Monsters University (Review)

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY
(6/21/13; Comedy, Animated; 3D)
Voices: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Peter Sohn, Charlie Day, Frank Oz, Helen Mirren, Alfred Molina, Nathan Fillion, Aubrey Plaza, Tyler Labine, John Krasinski, Bonnie Hunt, Bobby Moynihan, Julia Sweeney, Beth Behrs, John Ratzenberger
SCR: Daniel Gerson, Robert L. Baird, Dan Scanlon
DIR: Dan Scanlon
1 hour 42 mins
MPAA: G
(Disney/Pixar)

Monsters University is a largely unnecessary prequel to the 2001 Pixar delight Monsters Inc. But to put this in the same category as 2011’s soulless Cars 2 or the rote princess fairytale Brave is not fair. MU is infinitely more entertaining, a candy-colored comedy in which the message is to be faithful to yourself.

It serves as a prequel to Monsters Inc, and because 12 years separate the two films, now sets the earlier film up as the natural sequel. Not much happens in this movie. The world is not threatened and we know going into that nobody is going to die. There are no heady messages such as the end of childhood or the need to protect our planet. It’s just about a little guy named Mike Wozowski (Billy Crystal) with one big eyeball and an even bigger dream: to become the best scarer in the world.

The problem is that Mike is simply not scary. He’s book smart, driven, and full of heart, but he doesn’t possess an ounce of scare, a point driven home by just about everybody. Changing the brash character into a plucky underdog was a nice touch.

Even cannier was introducing future partner Sully (voiced by John Goodman) as kind of an entitled ass. Turns out he’s a “Sullivan,” which means he comes from a long line of legendary scarers. It also means he doesn’t have to try very hard, and will cheat if necessary, so we know what lesson he will be learning.

The Big Plot has to do with Mike and Sully getting bounced from the scare program, and deciding to compete in the Scare Games, a fraternal competition that could result in their reinstatement. They find themselves a part of Oozma Kappa, a fraternity made up of nerdy, misfit monsters, and of course, must learn to work together.

There are nods to other movies throughout. Young kiddos may not get the Animal House references but I did. There’s a wonderful moment when Mike on the bottom bunk, cradling Sully’s hanging hand and talking in his sleep, and he says “But you’re a princess and I’m just a stable boy.” And if I have to explain what that means, we have nothing more to talk about.

The voice work, by a large celebrity cast, is aces. Helen Mirren plays the sinewy Dean Hardscrabble, the headmistress of the MU scaring program who looks something like a dragon with the legs of a centipede. And of course, Pixar vet John Ratzenberger makes another appearance, this time coming full circle. No spoilers, but suffice it to say that his character sounds suspiciously like a certain mailman.

There are no surprises here whatsoever. Monsters University is buoyed by a scrappy level of energy throughout, and has a number of heartfelt moments, but nothing too serious. This is Pixar light, but it’s worth pointing out that while Cars 2 seemed designed entirely around the idea of selling more Cars toys, this breezy chapter just seems to want to entertain.

— DENNIS WILLIS

 

Author: Dennis Willis

Dennis Willis is an award-winning producer, TV host, producer, director, editor (he preferred Avid until a torrid affair with Adobe Premiere, and the rest is history), author and film critic (print and radio). Dennis produced and hosted the TV programs Reel Life, FilmTrip, Soundwaves (1983-2008) and produces the annual Soundwaves Xmas program. He is currently the film critic on KGO Radio in San Francisco, and a member of both the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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