Monsters University Review: A Scarily Familiar Story

Monster University Logo

When director Dan Scanlon took the stage on the opening night of the Annecy International Animation Festival to present the world premiere of Monsters University, his comments were short and sweet. “We enjoyed these characters so much that we wanted to find out more about them and going back in the past seemed the best way.” That pretty much sums up essence of the movie, which will be released in the US on June 21. The beloved characters from the 2001 hit Monster’s Inc. take us deeper into their universe, this time revealing more similarities than differences with our own world.

Director Dan Scanlon and Pixar big shots introduce Monsters University at Annecy 2013.  Photo by Corrie Francis Parks
Director Dan Scanlon and Pixar big shots introduce Monsters University at Annecy 2013.
Photo by Corrie Francis Parks

The film opens with a school field trip to Monsters Inc. where we are reunited with young Mike Wazowski, the brace-faced runt that gets paired with the teacher because no one will be his buddy. We are quickly reminded of the rules of Monstropolis, a city powered by the screams of human children, children who also happen to be highly toxic to monsters. Dazzled by the scaring feats of his heroes, Mike asks, “How can I become a scarer?” and we are on the fast track to Monsters University.

The first 10 minutes of the film are an onslaught of college life gags. Anyone who is familiar with the college experience in the USA can’t help but chuckle at the caricatures of student organizations, fraternity pledging, campus tours, RAs, cafeteria food, etc. By the time we get to the first day of Intro to Scaring (SCAR101), we are reeling with comic nostalgia. References to Ferris Bueller’s Day OffAnimal HouseRevenge of the Nerds and other classic “student life” comedies pop up throughout the film. I wondered how this would translate to the largely European audience, so I asked one viewer from Belgium. He assured me that “While it’s a very American experience, we’ve seen enough movies about American colleges to get the jokes, even if our university experience is different.” There is also enough slapstick in this segment to entertain younger audiences who haven’t been to college and may completely miss the witty humor in the situations Mike encounters during his first day at MU. Ultimately, seeing our favorite characters alive again in this new setting is enough to carry the film until the plot takes over.

If you have ever been to UC Berkeley you will recognize several features of the MU campus, most notably the clock tower and library (posing as the Scare School). Pixar’s new technological advances in the Renderman pipeline, which are exhibited in full force in the pre-movie short, The Blue Umbrella, are toned down a bit for the monsters’ world, which seems more cuddly and market-friendly than the original Monsters Inc. With a fully-animated cast of 400 characters, there are a lot of heads, legs, eyes, scales, fur and teeth to process, but the details in every corner of the screen prove that Pixar is a powerhouse, not only of classic character animation but of advanced animation technology.

Mike on his first day at MU
Mike on his first day at MU

Returning to SCAR 101, we are finally introduced to a burly, blue-furred monster with a thunderous roar named Jimmy Sullivan. It is immediately evident from his slackerish body language and his failure to bring a pencil to the first day of class, that Sulley plans to ride his family name and innate talent all the way to the scare floor at Monsters Inc. John Goodman has successfully adapted his performance from the commanding, confident Sulley in Monsters Inc. to the ego-sheathed insecurities of a young jock.

Mike, on the other hand, being the runt of the class, proves himself to be the most studious and devoted student. Billy Crystal delivers the rapid-fire witticisms that magnify Mike’s charismatic personality, with a youthful vigor and determination that convinces us to root for the nerdy underdog in a school of scary monsters.

When Mike and Sulley’s rivalry causes them both to get kicked out of the Scare Program (and into Door Technology, ugh!), they are forced to band together with the losers from Oozma Kappa, the nerdiest fraternity on campus. For the rest of the movie, Mike and Sulley haggle over how to turn the band of misfits into a world class scaring team and win back their place in the Scare Program. By this point, we are so caught up in the characters and plot twists that even the more cynical viewers will allow a few cliche plot devices slide and enjoy the show. Let the games begin!

Just another night on campus

Monsters University takes on a difficult task in the world of franchise movies. In a sequel we know what we’re getting in the characters, their personalities continue from where the last movie left off on and gain more dimension as cinematic time progresses. A prequel, on the other hand, is more challenging because the audience already knows how it all ends. We know that Mike and Sulley eventually become a successful team at Monsters Inc. The challenge to the Monsters University writers is to make the prescient audience believe that it could never happen.

