Movie Review: Monsters University

Unlike last year, I have now somehow managed to see all of the late-June movie releases that I wanted to in 2013, as of a couple of nights ago. Perhaps a little late, but there was a lot of good stuff to see! Two reviews coming right up.

Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Helen Mirren
Dan Scanlon (Tracy)
Rating: G

It’s been a long time since the original Monsters Inc, a movie I fondly remember watching in the cinemas as a kid all the way back in 2001. The movie was instrumental in building a quite frankly phenomenal track record for Pixar Animation Studios, a run of form that only grew even more impressive over time until it finally began to lose steam a couple of years ago with Cars 2. The studio became well-known for surprising its audiences by finding clever new ways of tugging at their heartstrings, as well as delivering messages with at least some degree of subtlety. Following last year’s good but unusually by-the-numbers effort Brave, however, there has been somewhat of a backlash against the company. A rather undeserved backlash. Critics and general audiences alike had come to expect a certain sentimental ingredient in their Pixar films and when it stopped coming, their collective sigh of disappointment descended on Hollywood like a grossly overinflated black cloud, particularly after Disney’s Pixar-less Wreck-It Ralph turned out so well last year.

The question that should be asked, in my opinion, is this: Why does Pixar have to make the same kind of movie all the time? The answer is moot, of course, because they don’t. Sure, it’s nice when you’ve had such a great line-up of films that hit people where it hurts and make them stand up and applaud afterwards, but what’s wrong with, say, a more straightforward college comedy? Well, hopefully nothing, assuming it does what it’s meant to do.

That’s where Monsters University comes in. A prequel to that wonderful 2001 film, this 2013 release takes on the college comedy subgenre and does it rather well. Our two protagonists are the same as those from Monsters Inc, Mike Wazowski and James P Sullivan, only this time we get a glimpse at their time in college, where they sure as hell ain’t friends. John Goodman‘s Sully is a much thinner, more arrogant version of himself who is hardly likeable at first due to his overconfidence in his natural scaring abilities while Billy Crystal‘s Mike is an ambitious, kinda stubborn bookworm who knows just about everything there is to know about scaring but isn’t really scary himself. We know where they will end up, of course, but seeing them get there proves to be an entertaining ride.

The plot sticks rather rigidly to the formula of your standard college comedy, without a lot of the family-unfriendly stuff of course, and then mixes in several of the hallmarks of an against-the-odds sports movie with a generous sprinkling of a coming-of-age tale. For the most part it manages to overcome the set of unavoidable cliches that go with all that territory, however, and comes out as a pretty damn good movie, mostly because a) it’s funny on a regular basis and b) each of the major players in the story are so fully realised, so well developed, that you genuinely want to see them continue to interact with one another and grow as characters. This is due partly to some wonderful voice work, particularly from newcomer Helen Mirren as legendary Monsters U headmaster Dean Hardscrabble, and partly due to Pixar’s amazing animation. This film may not pack the sheer visual wow factor of, say, Brave‘s ginger curls, but Mike and Sully’s animators have subtlety down to a fine art and the characters really come alive on screen as a result. In their case every aspect of performance and presentation comes together so seamlessly that I found myself actually choking up a little at the well-executed moment when the pair’s relationship first takes a major turn for the better.

For fans of the original film, moments such as these provide a lot of the heart that a Monsters film without Boo may have missed. Nothing can quite fill that gap completely, of course, considering how important she was to the effectiveness of the first Monsters tale, but let it not be said that this prequel lacks emotion. There are some nostalgic nods to the original that will delight longtime Pixar fans, particularly when it comes to the neat origin story of Steve Buscemi‘s antagonistic Randy, but many of the new characters provide some pathos as well. I had to stifle a cheer when the most hopeless of the dorky social outcasts sharing Mike and Sully’s woes discovers his own unique (and a little off-putting) scaring method. The film also packs a fantastic ending, which takes a devious turn from the place where you might expect a standard comedy of this kind to finish and leads to a creative set piece that really allows Pixar’s animators to flex their collective muscle.

Monster’s University may not be a true “return to form” for Pixar in the sense of making the deep, powerful and uniquely thought-provoking kinds of movies they once did, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s just different. It’s mostly a straightforward comedy, but it’s a funny one and chances are it will make you care even more about that lovable monstrous duo from 2001 than you thought you could.

And by the way, the new short that plays before the main film, The Blue Umbrella, is a real sight to see. It may tread some similar narrative ground to Disney’s excellent pre-Wreck-It Ralph short Paperman, but it does so with some eye bleeding experimental animation techniques that bring photorealism closer than it’s ever been.



Funny gags, rich characterisation, nostalgic nods, very cool ending
Mostly formulaic

515/110A M A Z I N G

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