No match for Pixar’s best work, but a step in the right direction after some recent disappointments
Mike and Sully are back, but they are not friends till the end – well, at least not until the third act. It’s as if Pixar Animation Studios took a look at MONSTERS INC. and said, “The Mike-Sully relationship is just as good as Buzz and Woody, but it’s as if we skipped straight to TOY STORY 2, without ever getting to see them meet and become pals, so let’s go back and do that.” That’s right: MONSTERS UNIVERSITY takes the well-worn prequel path of leading up to what we already know, instead of showing us something new – or at least that’s how it seems initially. In fact, the new film is very much the Mike Wazowski story: it’s about the little guy who dreams big; who works harder than everyone else because, frankly, he doesn’t have the natural skills; and who must, ultimately, find a different path to success from the one he anticipated, because he’s never going to be the heavyweight champion he imagined. It’s a great message for children and a poignant reminder for adults: everyone has something to offer; the “cool” kids aren’t always cool; and sometimes the underdog has his day – though perhaps not quite in the manner he expected.
PLOT SUMMARY (MINOR SPOILERS)
After a school field trip to Monsters, Inc., the one-eyed Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) decides he wants to be a scarer when he grows up. To that end, he studies and earns admission to Monsters University, where he meets the over-confidant James Sullivan (John Goodman). “Sully,” as he is known to his friends, is a legacy student, coasting on his father’s reputation and his own natural abilities, which he does not bother to hone.Mike, meanwhile, works diligently, but an accident in class gets both of them kicked out of the university’s scare program.
Mike and Sully’s only chance to get back in is by winning the “Scare Games,” but to qualify, they have to join a fraternity, and the only one with vacancies is made up of losers, known as Oozma Kappa. Fortunately, Mike’s know-how and Sully’s skills propel the group to success as a team, but the final game requires each individual monster to prove his scare-skills, and Sully (well aware of Mike’s deficiency) rigs the results, which gets both of them expelled.
Determined to prove himself, Mike goes through a scare-door but finds himself trapped in a sleep-away camp filled with children who are not afraid of him. Sully goes through the door to aid his friend, but he lacks the confidence to be truly scary in a real-world situation. However, working together, they literally blow the door off the place….
COMMENTS (END SPOILERS)
I was never a huge fan of MONSTERS, INC. Though entertaining, it is not rich enough to stand up to multiple viewings as well as other Pixar classics; its main strength lies in the Mike-Sully relationship. Transplanting that element to an earlier time and a different setting engenders some new comic possibilities but not enough to sustain the follow-up as more than a mildly amusing time-waster that follows the typical prequel “surprise” strategy: Mike and Sully don’t like each other initially; the first film’s villain, Randall (Steve Buscemi), seems like a nice guy at first; and so on.
Fortunately, when the story moves beyond playing with our expectations about the familiar characters, the message about teamwork and learning to use one’s own personal resources enlivens MONSTERS UNIVERSITY; the well-executed third especially justifies the film’s existence as something more than a way to cash in on a successful predecessor.
Long before they realize it themselves, the audience sees that Mike and Sully are complimentary talents – the brains and the brawn, if you will . Mike is the self-made man, pulling himself up through determination. Sully is unformed raw material, impulsive, expecting success to come easy but afraid of failing to meet expectations implanted by his famous name. The benefits of collaboration are foreshadowed when their combined, if not premeditated, efforts capture a rival university’s mascot. From there, it may be predictable that they will succeed only when they become a team, but the result is no less satisfying.
The message extends beyond them. Midway through, when the Oozma Kappa (that reads “OK” in abbreviated form, get it?) are dispirited about their chances of winning, there is a brilliant sequence in which Mike sneaks them into Monsters, Inc. and shows them a scare-floor full of workers – none of whom have anything obvious in common. The point: you can’t tell who’s the best just by looks; each scarer uses his or her own personal skills; what seems like weaknesses may be hidden strengths; and everyone needs to develop what he or she can do best, rather than striving to conform an established norm. Sure, it’s basically REVENGE OF THE NERDS redone as a CG Muppet movie, but it works.
