MOVIE REVIEW: Monsters University



I hate to pile on and join the growing voice of rising dissent, but Pixar is slipping a little.  Three years ago, during my website's first year, I gave Toy Story 3 as high and as perfect of a review as possible for any movie, let alone an animated movie from Disney and a second sequel.  The movie went on to become a billion dollar worldwide hit.  Finishing a renaissance period of spectacularly poignant and successful movies like Up, Wall-E, and Ratatouille that made money and scored with critics to the tune of Oscar nominations outside of the tailor-made Best Animated Feature category, Toy Story 3 set a high bar that has yet to be matched.  I'm beginning to think it's going to be a while until it is.

As fun as it was, Cars 2 wasn't anything special.  Last year, Bravethe noble attempt of Pixar to tell their first original fairy tale and add to the Disney "Princess" roster, was also a step down in many eyes, despite winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.  I can't name another scenario at another movie studio where winning an Oscar would be a disappointment, but it feels that way with Brave.

That's how astronomically high the Pixar bar has gotten after their first 15 years peaked withToy Story 3.  The last three years of minor slips look huge when compared to perfection.  It's too bad too, because there really isn't anything wrong with their movies.  Pixar is so good at what they do and better than everyone else that even a step down for them is still better than 90% of the rest of animated or family entertainment from every other studio.  Even the disappointment from a so-called step down doesn't really sting, but it adds up.  They have cushioning to slip up here and there, but for how long can they just skate by before we get turned off waiting for perfection?

Their latest annual release for this year, Monsters University, an ambitious and highly spirited prequel to the mega-successful Monsters, Inc. from 2001, continues this minor trend of slipping.  In this film, we get to see how the diminutive, one-eyed straight arrow Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) first met and befriended his hulking scare superstar best friend James P. Sullivan (voiced by John Goodman) in college.  They also set-up the original villain Randall (voiced by Steve Buscemi).  Unfortunately,  Monsters University is the next victim of the insanely high Pixar bar.  Let me just say it now.  There's nothing wrong with the film at all.  It's well-performed, highly imaginative, funny at times, compelling other times, but just doesn't have that extra magic and poignancy that we are used to, and now expect, from Pixar.  As fun as it is, it comes off like a disappointment.  

Our two future Monsters, Inc. heroes meet at Monsters University, an idyllically-spikey and perfect college campus.  The usual college cliques and cliches are all here.  You've got the hot medusa monster sorority house of chicks, Python Nu Kappa, or PNK for short.  You've got the scowling goth, artsy miscreant group HSS and, naturally, you've got the alpha male jock frat house ROR.  Looking like an animated monster version of the Alpha Betas from Revenge of the Nerds, the dominant scaring house on campus is Roar Omega Roar, led by their cocky collar-popping president Johnny Worthington (a perfectly cast Nathan Fillion).  Their polar opposite Revenge of the Nerds Lambda Lambda Lambda equivalent is Oozma Kappa (just OK) of total nerds and rejects.  They are kind of like NBC's Community band of weirdos next to the others.

As you expect, Mike Wazowski is the perpetual nerd and hard-worker who gets by as a "scare major" on smarts, studying, and brains.  Sullivan is your token alpha male and son of a great scaring family tradition, who never studies and gets by on pure ability.  Naturally, these two start as fierce rivals.  When they both cross the strict Dean Hardscrabble (voiced by Helen Mirren) during the winter final, Mike and Sully are kicked out of the scare major program.  Their only way to earn admission back in is by joining a fraternity and winning the campus Scare Games competition.  As flunked students, the only fraternity that can take them is Oozma Kappa, thus starting the underdog and competition story of team-building that paces the movie.

As an adult that went to college (albeit a small one), the Pixar creators nail all of the fun (and G-rated appropriate) aspects of college life and give it their signature monster theme makeover.  The details to catch with the eye are endless.  The references and allusions to campus life and shenanigans are all spot on and very clever throughout the movie.  Like the unique factory setting and door universe from the first film, the Scare Games competition events that make up the action sequences are imaginative and uniquely creative.  The Pixar quality of animation in each of those aspects is perfect, without question.  The musical palette of blending Randy Newman's score with drumline cadences is great for giving the movie an energetic school spirit and tone.

However, here's the thing.  I'm a 33-year-old college-educated adult.  I've been there and will get every single one of the jokes and references.  I can spot all of it, get into the drumline, and enjoy all of it.  I did too.  I had a blast watching it, but a seven-year-old elementary kid is not.  All of the creativity and humor of Monsters University is going to go blazing over their heads.  In crowded auditorium of families and kids, us adults laughed way more than the kids.  That shouldn't happen.  Sure, we all got to see Billy Crystal and John Goodman banter again, but we could have popped the DVD in at home.

There's nothing wrong with the writers and animators throwing us adults a few jokes.  I appreciate that effort, especially when most of us adults aren't as interested as the shirt-tugging, merchandise-fueled kids that dragged us there.  The trouble is the humor majority can't land on our half of the scale.  The children I we're with and some I heard from later through social media friends were bored.  The kids I shared a show with laughed more for the yellow minions in the trailer for Despicable Me and the racing snails of the Turbo trailer before the main feature than for many of the antics in Monsters University.  That's the wrong balance and the wrong direction for a Pixar movie to go.

Still, as aforementioned, a slip or disappointing final product by Pixar is still better than an overwhelming majority of the other family-skewing crap that lands in theaters.  Monsters University has enough fun to still entertain, but it's not going to hit you with wonder the way Toy Story 3 or Up did years ago.  Even though it's probably an unfair bar of comparison, that's what is expected and that's what Monsters University is going to be judged against, fairly or unfairly.  The traditional animated short before the feature presentation, The Blue Umbrella, a sweet dialogue-less little story of smitten umbrellas with smiling architecture around them, is a nice bonus and future Oscar winner, but Monsters University is not going to get as lucky as Brave did last year.

LESSON #1: YOU CAN'T GET BY ON BRAINS AND SMARTS ALONE-- The easiest thing for my education angle as a critic is that Disney/Pixar lessons are loud and clear to follow.  As with all redemptive Disney heros that have to learn before succeedign, Mike Wazowski's flaw is that he is all smarts, but just not instinctively scary.  He's the best there is at planning and knowing what to do, but doesn't have the talent to execute the full job.  His opposite is next.

LESSON #2: YOU CAN'T GET BY ON RAW TALENT AND ABILITY EITHER-- On the other side, you've got the strapping Sully.  He's got all the talent in the world to scare and be a true monster, but doesn't study a lick and brings no thought or expertise to the table.  He has to learn that he can't get by on ability alone.  You've got to put the work in or at least be part of a team that helps with that.  That segues nicely to the finish.

LESSON #3: THE IMPORTANCE OF BECOMING AND WORKING AS A TEAM-- Without a doubt, between Mike's brains and expertise and Sully's sheer ability and talent, they each have what it takes to be great scarers and great leaders, but, as new students and rivals, they haven't gotten there yet.  The haven't learned the importance of becoming, trusting, and working as parts of a team, especially when they run circles around the other Oozma Kappa oddballs.  They learn that bringing people together, inspiring others, and succeeding together, are all great qualities of teamwork.