With their usual rock-solid story development, Pixar drops evermore insurmountable obstacles in the path of Mike and Sulley’s future success as scarers. In this movie it is the journey, not the outcome, that is interesting. Though not quite as eye-dazzling and world-shattering as the final scenes in Monsters Inc., the climax offers a delightfully unexpected twist on the monsters universe, leaving the audience with that satisfied feeling of putting the last piece into a puzzle they’ve been working on for years.

Pixar's Monsters UniversityOverall, Monsters University is a barrel of laughs and good entertainment. The 3D effects are enjoyable, though not essential. Since anyone who has seen Monsters Inc. is familiar with the underlying parameters of Monstropolis, the film lacks that magical quality of discovering a new universe very different from our own. In Monsters University, the humor and characters are based more on the the similarities with our own culture and relationships, which leaves us with the a familiar warmth and renewed enthusiasm for these monsters, which, it turns out, are not so different from ourselves.


What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Corrie Francis Parks has shown her award-winning animated films on every continent except Antarctica. She looks forward to the day when she can count penguins among her fans.

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  1. It was a lot better than Cars 2 and better than Brave. It has equal amounts of wits and heart. It didn’t try hard at either like the two previous Pixar films. Loved it!

  2. Woow can’t wait to watch it! Thank you for the early review!!

  3. Nicholas Devin

    Love the review. I am actually pretty excited to see this movie. The trailers have been funny, and your review further supports this.

    • Corrie Parks

      I certainly laughed a lot and that’s one good thing about seeing it in the theater with everyone around you splitting their sides too!

    • Corrie Parks

      Yes, that’s one great thing about seeing it in the theater. When everyone around you is splitting their sides, it is so much more fun!

  4. Comic.Raul

    Nice review Corrie! I found that it was absolutely adorable, hilarious and perfectly in line with Monsters Inc. I had begun to worry that Pixar was losing its touch (much like Disney after the 90s golden age came to an end) with Cars 2 being mediocre and Brave being forgettable, but Monsters University was just awesome. It was essentially “Revenge of the Nerds” meets “Monsters Inc.” and the secondary characters are all so funny and cute. The whole movie is just too cute for words, and the animation is spectacular. It’s probably in the top-5 best Pixar films. Or my top-5 anyway!

  5. I agree with Nicholas, really excited to see this at some point. The question now is if it is worth seeing in the theater?

  6. Jordan

    I can’t wait to see this movie and you’ve just made me more excited 😀 i happen to like getting some decent backstory in there!! bahaha

  7. Michelle Webb

    Great review, reminds me how much I love Pixar and the Monsters Inc characters!

  8. Jessica Koroll

    I’ll admit, I was a little iffy about this film at first. It simply seemed like a strange direction to take a prequel and I wasn’t completely sure how I felt about it. This review has made me a little more excited for it though. It sounds like a fun movie and I’m willing to give it a shot.

  9. Kate Lovatt

    A great review and an enjoyable read. I like the variety of different aspects of the film you cover, particularly character and plot. The mention of the advancement in animation was interesting, as was the 3D comment. I tend to find that while animated films are indeed enjoyable in 3D, it’s not completely vital for the viewing. Can’t wait to see this film.

  10. Gemma Mary-Louise

    I have yet to see this film, but this review has made me want to! And I agree, watching this film is all about the character’s journey- not the outcome- because we know what is going to happen anyway! Also, watching American films like Monsters Inc. has familiarised myself with American teen culture definitely! Very enjoyable read 🙂

  11. As a freshman in college, Monsters University seemed to strategically placed with my generation’s college experience. The struggles that these characters that we know and love are relatable: monsterous professors, the struggle to meet new friends, the roommate that you know will later become a worst enemy — and the desire to belong. College in the world of Monsters University parallels the hardships that my generation is discovering now, and teaching us some valuable lessons.

    1. First impressions aren’t always accurate.
    2. Never give up on your dreams.
    3. Don’t discount people you don’t truly know.
    4. Hard work pays off.
    5. Never give up on yourself.
    6. You don’t have to do things alone.
    7. Be part of a group that accepts you.
    8. Different is okay.
    9. Some people are mean, deal with it.
    10. Stand up for what you believe and what you want.

    Disney/Pixar has once again provided life lessons in a fictional world that tell us more about ourselves than many “reality” tv shows ever could. The struggles that the characters go through are ones that we ourselves have faced (ok, in varying degrees), and provide the hope that we too can achieve our dreams.

  12. Riviera Handley
    Riviera De TyTy

    Hitherto, I have yet to watch this film.

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