VISUALS AND 3D
The screenplay may be a mixed bag, but the visual execution is state-of-the-art, without being ostentatious. The backgrounds and the characters are so detailed that they seem almost palpable; we may be reaching the point where the champions of stop-motion effects can no longer point to the tactile textures of miniature models as a point of superiority over computer-generated animation. Mike and Sully are rendered even better than before, and there are some nifty new characters, too, including Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), an insectoid monster with demonic wings, who cleverly skirts the edge of the light while addressing students, seldom emerging fully from the shadows.
These qualities are magnified by some of the most beautiful 3D visual ever captured on screen. Unlike too many post-production conversions today (including MONSTERS, INC.), we are not seeing a simple separation of foreground and background elements. The characters and the props have depth. There is a curvature to Sully’s bulk that makes him appear almost real on screen. A nighttime seen beside a lake illuminated by a full moon extends from the edges of the movie screen and into the distance like a landscape viewed through a window.
The expressive capabilities of the animation are also amazing. The one-eyed Mike, in particular, has an amazing range, and it’s not the CGI equivalent of scenery chewing, either: a blink, a downcast look – these are the simple building blocks the animators use to show the mix of determination and self-doubt that make the little green guy come alive.
And the filmmakers know when to use all these elements in the service of a great set-piece. The games provide ample opportunities for visual fun (including a massive librarian-octopus who seems to have crept out of a Lovecraft story), but director Dan Scanlon is clever enough to modulate the mayhem, turning the volume up to 9 but saving the 10 for the end, which offers an unexpected highlight: a scene that takes familiar horror tropes suitable to a FRIDAY THE 13TH knockoff (dark cabin in the woods, rustling shadows, and scratching claws – all building up to the final reveal of the monster) and uses them as deftly as any live action movie. Especially impressive: for once, we in the audience are on the side of the monsters, but that does not diminish the sinister tension of the scene. This is MONSTER UNIVERSITY’s true “money scene,” the one that makes you realize you just got everything you paid for when you purchased your ticket.
Needless to say, MONSTERS UNIVERSITY is very funny. A bit less expected: in the counter-programming sweepstakes with WORLD WAR Z (which opened the same weekend), Pixar’s G-rated film boasts an animated scare sequence that rivals Brad Pitt’s live-action trek through a zombie-infested corridor. More successfully than the PG-13 rival, MONSTER UNIVERSITY’s horror-movie-style climax completes character arcs that tease out previously unseen nuances in the familiar characters, bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion while setting up the events that will follow. The script even avoids the obvious, easy resolution, offering Mike and Sully a less expected route that will lead to MONSTERS, INC.
The virtues of MONSTERS UNIVERSITY are not enough to raise the film to the level of Pixar’s best work: TOY STORY 2, THE INCREDIBLES, CARS. Although it is fun to see Mike and Sully back in action, I’m not sure the sequel is even as good as its predecessor. Nevertheless, after the double disappointment of CAR 2 and BRAVE, this is a small step back in the right direction.
On the CFQ Review Scale of zero to five stars, a moderate recommendation.
Note: MONSTERS UNIVERSITY is preceded by THE BLUE UMBRELLA, a cute Pixar short subject, in which common street objects (drain pipes, mail boxes) are given subtly anthropomorphized expressions. The simple story follows the titular umbrella (which looks like the real thing, but with animated features) meeting a pink (presumably female) counterpart. Their owners separate, but a gust of wind brings them back together. It’s vaguely similar to last year’s Oscar-winning short subject, PAPERMAN; though not quite as satisfying artistically, THE BLUE UMBRELLA features very impressive computer graphics to bring its street scene to life.
MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (Walt Disney Pictures & Pixar Animation Studios: June 21, 2013). Rated G. Running time: 110 minutes. Directed by Dan Scanlon. Writers: Robert L Baird, Daniel Gerson, Dan Scanlon. Voices: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, Peter Sohn, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Charlie Day, Alfred Molina, Tyler Labine, Nathan Fillon, Aubrey Plaza, Bobby Moynihan, Noah Johnston, Julia Sweeney, Bonnie Hunt, John Krasinski, John Ratzenberger.