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Friday, June 21, 2013

Review: Monsters University

It's another year, so it must be time for another Pixar movie.  Not 3 years ago, it seemed like Pixar could do no wrong, despite releasing what could have easily been a big disaster if not handled correctly: Toy Story 3.  Pixar, however, would prove once again that anyone who doubted them would end up feeling very stupid as they proved they could bring an incredibly moving, entertaining, and funny end to the franchise which established them as a legitimate film company.  Over the past three years, we have seen Pixar lose a bit of its shine after that huge success.  Perhaps it was meant to be.  After a string of amazing films with Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up,  and Toy Story 3, maybe it made sense that we would have to sit through some not so great ones.  Cars 2 ended up being a huge mistake for Pixar not financially, but in terms of their integrity.  This was a studio that could make you cry at a robot falling in love and they decided to go back to their most annoying franchise to date?  Brave is actually a very underrated film, but it was not met with as much hype as Pixar's previous releases.  Now Pixar is yet again returning to one of their established films.  In 2001, Monsters, Inc. was a huge hit and still holds up today as one of their better movies.  While many would certainly rather have had another Incredibles, Pixar could have gone in a lot worse directions than Monsters University.  But could the studio that proved it could make an effective sequel (ignoring Cars 2, obviously) do just was well with their first prequel?  It's time to find out.

Taking place a number of years before the 2001 film, Monsters University  tells the story of a young monster named Mike Wazowski, who wants nothing more than to be the greatest scarer that ever lived.  Once Mike is settled in at Monsters University, however, he begins to realize that being a scarer may be a lot harder than it looks.  Meanwhile, a young James P. Sullivan believes that, because his dad is famous for scaring, getting a degree from Monsters University's prized Scare College will be a piece of cake.  As both Mike and Sulley's paths collide, the two opposites will have to learn to work together if they want any hope of making their dreams come true.

At a very basic level, much of Monsters University is exactly what we were sold in the trailers: a parody of college movies, but with monsters instead of people.  It is a little under-whelming to see Pixar pick such an easy target for this movie when they have been known for more intelligent film writing in the past.  WALL-E was a brilliant if not a little too obvious criticism of our growing love of consumerism and fossil fuels, but it was written beautifully.  Monsters University has only a somewhat mediocre script.  If you have been to college or seen enough movies about college, you can probably guess where much of this movie goes in terms of plot.  Mike goes to college, meets his roommate, finds out college is hard, goes to a wild frat party, joins a dorky frat, enters dorky frat in a competition between fraternities and sororities.  The plot is so basic here that it almost makes one wonder if this was Disney Animation or Dreamworks behind the helm.  Sadly, it's Pixar.  Though the story is incredibly predictable for much of the film, it is still written well enough that you don't mind some of the tropes of the college movie.  Perhaps it is just knowing that Pixar can do better and has done better that makes much of this movie's story such a disappointment.  Where things get really interesting, however, is when the competition, aptly named the Scare Games, wraps up with about 15 minutes of run time to spare.  This is where the movie actually becomes interesting; this is where it breaks the mold and actually starts to feel like more of a Pixar film.  As the movie goes along, Mike realizes something a bit disheartening: he's not actually that scary.  It's tough to realize halfway through your freshman year that you've picked the wrong major, ask just about any college student.  Showing some of his never say quit attitude we saw in the first film, however, Mike is determined to prove he is the best scarer.  While what happens will not be spoiled here, it is worth noting that this is when Mike and Sulley's relationship begins to become believable and it is when the movie starts to get very, very good.  Shame the writers had to wait until the last 20 minutes to actually produce something on the level of some of Pixar's best work.

If Pixar's greatest films excel at three things, those would be story, heart and humor.  As Monsters University struggles a bit with story, how does it do with the other two?  Sadly, it struggles with those a little bit as well.  Fortunately, the film does not spoil most of its more funny moments in the trailer.  Although there are quite a few good jokes in this movie, it is not a big laugh out loud comedy by any stretch of the imagination.  In fact, anyone bringing smaller children to this film may find the little ones getting bored.  At the particular showing this reviewer went to, more children laughed at the Smurfs 2 trailer than the entirety of Monsters University.  As can be expected with a movie that is spoofing college films, only those who understand the types of jokes that go with those films would find most of the jokes and scenarios funny.  This is not to say that Monsters University goes into any of the more raunchy jokes known to inhabit a college movie, in fact it is probably the most tame college movie in the history of film.  Members of the loser fraternity Oozma Kappa will steal the most laughs out of anyone of the film, but they also are the only source of emotional depth to carry most of this film.  What easily made Monsters, Inc. such a great movie was the heartfelt story about the little girl named Boo.  Since Boo is understandably absent in this film, Pixar had to make someone the emotional center.  Unfortunately, that emotional center ends up being Mike Wazowski, but it is very hard to feel too sorry for him when you know the person he will become in the future.  Much like the story of this film finally finds its sweet spot with 15-20 minutes left to go, the same can be said of the film's heart.  Once the friendship between Mike and Sulley that we have all been waiting for is finally established, then the movie finally shows some emotion.  This budding friendship and the emotional side of the Ooozma Kappa brothers make for some of the more heartfelt moments of the film.  Again, why did Pixar hold off on this key element until the film was almost over?

