, an older student going through his own personal Larry Crowne crisis; Art (Charlie Day), a spacey philosophy student; and Scott Squibbles, a good-natured blob whose mother (Julia Sweeney) always seems to be around.

What happens next is predictable stuff, as Mike and Sulley learn from one another while teaching their hapless crew to believe in themselves and triumph over their detractors. In the process, they also figure out an important lesson about having dreams, and how working hard towards them isn't always going to be enough, while being gifted isn't an excuse to be lazy. It's probably not the lesson parent's will go in expecting their kids to learn, but it's an important one nevertheless. New layers are added to Mike and Sulley's friendship without ruining the dynamic we all love, and we even learn a few new things about their future nemesis, Randall J. Boggs (Steve Buscemi), who starts out in an unexpected position. There are plenty of under the radar gags about college life that adults will catch on to, but in general this is a film that will please everyone regardless of age.

Many will argue that Monsters University isn't Pixar's most ambitious film, and maybe that's true, but they deserve a ton of credit for successfully melding their heartwarming formula with frat house comedy. For a variety of reasons Monsters University shouldn't have worked, but it passes with flying colors.