Review: ‘Monsters University’
My faith in Pixar has not been tested. I just want to get that out there first. Fourteen features in and many movie buffs are (justly) questioning the magic. I’ll be the first to tell you, ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ deserved the Best Animated Feature Oscar over ‘Brave’ and that Pixar should be doing more original properties. But the studio is still operating at a level above so many of their contemporaries and ‘Monsters University’ is clear evidence of that.
After almost two decades, Pixar has not let go of the pursuit of a well-laid story. The story beats of ‘MU’ are wisely arranged and often times surprising. [SPOILERS HERE IN] Act one ends with Mike and Sully literally bombing their first semester final and getting booted from the scaring program. A lesser movie would have put their do-or-die final at the end of the film. Instead, that’s just the set up for a bigger, more interesting pursuit that then unfolds. Act two ends with a massive fake finale and a believable yet unexpected twist. As for act three … This is the part of the review where I bring up the obligatory “prequels are inherently unsurprising” idea. You already know how it’s going to end. But ‘MU’ isn’t interested in just telling the story that leads up to ‘Monsters Inc.’ They’re after the genesis of Mike and Sully’s friendship and how they became the “men” we know today.
Unfortunately though, they still have to draw the line to ‘Monsters Inc.’ and in doing so they appear to invalidate all of ‘Monsters University.’ So here’s what happpened. The climax of the film is wonderfully tense and emotional but Mike and Sully’s actions can end no where but in expulsion. It wouldn’t ring true if they had been accepted back into the scaring program after such a destructive, dangerous and highly illegal move. So they’re cast out and end up taking jobs in the mailroom at Monsters Inc. A montage then shows them rising through the ranks and eventually becoming the scarers we knew them as today. Wait, I thought this movie was about them learning to be scarers at college? Why did they even go to college if they could have just done it that way from the beginning? One can imagine this argument among the filmmakers in a Pixar back office somewhere. But if we look back on their year at college they did learn to become scarers and we are taught the valuable lesson that the path to your dreams is likely not what you thought it would be. Connecting the two films in this way actually cures the problem of prequels being unable to stand on their own.
Like the lesson of following the unexpected path, we learn that the path to your best companions is hardly a straight line. In a clever nod to our preexisting knowledgr of Mike and Sully’s friendship, on his first day, the small green cyclops stands infront of his dorm room door and says my future best friend is in there. But when he walks in, it’s Steve Buscemi’s disappearing lizard welcoming him to school, not John Goodman’s furry beast.
For all that ‘Monsters University’ (seemingly) borrows from ‘Animal House’ and ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ it is full of these flourishes. It sends up college lifestyle and how it’s representated in our culture while creating another fully realized alien world. Monsters Unversity not only looks real in its animated rendering but in its intangible presence.
The returning actors slip so easily back into these roles. Goodman again vanishes inside Sully, while Crystal is more distinguishable but fitting as ever. Welcome additions in the form of Josh Gad, Bobby Moynihan and Nathan Fillion only elevate the sharp universal humor. Moynihan in particular has an uncanny knack for stealing every moment he’s presented.
‘Monsters University’ has the distinct disadvantages of coming second in a series and being a prequel story. The novelty of the Monsters universe vanished with the first film, but they more than made up for it with a wealth of new and unexplored. The relationship building and emotions all land. But if nothing else ‘Monsters University’ is proof that there may be some surprises in a story you thought you already knew.
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