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Monsters University Movie Review

Monsters University (2013) movie poster Monsters University

Theatrical Release: June 21, 2013 / Running Time: 102 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: Dan Scanlon / Writers: Dan Scanlon, Daniel Gerson, Robert L. Baird (story & screenplay)

Voice Cast: Billy Crystal (Mike Wazowski), John Goodman (James "Jimmy" P. Sullivan), Steve Buscemi (Randy Boggs), Helen Mirren (Dean Hardscrabble), Peter Sohn (Scott "Squishy" Squibbles), Joel Murray (Don Carlton), Sean P. Hayes (Terri), Dave Foley (Terry), Charlie Day (Art), Alfred Molina (Professor Knight), Tyler Labine (Greek Council VP), Nathan Fillion (Johnny), Aubrey Plaza (Greek Council President Claire Wheeler), Bobby Moynihan (Chet), Noah Johnston (Young Mike Wazowski), Julia Sweeney (Ms. Squibbles), Bonnie Hunt (Mrs. Karen Graves), John Krasinski ("Frightening" Frank McCay), Bill Hader (Referee, Slug), Beth Behrs (PNK Carrie Williams), Bob Peterson (Roz), John Ratzenberger (Yeti)

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It is tough to believe that more time has passed since the release of Monsters, Inc. than had passed in between the second and third Toy Story films. Toy Story 3 felt like a warranted homecoming, Pixar's return to its flagship franchise and the series that started the world's ongoing love affair with computer animation. Monsters University feels more like a project greenlit to keep the studio on schedule for an annual summer theatrical release. Monsters, Inc. is a great film,
but greatness is relative for Pixar and I'd rank it in the bottom third of the studio's output to date, if their baker's dozen was divisible by three. Still it isn't the quality of the film, its characters or its universe that make a follow-up feel like a stretch. The story told in Monsters, Inc. was very much a poetically closed, once-in-a-lifetime tale that could not easily be reproduced or rechanneled.

Pixar tackles that issue by going in a completely different direction, making Monsters University their first prequel. A college campus comedy is a bit of a leap from a workplace comic adventure, though less so than the move from small-town comedy to international espionage thriller that Cars 2 asked us to swallow. The existence of Cars 2 and the memories of its disappointments just two summers ago may very well serve to save face for Pixar, inviting comments like "Well, it's not as bad/random/pandering/shamelessly commercial as Cars 2." All of which is true. And Monsters University is definitely not a bad movie, just one that falls short of the lofty standards established by the studio's fifteen years of making universally beloved masterpieces.

Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan have different levels of enthusiasm for Monsters University's scarer program.

University does not find Pixar swinging for the fences or aiming to extend a new streak of Best Animated Feature glory. Their goals are the more reasonable ones typically aspired to by their fellow animated studios: to create a piece of entertainment that audiences of all ages enjoy. The film's modest ambition is evident from the B-team assigned to work on it. Monsters, Inc. director Pete Docter, who also wrote and directed Up, has nothing to do with this prequel. Dan Scanlon makes his feature directing debut after having contributed to Cars
and co-helmed spin-off short Mater and the Ghostlight. Sharing story and screenplay credit with Scanlon are Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird, veteran animation scribes who both worked on the original film. Adding to a Pixar tradition of replaced directors is Presto's Doug Sweetland, an animator at the studio since the first Toy Story who winds up with no credit whatsoever here.

Monsters University opens with Mike Wazowski as a friendless young child on a school field trip to Monsters, Inc. There, as awestruck as any of his classmates, he finds his calling and even gets a souvenir to remind him of his destiny: a Monsters University hat given to him by an alumnus who has become a top scarer at the corporation. Yes, despite the blue collar nature of the work, one apparently needs higher education to land a job at Monsters, Inc. Thus, Mike (now voiced, once again, by 65-year-old Billy Crystal) enrolls in MU's scarer program.

