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For a Prequel, 'Monsters University' Is Almost Scary Good

Monsters University is far from being Pixar’s best, but as far as prequels go, there’s enough monster-filled college humor for viewers of all ages to enjoy.

Monsters University

Distributor: Disney
Cast: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Nathan Fillion, Helen Mirren
Rated: G
Release date: 2013-10-29

Twelve years and nine Disney/Pixar feature films after we met the one-eyed Mike Wazowski and the furry blue Sulley in Monsters, Inc., the wizards at Pixar finally gave us Monsters University and the story that no was begging them to tell, how Mike and Sullivan became friends. Or, as I like to call it, when “Scary” met Sulley. Pixar’s first prequel, now on Blu-ray disc and DVD, is true to the spirit of the original film, which is a relief for fans of Monsters, Inc. that might have feared the worst—that Pixar had turned to the Cars 2 playbook.

Monsters University is a zippy picture that tells how our favorite wisecracking pair of Monsters, Inc. employees first crossed paths at college. The end result is an amusing, spirited tale of opportunity that’s animated with the usual Pixar polish but it lacks the emotional depth that you’ll find in the best Pixar movies. To be fair though, it’s not trying to be deep; it’s trying to be entertaining and the movie passes that test with flying, furry colors.

Monsters University follows young Mike’s quest to become a scarer, a monster who helps power Monstropolis with the scream energy that’s harnessed from frightened human children. More specifically, in the film Mike (Billy Crystal) enrolls at Monsters University and takes classes at the School of Scaring just like his heroes did. Mike’s book smart with a tremendous work ethic; yet, he’s also a runt and anything but a natural. Meanwhile, his brawny classmate Sulley (John Goodman) is an innately gifted scarer but he’s also a slacker who believes his tremendous roar is enough for him to skate by on. Not to mention, in this story which is told from Mike’s (one-eyed) perspective, at the start of the movie Sulley’s kind of a jerk.

But after the intimidating, dragon-winged dean (a magnificently menacing Helen Mirren) drops them from the scarer program, they join forces with a fraternity of misfits to compete in the Scare Games for a second chance. If you’ve seen Revenge of the Nerds, you’ll know roughly how this all plays out, only there’s more fur and eyeballs and tentacles. In a series of Olympic-like games the beastly zeroes are given a chance prove they can be heroes. They compete in refreshing, monsteriffic versions of an obstacle course, capture the flag, and hide-and-seek, for example.

The journey delivers plenty of infectious fun, but it fails to pack the surprising emotional wallop that the first Monsters film did. Yes, the playful look at college life and fraternity games provide a lot of laughs, but nothing pulls on your heartstrings in this film the way the child Boo did in the 2001 original. Director Dan Scanlon does throw a darker, dramatic curveball or two in the last quarter of the film that will manage to surprise most viewers, but there’s so much familiar storytelling here.

As expected, the animation from Pixar is unsurpassed, and they’ve outdone themselves again, pushing the medium forward with a multitude of colorful, fur-filled creatures and the glorious campus architecture that surrounds them.

Every scene has something worth admiring, from wacky sight gags and the incredible number of inventive creatures, to snappy dialogue and Randy Newman's drumline-saturated musical score. And while the wild parties are certainly G-rated, it manages to successfully hit every college beat—from the bad cafeteria food and the overly bubbly tour guides to the excitement of home football games and the monotony of workstudy. There's even a nice dig at the readership of the college newspaper.

There’s also something to be said for both Crystal and Goodman’s ability to pull off the right mix of energy, wonder, and anxiety to pass for college freshmen. The actors, who are both over 60, don’t sound quite young enough, but, as expected, the marvelous duo own the two lead roles just like they did in the 2001 film. Furthermore, the entire vocal cast (including Nathan Fillion, Sean Hayes and Dave Foley) earns straight A’s; their energy and delivery make the movie lively, enjoyable, and rich, despite the film’s lack of an entirely original plot.

In spite of some shortcomings, credit must be given to Scanlon and company for crafting a prequel storyline that’s worthwhile enough to watch more than once. As Scanlon says on the insightful Blu-ray commentary, it’s hard to find drama in this tale when, thanks to the 2001 movie, you know Mike isn’t going to become a scarer but instead a scarer’s assistant. However, when you see how much scaring meant to the little green guy and how hard he chased his dream, the story manages to draws you in. Plus, in addition to actual education, college is partially about figuring out who you really are, and the film delivers on that theme.

More so, Scanlon deals honestly with the reality of disappointment and the empowering idea that sometimes you need to fail in order to discover what you were meant to be. Throughout the movie, Mike and Sulley fail much more than they succeed, but knowing their future success, we understand they’re better for it. And though that may sound like kid stuff, I’d argue most grown-ups could use this message more than they’d like to admit.

In the growing spectrum of Pixar prequels/sequels Monsters University is frighteningly better than the abysmal Cars 2 but the Toy Story sequels are entirely out of Monster’s University’s league.

The Blu-ray set of Monsters University includes an entire disc of meaningful bonus features, though most are five-seven minute featurettes centered on some unique aspect of the film’s production like storyboarding or recording the score. These features give fans of animation a further appreciation for the inventiveness of Pixar and their commitment to the art form. For example, as engineers and animators discuss the mathematical equations involved in generating something as unappreciated as the realistic movement of a monster’s hair, you can easily understand how much we take the complex process of computer animation for granted.

Most notably, both the Blu-ray and DVD copies include The Blue Umbrella, the short film that preceded Monsters University in theatres. Even if you pass on all the other bonus features, make sure to watch it. In the The Blue Umbrella, a charmingly simple rain-washed story of love at first sight combines with a marvelous use of highly photorealistic animation to create what is sure to become the next Academy Award-winning short film from Pixar. There are no monsters in the short but, trust me, it’s scary good.


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