– Summary –
Director : Dan Scanlon
Year Of Release : 2013
Principal Cast : Voices of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Peter Sohn, Charlie Day, Helen Mirren, Alfred Molina, Nathan Fillion, John Krasanski, Bonnie Hunt, Bill Hader, Julia Sweeney, Bob Peterson, Bobby Moynihan, Tyler Labine, Aubrey Plaza.
Approx Running Time : 103 Minutes
Synopsis: Mike Wazowski goes to monsters University to become the world’s top scarer, where he meets James P Sullivan, another monster whose family name might take him all the way to graduation.
What we think : Completely uncalled-for prequel delivers the Pixar charm in effortless bucket-loads, heaps of wry, laugh-out-loud humor and some fudged morals about not trying to fit into bigger boots than you want (I guess); the film is a dazzlement of animation and storytelling, and although it lacks the overall charm of the original, Monsters Inc, I for one was glad to take a trip back with Mike and Sully. While some may lament the fact that Pixar is treading the all-too-easy option of prequels and sequels, it matters little to me as long as they continue to put out top quality films like this.
The frat pack is back, mac!
It’s a fair bet that for a large number of people, Monster Inc represents the zenith of early Pixar films; the studio has consistently churned out A-grade feature films ever since Toy Story debuted back in the 90’s, and although a few missteps have cropped up (Cars 2, Brave) in their nominally blue ribbon popularity, they’ve generally managed to remain atop the animation pecking order thanks to enormous public goodwill and an absolute hatred of second-grade storytelling. Indeed, if there’s one thing you can count on with Pixar, it’s that they have their best people working on story, story, story. Their success merely proves the old adage – people can swallow crappy films, but quality of story will always win out over explosions. Monsters Inc was one of the studio’s shining lights – in their early successes, alongside Toy Story 2 and Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc transcended the animation genre and became a pop-culture mainstay, and remains amongst the studio’s most iconic feature films to this day. Yet, even with its success, Monsters Inc wasn’t exactly crying out for a sequel – the original film was a self-contained enterprise, and the story it told was succinctly wrapped up with no real visibility for a continuation of the adventures of Mike and Sully. So the studio decided to go ahead with a story about the origins of Mike and Sully’s scaring careers, set before Monsters Inc, as a prequel. While it wasn’t the story people probably wanted – or needed – to see, there was obviously enough interest in seeing Mike and Sully again to warrant putting this much effort into a film where the outcome is generally known.
Mike Wazowski (voice of Billy Crystal) is a wannabe scarer for Monsters Incorporated – after a school excursion to the famed power production plant, the seeds of desire are planetd deep within the young monster, and after one of the company’s scarers points out that he needs to attend Monsters University to obtain his Scare Degree, Mike becomes driven in his ambition to get to the Scare Floor and become a famous scarer. After graduating high school and being accepted into Monsters University, Mike is lumped with roommate Randall Bloggs (Steve Buscemi), a lizard monster whose ability to become invisible is a potent scare mechanism. Mike attends his first day of lectures in the Scare Program, led by Professor Knight (Alfred Molina), where he encounters the braggart and arrogant James Sullivan (John Goodman), a giant blue monster whose family name is legendary in the school, and who great things are expected of. Mike, jealous that Sullivan seems to coast through class on his name alone, becomes determined to pass the program, although University Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) is under no illusions as to the potential of the funny green eyeball. After being removed from the program after an incident during class, Mike and Sully team up with a bunch of nobody’s from fraternity Omega Kappa, and join up to compete in the Scare Games, a campus0-run competition to find the scariest monsters of all. As Mike and Sully lead their team through the variety of challenges, they first find a way through their mutual distrust of each other to bond and defeat the bullyish tactics of competing fraternity Roar Omega Roar. Mike wagers with Hardscrabble that if he and his team win the Scare Games, she will reinstate him on the Scare Program.
Look, even though nobody asked for a sequel to Monsters Inc (or Finding Nemo for that matter), I’m kinda glad they opted to reprise the characters from one of their better films, rather than one of their missteps (Cars) for this time around. Mike and Sully have a chemistry that works brilliantly, largely thanks to the warm performances of Billy Crystal and John Goodman, and I guess if there was one thing that might have been critical to any sequel, it would be their work. Thankfully, Monsters University taps into that chemistry again – although perhaps less front-and-center here – and it helps the film remain firmly entrenched in the Monsters universe, rather than as some hanger-on that nobody asked for. Monsters University has the tricky task of setting up the characters to the point we know them from Monsters Inc, while remaining new and fresh on its own, and it my opinion that in this area, University succeeds with relish. The films bulges with a vastly larger cast roster than the original film, mainly populated with university attendees and the faculty accoutrements, and there was always a chance this added character weight may have dulled the sharp writing Pixar is renowned for – I’m here to report that this is not the case at all. If anything, Monsters University is better written than the original film, and carries the huge character roster with ease throughout its 100+ minute runtime.