One thing Pixar never gets wrong in one of their movies: the voice actors.  Perhaps it is because any actor knows that being a Pixar movie means a pretty decently sized paycheck, but these films are always able to have some of the best casts.  As expected, John Goodman and Billy Crystal return to voice Sulley and Mike respectively.  Both of these actors do an excellent job of easily falling back into their roles, though that is a bit difficult to say as we see the characters become those roles throughout the film.  What is amazing to see is the way these actors sound both like the characters from Monsters, Inc. as well as much younger than we know them to be.  Whether Pixar edited their voices to sound like they were in their late teens, or Goodman and Crystal spent a lot of time rehearsing, either way the voices sound perfect to the characters respective ages.  Billy Crystal perhaps does the best out of the duo, but how can you hate John Goodman?  Steve Buscemi also returns in his role as Randall Boggs, a part that his been somewhat hidden in the marketing for this film.  Though Randall's story in this movie is completely expected, it is still a fun arc to see take place, particularly a scene featuring Randall racing against Sulley in a bit of foreshadowing to their future competition.  Out of all of the newer actors coming into the franchise with this film, easily the most talked about role will be Nathan Fillion as Johnny Worthington, a frat boy monster who is one of the film's antagonists.  As one may expect, Fillion is perfect as the bully jock with all of the lack of emotional depth such characters are known for.  Helen Mirren is stand out as Dean Hardscrabble, the head of the Scare College at Monsters University.  Mirren is the primary antagonist of the film, and she is one of the most visually interesting creatures in the entire film (a strange dragon and centipede combination).  With the Oozma Kappa gang, Peter Sohn and Joel Murray give easily the most stand out performances as Squishy and Don respectively.  John Ratzenberger makes his famous Pizar voice cameo at the very end of the film and it is a very nice reference to Monsters, Inc.

Since this is an animated film, it seems like it would be worth our time to discuss something we do not get a chance to talk about much here at Geek Rex: animation.  One of the things that made Toy Story 3 such an amazing film was to be able to see the way not only technological capabilities, but Pixar's animation skills had improved in the years since Toy Story 2.  The same can be said with Monsters University.  Believe it or not, but it has been 12 years since Monsters, Inc. and this movie does an excellent job of showing just how far animation has come in just those 12 years.  Mike and Sulley look similar, but their design has changed just enough that you can tell they are younger, which is saying a lot considering Mike's very simplistic design to begin with.  As this film has a much larger cast of monsters than the one it is set before, this gives Pixar an excellent chance to design some fantastic looking characters. Some of the character design feels like what we saw in Monsters, Inc., but many of these creatures feel completely new and refreshing.  While Pixar may have been able to create this large of a cast back in 2001, it seems unlikely that they would be given the level of detail that they are in this film.  The textures, particularly the way fur is used, are absolutely stunning throughout the film.  In one of the best uses of 3D in the entire movie, there are times where Sulley is in the foreground, some of his fur sticking out of the screen, making one almost want to reach out and pet him.  Water effects and the look of general wetness is something which has improved tremendously since 2001.  Unfortunately this is yet another Pixar release that is done in 3D.  This may be Pixar's best use of 3D in terms of depth to date, but you would probably not be missing out much by opting for the cheaper 2D ticket.

As a whole, Monsters University is not a terrible or underwhelming film by any stretch of the imagination.  Die hard Pixar fans should be more than pleased as the movie contains numerous hints at Monsters, Inc. and does a good job of telling us what these characters were like before they were best friends.  Easily the film's weakest link is that much of the story feels far too familiar and it could perhaps do with about 10 minutes being shaved off the run time as it also feels very long on an initial viewing.  Losing that 10 minutes would have also helped the film to move more quickly from predictable college movie spoof to heartfelt, buddy movie.  If you are wanting to see this movie out of a love for Monsters, Inc., you will probably not be too terribly disappointed, but it does not top that film by any means.  Pixar is still wavering a bit after the success of Toy Story 3, but Monsters University is a good step back in the right direction.  With Pixar's next scheduled releases being original films, one can hope the animation studio can get back to that level of greatness it used to be in terms of quality movies.  Finding Nemo fans may want this to happen even more as Finding Dory will be the next Pixar sequel after those two original films.  

Rating: B

Summary: Monsters University is a good prequel with humor that appeals more to adults than kids (not in that way) and does an excellent job of showing just how far animation has come in the past dozen years.  The story tries a little too hard for much of the film to be a spoof of typical college movies, but, once it finds its heart, it gets strikingly close to some of Pixar's better films.
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