Directed by: Dan Scanlon
Written by: Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson and Dan Scanlon
Starring: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Charlie Day, Nathan Fillion
Pixar has taken a beating over the past few years, stumbling from their perch high above all other animation studios to prove that they are indeed mortal and capable of making mistakes. In particular, their decision to start greenlighting more sequels has been met with much criticism, perhaps even unfairly so. Sure, Cars 2 was a disgrace, but let’s not forget that both of the Toy Story sequels were fantastic. Sequels don’t need to be dull and uninspired, it all depends on whether or not you have a story that is worth telling.
The idea of returning to the world of Monsters Inc. is something that I was more than willing to consider. The original was released back in 2001 and has since been somewhat overshadowed by their more recent successes like Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Wall-E. It contained some pretty memorable characters and a colourful, interesting world… in other words, the perfect base to build upon. As it turns out, Monsters University doesn’t break new ground but it is a lot of fun. Even if it doesn’t completely restore your faith in Pixar, it is at least a step in the right direction.
Monsters University is not a sequel but rather a prequel, taking us back to Mike and Sulley’s college years. They weren’t the best of friends during their freshman year; Mike was a hard-working know-it-all who was serious about his studies while Sulley was a naturally gifted slacker who hung out with the cool crowd. When their personal competition leads to an incident, however, they find themselves both about to be kicked out of the scaring program. Their only chance at redemption is the Scare Games, an annual series of scaring challenges between fraternities. If they can win, they will be allowed back in, but in order to do so they also need to rely on the ragtag crew of Oozma Kappa, the only frat house willing to accept them.
The movie starts off strong with a scene showing a young Mike Wazowski on a class trip to Monsters Inc., a nostalgic reminder of that moment where we all figure out what we want to be when we grow up. There is that instant feeling of Pixar inventiveness as they take something familiar and turn it on its head and we get the impression that we are in for something special. The idea of people going to school to learn to be Scarers initially seems like a novel concept. Studying different phobias and practicing various types of scares leads to some amusing moments and creative animation work from the talented team at Pixar.
Once the main plot is set in motion, however, things get a little bit less inspired. It is here that Monsters University simply becomes a rehash of every frat comedy you’ve ever seen from Revenge of the Nerds and Animal House to Old School. It doesn’t directly parody too many scenes or characters, but it does feel awfully familiar. While that could still be fun, the movie fails to add its own spin, playing things a little too predictably.
To be fair, writers Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson and director Dan Scanlon do try to defy expectations at certain points. A third act complication keeps things from being a complete cake walk, and the very idea that Mike and Sully aren’t immediate best friends is somewhat interesting. Unfortunately, they are also held back by the limitations inherent to a prequel, which is that we essentially know where everyone is going to end up. Strangely, when it comes to Monsters Inc. villain Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi), he quite literally fades into the background and doesn’t quite get the attention you might expect.
It seems to have been a conscious decision to avoid bringing back too many characters from Monsters Inc., so instead they introduce a whole new cast of monsters that are cute, if not overly funny or memorable. Dave and Sulley’s Oozma Kappa frat mates include the meek, middle-aged Don (Joel Murray), two-headed Terri and Terry (Sean Hayes and Dave Foley), the shy Squishy (Peter Sohn), and wacky Art (Charlie Day). Helen Mirren deserves mention for voicing Dean Hardscrabble, a dragon-like monster with an intimidating presence that feels like a teacher straight out of Harry Potter. Nathan Fillion is also a stand out as the cocky and condescending president of the prestigious Roar Omega Roar. Of course, you don’t necessarily realize that the new characters are a little lacklustre until a familiar supporting character turns up at the end of the movie and makes them instantly pale in comparison.
If it sounds like Monsters University is a little bit disappointing, that’s because it does fall short of many of Pixar’s previous masterpieces. It plays things pretty safe and is definitely runs a little short on Pixar magic. Still, it’s a cut above most of the other animated movies out there and if you’re a fan of Monsters Inc., it is guaranteed to give you warm and fuzzy feelings inside. Pixar earns a solid passing grade for this one, and I might even consider taking them off academic probation. — Sean