Aside from Mike and Sully, the cast is impressive to say the least. Voices as diverse as Helen Mirren (as the Uni’s Dean, and the closet we come to a central antagonist in the vein of the original’s Waternoose), Sean Hayes (who, alongside Dave Foley, plays one half of a two-headed monster with issues about a career path!), Nathan Fillion (as the leader of the masculine fraternity, Roar Omega Roar, Johnny Worthington), and even cameo parts to Bonnie Hunt (as a young Mike’s elementary teacher), Bob Peterson (as… well, if you’re a fan of the original, you’ll recognize the name) and Julia Sweeney as a truly hilarious mother figure for the Omega Kappa fraternity house. Pixar have a flawless track record of finding the right voices for the roles (rather than the “traditional” method, stunt-casting voices for a film based purely on drawing power at the box office *ahem DreamWorks ahem*) and once again they do not put a foot wrong. The clever thing about University is that the film is filled with cliches about this kind of movie – the jocks, the cheerleaders, the ubiquitous “clubs” one must join to be a part of campus life etc – but it all feels fresh and alive, thanks to subtle humor and wry monster-themed takes on each one. The vocal cast are superbly cast, never feeling out of place, and although some of the characters tend to drift into “haven’t I seen this kind of character before”-land, the Pixar team have just enough class to pull it off without feeling stale.
Vocals aside, the scripting in this film is also superbly written. Dialogue sparkles, crackles off the screen, with a sense of humor mixed perfectly with the expected pathos as Mike and Sully learn their life lessons through their inevitable failures. The story never seemed to go in a direction I was expecting, which was equally refreshing, and the outcome of the movie (even though we know Mike and Sully both end up working at Monsters Incorporated) has a weight and spry surprise all its own that delighted me with its elegant simplicity. The characters, even with the briefest of screen time, are all accounted for and have an arc all their own – bless them, they even snagged some good work for Randall to do, leading to his eventual hatred of our favorite scarers – and it’s a testament to Pixar and director Dan Scanlon that the film handles them all with ease and balances the character and the action elements so well.
As we’ve come to expect from Pixar, the animation in this film is to die for. I mean, the imagery in Monsters University is absolutely stunning. Every frame is a freeze-frame-on-Blu-Ray masterpiece. Colors are rich, the “effects” of the film sparkle with brilliance and detail, and the texturing work on the fur and varied other monsters skins is faultless. Indeed, the sheer lack of superlatives I have for this film should indicate that the movie itself looks an absolute treat, and I cannot wait to get this home on disc and rewatch it again for stuff I missed the first time. One thing I did pick? A clever nod to a line in the original film; Randal’s “winds of change” dialogue, is an obvious Easter Egg in the film, and I’ve no doubt there are plenty more – I look forward to picking them out on Viewing #2. Musically, the themes of the original film are reprised here (as they should be, considering the composer on both films is Randy Newman) and yet they never feel out of place or overused. Newman doesn’t get the chance to have an in-film song, which is somewhat of a blessing (honestly, it’s like he’s Pixar’s got- guy for songwriting…. are there any other songwriters out there?) and he sets a cracking melodic pace right from the outset.
If the film’s flaws are evident, I missed a lot of them. Aside from a rather non-active antagonist (in the original, Randal and Waternoose served double duty in this area) in Hardscrabble, and a lack of Boo or Celia (Ahh Jennifer Tilly, where were you?), there’s not really a lot to complain about with University. The film’s story stands on its own, and you don’t really need to have seen the original film to understand what’s going on (although it definitely would make some of the jokes a lot funnier!) and for that, I’m thankful Pixar have taken this route. Sure, the story wasn’t essential for humanity to ever see, and I doubt in time University will have the same revered status as its progenitor, but as a Pixar release it’s definitely one of the better ones in recent years. John Goodman and Billy Crystal play these roles like they never left them, and coupled with a dynamic animation style and a well camouflaged morality tale as a narrative, Monsters University is a reminder of just how great Pixar can be when they put their minds to it. Gold class animated film-making doesn’t get much better than this.