Monsters University is a somewhat unspectacular movie. But it is also a very good movie. The fact that it feels in anyway unspectacular is really a compliment to Pixar Animation Studios — my overall shrug here is itself a testament to the astounding heights of quality that Pixar has reached so repeatedly since the original Toy Story. Their bar is set so high that a film like Cars, which, objectively speaking, is a perfectly nice kids film, seems downright terrible in comparison with the median value of the studio’s filmography. Normally I would never compare a production company’s films like this, but like Disney before them, Pixar has successfully branded themselves as a unified creative force. Seeing the word “Pixar” on a poster carries the same sort of identification as “Quentin Tarantino.” The name Pixar is a promise. My expectations on that promise have flagged in recent years as the company seems eager to plug their project slots with more and more sequels. And the fact that last year’s Brave (a film I found mediocre) was their first original film since 2009 has not helped. I don’t think any movie needs to be “necessary,” but Pixar only has so many resources and so much time on their hands. So I’ll admit I greeted the announcement that 2013′s slot was getting filled with yet another sequel (or in this case, prequel) with extreme eye-rolling disappointment. But the Pixar magic is hard to ignore once your butt is in that theater seat. While unnecessary, Monsters University is still a very fun and funny outing. It is a “meh” movie made good by sheer creative will.
The story concerns the origin of Michael “Mike” Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and James P. “Sulley” Sullivan’s (John Goodman) friendship and professional partnership. Like many career partnerships, these two meet in college. Both men want to be in the school’s prestigious scaring program. Mike believes that with hard work you can achieve anything. He’s a nerd. Sulley is the son of a famous Scarer, and coasts through life because he has undeniable natural talent. He’s a jock. Of course they don’t like each other. And since this is a movie, of course they’re forced to team up when their rivalry threatens to get them booted from the scaring program. Now their only hope is to win the university’s annual Scare Games. And in order to play in the games they need to join a frat. In classic college comedy form, the only frat that will have them both is Oozma Kappa, the lamest frat on campus. Cue hijinks!
I would say that Monsters, Inc. qualifies as a ‘Pixar classic,’ though I personally consider it a lesser classic when compared with heavyweights like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, or The Incredibles. It is simply a light film. But it doesn’t try to be more than what it is, and it has that strong Pixar heart in spades. Despite that lackluster sounding appraisal, I own it on DVD. The film has a great premise, appealing lead characters, interesting artistic design, and some truly wonderful moments (particularly the epic door warehouse climax). Most importantly it paints a compelling world. This is presumably the reason Pixar double-dipped, despite the fact that the film’s conclusion would seem to preclude a follow-up. If we had to get another Monsters, Inc film, I’m happy Pixar didn’t go the obvious route — which probably would have been Mike and Sulley visiting Boo and then get trapped on Earth, hunted by the government, yadda yadda. The idea of a whole world of creatures that revolves around needing to scare human children is just so much fun. I’m not sure removing our heroes from that setting would ultimately work, and regardless of what we ended up learning at the end of the original film, audiences are going to want to see the monsters agonizing over their scaring skills again. So, even though normally I dislike prequels, if we had to get another Monsters film, it makes sense to me to go this route. And even though the story’s conclusion bridges the gap between the two films, overall Pixar let Monsters University be its own thing. This isn’t the kind of prequel that can only exist in relation to the original film. You could go into MU without ever having seen Monsters, Inc. You’d miss a few gags, but not many. For example, the subplot involving Mike’s first roommate, Randy (Steve Buscemi), can be viewed as a lame prequel joke (since Randy is the villain of the first film, and oh snap! he used to be friends with Mike?!?!), but Randy’s storyline also works as pure story. Pixar knows well enough to stay away from Anakin-built-C-3PO-esque bits.
Monsters University‘s strength is also its weakness — it is just a college comedy. In the first film our heroes were dealing with a problem of epic proportions that impacted their entire civilization. College movies are about microcosm problems. Oh no, we’re gonna get kicked out of school! Oh no, the dean is gonna close our frat! Oh no, our rival frat has challenged us to something! Oh no, I need to get laid! This is the level of objectively inconsequential conflict the subgenre has always dealt with. I like that Pixar follows this trend. Mike and Sulley aren’t saving the world. They aren’t even saving the university. They’re just trying to win the Scare Games so they can stay in school. Of course, this cuts both ways. The first film, light as it is, has a fairytale quality to it. Monsters University feels more like a lark — especially because we already know where Mike and Sulley wind up as adults. The upside is that this frees the film up to go more for gags and less for plot, since most of the story is structured around the various stages of the Scare Games. In this area the prequel is superior to the original film. Monsters University is very funny. I laughed out loud significantly more than I ever did in Monsters, Inc. And I respect that the jokes aren’t just easy parody jokes. I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that Pixar is less interested in parodying the college comedy subgenre than they are in sincerely playing in the subgenre’s sandbox. The film isn’t an Animal House / Revenge of the Nerds send-up, so much as it is a remake set in the Monsters, Inc. world. (Fun fact: John Goodman was one of the villains in Revenge of the Nerds.)
The film’s recycling of the well-worn tropes and archetypes of the college comedy are a joy, and at times a riot. I was a little surprised by how not tired I got with seeing the monster versions of standard bits and concepts — like a pretentious art major who uses his own fuzzy head as a brush. There are some big laughs to be found in the general portrayal of campus life, especially all the different clubs students can belong to. And a whole campus offers a lot of space for new characters. Nathan Fillion is good as Johnny Worthington, president of Oozma Kappa’s rival frat, Roar Omega Roar. And Bobby Moynihan really nails it as the standard evil frat’s doofus toady character — the kind of character you always want to know the backstory on, how he found his way into the cool frat instead of the loser frat. Oozma Kappa’s characters make the whole film though. Joel Murray seems to be playing Brian Doyle Murry here, as Don, a middle-aged salesman who has decided to reboot his life and go back to school. Sean Hayes and Dave Foley play a two-headed character. And Charley Day manages to steal every scene with just a single line as Art, Oozma’s space-case weirdo. I would like to see some Pixar shorts involving Oozma.
But I don’t want to sell the film too short. While the plot is nothing more than a frivolous college adventure and typical tale about male friendship, the film isn’t emotionally hollow. In fact, at the core of the film lurks a rather grim buzz-kill of a theme. Though MU tells the origin of Mike and Sulley, really it is Mike’s story. Mike wants to be a Scarer, but he has a major hurdle in his path — he just isn’t that scary. But he truly believes it is his destiny and that if he works hard enough at it, he will achieve his goal. You know, the standard optimism parents and teachers tell kids, that sadly just isn’t true once most people reach adulthood. Well, obviously if you’ve already seen the original film you know Mike doesn’t become a Scarer. Sulley does. Mike is Sulley’s assistant. So despite its cheery tone, MU is actually the story of Mike’s dream being crushed. It is an incredibly adult dose of reality for a family film, and I can imagine this leading to an awkward conversation with your kid on the ride home. But hey, this is the sort of thing that makes Pixar who they are. And the film puts a positive spin on the message. After all, a good portion of the Pixar team wound up where they are after their lives went off track. Hell, Pixar’s whole origin is tied into the fact that John Lasseter washed out of The Walt Disney Company. Billy Crystal wanted to be a professional baseball player, not a comedian. Sure, these guys got the world’s greatest consolation prizes, instead of having to become garbage men or something. But it is a nice message, that life doesn’t always lead where we want it to.
You’ll like Monsters University. It has a small impact, but it is a funny movie. And it is one I could see liking even more upon a second viewing. So maybe my score will improve over time.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars