REVIEW: Monsters University [2013]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: G | Runtime: 104 minutes | Release Date: June 21st, 2013 (USA)
Studio: Pixar Animation Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Director(s): Dan Scanlon
Writer(s): Daniel Gerson, Robert L. Baird & Dan Scanlon

“Technically I caught the pig”

I entered the theatre with low expectations and a willingness to be surprised, curious towards Monsters University’s trailers lacking plot description besides a generalized notion of witnessing Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and Jimmy “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman) becoming best friends. What would first-time Pixar feature-film director Dan Scanlon and co-writers Robert L. Baird and Daniel Gerson have up their sleeves? How would they fill the inevitable gaping hole of not bringing back the adorable Boo from Monsters, Inc. due to their newest installment’s status as a prequel? Still brimming with faith that Pixar would be the company to overcome such reservations and deliver on their legacy of box office and critical successes, it didn’t take long to realize the studio’s magic may have officially worn thin.

Last year’s Brave was a wonderful surprise return to form after a couple of disappointments following what was arguably the animation house’s best work, Up. People love Toy Story 3 to the point of misguidedly declaring it the best of the series, but to me it was a hollower continuation of a phenomenal saga that didn’t quite earn the emotional resonance its predecessors possessed in spades. It was hilarious—the funniest Pixar film yet—but that isn’t enough for a studio we rely upon to be the most advanced storytelling outfit around. Where it was a stumble, however, Cars 2 was a trip. Action-packed, funny, and an effective entry to almost anyone else’s portfolio, it just felt like someone suggested making an espionage film and the Cars characters proved an easy fit.

This is the mold Monsters University fills as well. It’s as though Scanlon and crew were watching Revenge of the Nerds and Old School on permanent repeat before a light bulb popped on the idea of retrofitting the formula for children. On paper it’s a great thematic construct for characters to learn how to be comfortable in their own skin and not succumb to bullying. An age-old creed we’ve seen countless times, Pixar unfortunately dropped the ball by forgetting they would need something more to accompany it. The stakes can’t simply be the expulsion of Mike and Sully from their college’s scaring program because whether they fail or not, we know they’ll eventually make it to Monsters, Inc. and become successes. The formula only truly works if the characters are brand new.

But Pixar had their idea and saw the potential a world of monsters contained in bringing it to fruition. They send Mike and Sulley off to college in stereotypical fashion—the former being book smart if not graced by the physique necessary to succeed while the latter figures he can skate by on instinct and reputation like always without actually learning a thing—before having their egos clash and Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) remove them from the program. Now full-blown rivals with no chance of living their dreams, it’s Mike’s confident wager at the Scare Games that provides them both one last shot. By joining a fraternity of big-hearted “jokes” to enter, winning the Olympic-like tournament can put them back on track. However, victory can only be achieved by learning humility and teamwork.

So in comes fun, eccentric characters like Oozma Kappa members Squishy (Peter Sohn), Don (Joel Murray complete with side mouth delivery), the two-headed Terri (Sean Hayes) and Terry (Dave Foley), and Art (Charlie Day) who all have one specific quality to help the team; Greek Council Scare Games commentators in the vein of Pitch Perfect and Dodgeball (Tyler Labine and Aubrey Plaza); and cute connections to Monsters, Inc. with Randy Boggs (Steve Buscemi) and John Ratzenberger’s yeti returning. They’re all great fodder for laughs in friendly competition with Dean Hardscrabble looking on in contemptuous intrigue. She and “cool” fraternity president Johnny (Nathan Fillion) are the closest we get to a villain because one isn’t necessary in a story about defeating personal self-doubt. The film is therefore nothing more than a cute anecdote.

Monsters, Inc. was so great because it turned its inherent trope on its head. Monsters that scare kids are insanely brave because human contact is believed fatal? Brilliant. Add in the heartwarming inclusion of Boo literally changing an entire world’s way of thinking and you have a work of transcendent power with laughs and action to boot. Monsters University retains the laughs—especially for fans of Crystal’s sensibilities being that he’s the real star here—but lacks the rest. A bunch of bulbous creatures running in a dark tunnel with fluorescent spiked orbs swelling bodies upon touching is a far cry from the door jumping adventure over a decade ago. Only a marginally suspenseful climactic interlude trapped in the human world adds something of substance and even then the result is a foregone conclusion.

Far from a horrible film, it’s just hard to accept it as more than fan-fiction exposition when compared to its source material. Where frat culture and competition works in adult oriented movies, those dynamics are easily lost on young children and about halfway through the film—when the real do or die moment of clarity is about to occur—the kids at my screening began to audibly lose focus. While the characters are perfectly-suited for plush doll cuteness and the physical humor hits its mark with all ages, the premise they’re in can’t connect like Andy’s bedroom or the Day Care Center of Toy Story. Perhaps I’m being overly hard on it simply because Pixar’s logo is at its front, but Monsters University is too one-dimensional for its pedigree.

[1] Archie the Scare Pig, Mike Wazowski and Sulley from Walt Disney Pictures’ Monsters University (2013)
[2] Don Carlton, Scott ‘Squishy’ Squibbles, Ms. Squibbles, Sulley, Mike Wazowski, Terri & Terry Perry from Walt Disney Pictures’ Monsters University (2013)
[3] Sulley, Archie the Scare Pig and Mike Wazowski from Walt Disney Pictures’ Monsters University (2013)

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