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Review: "Monsters University" - Bright but Really Familiar College Years

Monsters University posterMonsters University is an extraordinarily enjoyable movie, populated with denizens of affable (and sometimes not so affable) characters. It is remarkable for being one of the very rare breed of modern G-rated college films, and the fact that it is still so successful on those terms indicates that the increased amounts of sex, alcohol, drugs, and general debauchery of more recent college films have added less than expected to the formula. If nothing else, it’s just a whole lot of fun to hang out with Mike Wazowski and James P. “Sully” Sullivan again, and Billy Crystal and John Goodman reprise their roles without missing a beat. And, as always, it is a visually sumptuous feast that’s marvelously assembled to hum without faltering from start to finish. Considering that Monsters Inc. is one of my favorite Pixar films, my expectations for Monsters University were simultaneously sky high and rock bottom: no matter how eager I was to see these characters again, I had to wonder whether this prequel movie would be able to compare to the original. I’m happy to report that Monsters University doesn’t disappoint in this regard, dovetailing nicely on groundwork laid in Monsters Inc. while even adding a little texture to the earlier film. It’s more than capable of standing on its own as a worthwhile feature definitely worth your time.

I would really, really like to end my review of Monsters University right there. The culture vultures will have to wait a little longer for the studio to produce a true flop, because Monsters University proves that Pixar can still assemble smart, funny, and truly excellent films more consistently than anyone else out there.

But…

The very best Pixar films are set in fabricated worlds almost entirely alien to our everyday experience, but with their own, well-established internal logic and consistency. They’re populated by character archetypes we can easily recognize who then get recognizable human problems to solve by their new rules. The first two Toy Story movies fabricated its world through a change in perspective, showing us what our world must look like from the viewpoint of objects that live 6-9 inches off the floor and can be as beloved as family members. Ratatouille does the same thing, except from the viewpoint of a creature we consider vermin. The rules about electricity so thoroughly define the world of Monstropolis that it serves as a problem to solve while simultaneously making every problem in the movie so much more interesting. Much of the first half of WALL-E may be set on Earth, but it’s one so far from our everyday experience that it might as well have been on Mars. The highly unusual, unfamiliar circumstances in all these movies throw the plot so askew that they make even the most familiar elements feel fresh and original. The setup of films like these all force their characters to play familiar games by an entirely different set of rules, and I think that’s what makes them so enduring and why they feel so fresh and original.

Monsters University - Sully and Mike WazowskiWith that in mind, a number of recent Pixar films reverse this formula, populating a highly familiar world with unusual characters, and then tasking them with those same recognizable human problems to solve. No matter how many extra or fewer appendages or sense organs the characters in Monsters University have, they’re all very recognizably in college, playing out highly familiar coming-of-age and getting-to-know-you stories. Monsters University begins with Mike Wazowski and Sully as college freshmen majoring in Scaring, and because Mike is a straight-arrow by-the-book student while Sully coasts on family connections and prodigious natural ability, it’s practically a given that they can’t stand each other, just as it would be a given that they’ll learn how much they ultimately balance each other out even if we didn’t know where they end up in Monsters Inc. But replace “Scaring” with “Civil Engineering” or “Comparative Literature” and you don’t change much fundamental about Monsters University, and you would only need to change details to make Mike and Sully human. Mike and Sully have to turn the misfit fraternity brothers of Oozma Kappa into world-class scarers, but even if I can get behind the lessons of self-realization and learning how to play to your strengths, I still feel like this entire plot element is played out far too straight. Fundamentally, this is a familiar game played by familiar rules by a physically unusual batch of players. The fact that Monsters University feels overly familiar has nothing to do with the fact that it’s a prequel. It has everything to do with the fact that it’s an archetypal college film, and no matter how weird the student body looks, you’ve almost certainly seen this movie before.

Monsters University Scare GamesTo be sure, it’s an excellent college film from start to finish, beautifully filmed and expertly assembled. Monsters University is not a bad film at all, and just because you know where it’s all going doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. If there are “where are we going?” stories and “how are we getting there?” stories, Monsters University is an excellent example of the “how are we getting there?” story because the fun isn’t in the destination as much as it’s in the trip. A prequel will also inherently land more in the “how are we getting there?” category because we know that they will have to end up where the forerunner movies begin. However, the strongest moments of Monsters University are rooted in elements that tie back more strongly to the Monsters Inc. world. The moment of clarity for everyone in Oozma Kappa happens during a visit to Monsters Incorporated’s scare floor, and it works so beautifully because it exploits an element of the earlier movie that was always visible but not commented on. There is also a twist in the film that kicks off the third act, and it adds an enormous amount of energy because the movie starts playing that familiar game by a different set of rules. Even though the twist ultimately plays out a vintage element of the college film, the way it has to play out according to Monsters Inc. rules makes it feel fresher and more original. The fact that this twist drives right to the core of Mike and Sully’s relationship surely helps, since Billy Crystal and John Goodman turn in some marvelously sensitive performances that are matched by equally sensitive character animation. (And now is as good a time as any to also point out one of animation’s unique strengths in allowing actors 12 years older to play younger versions of the same characters convincingly, over and above the fact that they’re playing monsters without the benefit of makeup.)

Monsters University - Oozma Kappa Frat BrothersI don’t want to shortchange Monsters University‘s more fun elements, like the stiff, starchy Dean Hardscrabble, the closest thing the movie has to a true antagonist. Her character design is just about perfect in every way, as is the vocal performance by Helen Mirren. Of the misfit fraternity brothers, the giant furry tube Art steals every scene he’s in through a combination of actor Charlie Day’s loopy spins on some of the movie’s funniest lines, and because of the many innovative ways the Pixar animators invented to exploit Art’s bizarre body shape. He’s a Muppet without strings freed from the constraints of physicality, perfectly demonstrated in mid-movie when the brothers of Oozma Kappa have to distract a librarian. You kind of have to be there. But he’s so much fun that I really wish he got a little more to do in the final film.

As I noted with Brave, only Pixar could be considered underperforming for only producing a very good movie that would be a crown jewel coming from any of their competitors. But like Brave (and, on consideration, a number of Pixar films starting with the first Cars), the overly familiar scenario is ultimately what keeps Monsters University from reaching the heights of the best of the studio’s output. It’s surely on the higher end of the scale, and I suspect it will end up being much more enjoyable for those who aren’t yet familiar with the tropes and expectations of the college coming-of-age film genre.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this review incorrectly described Monsters University the only G-rated college film for the past 20 years; Disney’s College Road Trip in 2008 was also rated “G.”

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