Monsters University Review: A Scarily Familiar Story
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.
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 Off, Animal House, Revenge 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.
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!
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.
Overall, 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.
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