No one believes the short, green, one-eyed creature has what it takes to scare human children in nighttime visits to their bedroom (their screams, you'll recall, power Monstropolis). Not the legendarily stern dragon Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), nor the large, furry, easygoing legacy student Jimmy P. Sullivan (John Goodman). It's not best friendship at first sight for Mike and Sulley, as Sulley joins the coolest fraternity on campus, Roar Omega Roar, while Mike is accepted only by the joke that is Oozma Kappa. That fraternity of nerds lives in the house of one member's mother and includes an old guy (Joel Murray), a monster with two conflicting heads (Dave Foley and Sean Hayes), and a handle-shaped wild card (Charlie Day).

After a disastrous final exam folly gets both Mike and Sulley booted from the scarer program, they see the Scare Games as their only way back in, a wager agreed upon with the doubting Dean Hardscrabble. To render Oozma Kappa eligible for the Games, Sulley joins Mike and the misfits. Wouldn't you know it, the underdogs narrowly stave off elimination through each challenging round that has them dodging toxic objects and a strict librarian.

Monsters University doesn't end until around twenty minutes after you think it is wrapping up its competition. While that outcome is predictable, what follows is less so, though it provides redemption for those who need it.

Mike Wazowski arrives at Monsters University with a wide eye and a retainer. Mike, Sulley, and other aspiring scarers try to avoid toxic fruit in the first challenge of The Scare Games.

The once chasmic gap separating Pixar from the various other animation studios continues to narrow. Monsters University is a film that DreamWorks or Blue Sky could have made without obviously being their finest work to date. It's entertaining and shows a good deal of effort, but it doesn't serve to remind you that Pixar is the best in the business or convince you that you shouldn't have questioned the iffy premise. Yes, it is probably two clear steps above Cars 2, managing not to betray or undermine the good will generated by Monsters, Inc. But it doesn't have the heart, humor, or story to top the film that should have won the first Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

On the plus side, animation has come a really long way in twelve years. The visuals that wowed us back in Monsters, Inc. are sure to seem primitive when compared to the far more detailed, populated, and striking imagery that fills every frame here. University even manages to utilize 3D in creative ways you'll notice, like an impressively deep first look at the Scare Floor. Beyond Mike, who by some margin is the lead, and Sulley, few characters from the original film resurface. Reptilian villain Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi), who here goes by "Randy", is Mike's roommate and a fairly harmless Roar Omega Roar brother. Waternoose and Celia get pictorial representation. And a certain undercover bureaucrat makes a cameo in a Hazmat suit that can't hide her distinctive figure.

The hopeless monsters of Oozma Kappa: Art, Don Carlton, Squishy Squibbles, Terri & Terry, Mike Wazowski, and Jimmy P. Sullivan.

The last time that Pixar seemed to sacrifice a bit of artistic integrity to cash in on a popular brand, they sold a record-low number of tickets domestically. While there doesn't seem to be tremendous demand for Monsters University, I would be surprised if it didn't pass the $200 million mark that every post-2000 Pixar film except Cars 2 has. Matching Monsters, Inc.'s $256 M seems less certain and reaching the same sum adjusted for 12 years for ticket inflation ($358 M) seems almost impossible.
Pixar faces some typically fierce summer competition, most directly and substantially from Despicable Me 2 opening just twelve days later, but I'm sure the movie will perform fine commercially even before considering all of its ancillary revenues.

If a teaser trailer for Pixar's summer 2014 release, The Good Dinosaur, is placed before the film, it wasn't shown at my screening. What did precede University, however, was the Pixar short film The Blue Umbrella. It tells a story of two umbrellas who notice each other but get separated. It would be a lot more special if it didn't feel so much like Paperman, the Oscar-winning Disney short shown before Wreck-It Ralph. Technically, it is an impressive cartoon, as inanimate objects develop personalities in what looks like a live-action urban setting. In fact, it is Pixar giving us a taste of their ability to produce photorealistic computer animation. It's kind of scary that most viewers, myself included, will not be able to identify the utterly realistic city as CGI. The short is written and directed by three-time Pixar layout artist Saschka Unseld.

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Reviewed June 21, 2013.

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