[Review] - Monsters University

Courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios
Remember a few years back, there was a rumour that companies like Sony and DreamWorks were going to sue Pixar over the consistent quality of their product? Of late, that hasn't been a concern for the company that for a decade and a half was the embodiment of everything honest and good about animation. The history of Pixar can be divided pretty easily into two categories: before the Disney purchase, and after. Before the purchase, when all they had was a distribution deal with the House of Mouse, the quality of Pixar's film was never in question. The impending release was something you could count on, that you were guaranteed a solid film experience. And that made the other studios cringe, knowing that nothing they had could even approach the ten films Pixar released between 1995's Toy Story and 2009's Up.

I say Up is the dividing line, because it would have been the last original studio movie in production before the 2006 Disney purchase, which saw Disney take direct control over the Steve Jobs owned business, install Pixar head John Lassiter as Disney Animation head, and basically saw the Pixar dynamic take over the stale and stagnant Disney corporation. Or so we thought. Since the buy out, the seemingly autonomous studio (setting the standard for the Marvel and LucasFilm purchases) has produced four films: Toy Story 3, Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters University. And if we're being honest here, Brave was Pixar in name only, having far more in common with a generic Disney product then anything approaching the care and consideration that Pixar shows for its ventures. But two sequels, a prequel and a knockoff. From a studio that had only produced one sequel in its existence before that. A studio that didn't feel the need to made followups based on merchandise revenues. That didn't have to trade on brand recognition in the titles, because everything that needed to be said was in the production credit.

They returned to the well yet again in Monsters U, and while I'm happy to say that the Pixar spark is alive and well in this feature, showing a marked improvement over the last two offerings, it lacks the heart and soul that the older Pixar films had. It would be, by any other studio's reckoning, a fantastic film, but Pixar films used to be judged at a higher standard, and by those increasingly outdated metrics, it is merely a very good film.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that have an extra toe. Not here, of course.

That, by the way, was the best joke of the film, by my estimate. And in fact, if we're going to dive right in, Charlie Day's Art was the best character in the film. Bizarre, prone to tangents and appropriately underdeveloped, he managed to pack more solid laughs into his performance then either of the two stars. That is common of the entire film: the jokes are not at strong as in the original, are farther between, and don't last as long. But they are there, and mostly arrive via the plethora of secondary and supporting characters, rather then from the duo of John Goodman and Billy Crystal. They get the heavier emotional stuff, which again isn't as effective as the original, lacks the same impact, and means somewhat less (considering it suffers from the prequel curse: we already know how things end).

This film focuses on Crystal's Mike, which is fitting, since the original's plot belonged to Goodman's Sully. Here we see them in the prime of youth, in their college days. Each comes into it with preconceptions about who they are, and in grand college tradition, the film is about them discovering who they really are, and what that means in the real world. But first, the film begins even further back, with an adorable minor Mike, trying to recapture the heartbreaking cuteness of the original's Boo, and comes damned close. Little Mike is equal parts pathos and resolve, you just want to find the local Wal-Mart and take him home with you (which I'm sure you can).

The film, as is well documented elsewhere, is basically Revenge of the Nerds with a touch of Harry Potter, which while not entirely original, is at least a departure for college films, which usually go the Animal House route. There are touches of stuff, like the stealing of the pig and a rivalry with Fear Tech that are never elaborated on, keeping the plot focused on the internal struggles the characters having fitting into this environment, rather then having additional pressure from outside the campus. Mike is all book learning, while Sully is coasting on his name. Only together can they find the balance that will make them the successes they are destined to become. Except, it isn't, and they aren't. The prequel curse is evaded as best as it can be, by throwing some significant twists the viewers way. I've always hated sports films, because the team that is the focus of the film is 99% of the time going to win in the end, and that deflates any dramatic tension (one of the reasons I enjoy Cool Runnings more then anyone should). This film is part of the 1%, and that's not saying that they loose. But it certainly doesn't play to expectations. There are repercussions to actions, that usually get glossed over in films like this, and that speaks to Pixar's continued attempts to find real heart behind the stories they tell.

This film lacks the grandeur of the original, with nothing coming close to the door sequence. Perhaps this is because the characters themselves are not yet grand, and so the biggest and most technically impressive sequence occurs midway through the film, with our heroes escaping a rampaging librarian. Likewise, Pixar has done something here that they've never attempted: there is no villain. Even WallE had a villain, in the end. But unlike the original Monsters film, MU is more about personal fulfilment then overcoming a bad guy. The school, the class, the expectations others or they themselves have on the characters, are the thing that must be fought against and overcome. If you look at it from a shallow perspective, you could say Nathan Fillion's frat guy is as close to the film gets to a villain, but he's too underdeveloped for villainy. He's mostly just a jerk ass, and Fillion plays it well.

The cast, as is common in a Pixar film, is stellar, and its always a joy listening to the film, trying to sort out who is playing whom. Helen Mirren is terrifically cold as Dean Hardscrabble, and her monster design is probably the best in the film (another excellent example of Pixar playing with expectations: her design vs her function in the plot). The fellow brothers of Oozma Kappa, played by Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Peter Sohn and the aforementioned Day, get the most development of any characters in the film, except maybe a returning Steve Buscemi's Randall, who again gets to fritter with our expectations. The brothers grow only as Mike and Sully do, but they get the most attention by simply sharing nearly every scene with the two stars, and would make excellent subjects for future Pixar short films set in the world (which Pixar has been prone to do, considering the number of Toy Story shorts of late).

I have officially gone off of Aubrey Plaze. Like Michael Cera before her, she functions perfectly within the confined role she became famous for, but her apparent refusal (or typecasting) in that same role in every other instance has become grating and sad. Her appearances here alongside a boisterous and nearly unrecognisable Tyler Labine was the eureka moment for me, concerning her as an actor. She needs desperately to move in another direction, and fast before everyone else sours on her hipster facade and her career post-Parks becomes staggeringly lethargic.

After seeing MU, I immediately watched Monsters Inc, and perhaps the greatest success of MU is that Pixar managed to make probably one of the best sequels ever, a decade before they made the original. MU will hold up far better on home viewings, when the two films can be watched in order. And future generations will enjoy it that much more having never seen the sequel first. The emotional journey the two characters go on will seem more legitimate without having seen the outcome first, and the friendship that was the strength of the original will be all the better having seen how it grew. Great movies that are parts of series aren't diminished by knowing how things turn out in other entries, and MU will hold up against that in a way that the Star Wars prequels never ever will. It is a solid origin story, which are always weak compared to a film that can be its own thing and not have to establish itself. The original dove right into the monster world, this one leads us into it. Monsters U is Batman Begins, Monsters Inc is Dark Knight.

And if Pixar knows what's good for it, there will never be a Monsters Rises.
Share on Google Plus

About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


  1. Good Movie....A perfect Prequel to Monster's INC. I loved the movie however the first movie was much cuter than this.