Thursday, June 20, 2013

Film Review: "Monsters University"

WARNING: This review does contain some slight spoilers about the ending of the film.  Nothing too major, but if you want all the surprises to be fresh, I'd hold off on reading this until after you see the movie.

Pixar's had a rough time the last few years.  After releasing Toy Story 3 in 2010, the long-awaited sequel to the beloved franchise that managed to make every single person who viewed it cry, Pixar released another sequel that seemed to be just about the exact opposite.  Cars 2, released in 2011, was pretty thoroughly reviled before it ever even hit theaters and, unfortunately, did little to change people's minds after being released.  In 2012, what was supposed to serve as both Pixar's return to form and represent a bold new direction for the studio didn't work out too well either, as Brave was received moderately well but failed to leave much of an impression.  With confidence in Pixar now thoroughly shattered, audiences turned toward their next film with hope that the studio could regain its former glory.

Unfortunately, there was little hope to be found, given that Pixar's next title was revealed to be Monsters University, a follow-up to the 2001 hit Monsters Inc.  In addition to being a peculiar film to get the sequel treatment, what with the original film being over a decade old, Monsters University was actually reveled to be a prequel to the original.  Before becoming the inseparable duo we saw in the original film, Mike and Sully were actually college rivals.  The plot sounded painfully predictable and recalled the unfortunate string of direct-to-DVD sequels that Disney formerly churned out for their animated classics.  That original director Pete Doctor was not returning to helm the film was the icing on a cake that seemed destine to disappoint.  How could a film that seemed so certain to fail ever possibly hope to restore Pixar's reputation and deliver the same emotional heights and spectacular story-telling as what was seen in the studio's finest features?

So does Monsters University managed to pull it off?  In a word, no.  But don't let that scare you!  (Ha ha, get it?)  Monsters University may not be able to overcome the impossibly high bar set by films like WALL-E or Up, nor does it ever manage to truly match the emotional heights of the original Monsters Inc.,  but that's okay.  What Monsters University does manage to do is tell an exceptionally well-written and heartfelt story that is often hilarious, a little bit emotional when appropriate, and thoroughly enjoyable all the way through.

While Monsters Inc. was primarily focused on Sulley, the big blue shaggy half of our main monster duo who was and is again voiced by John Goodman, Monsters University puts the main focus on everyone's favorite little eyeball, Mike Wazowski, again voiced by Billy Crystal.  After a life-changing elementary school field trip to see a Monsters Incorporated scare floor, Mike makes it his life's ambition to become a scarer, one of an elite group of monsters tasked with entering the toxic human world to scare children in order to collect their screams which are then converted into energy. 

Unfortunately, Mike's small size and less-than-threatening appearance mean that he's got a rough road ahead of him.  But that's not enough to keep a little monster down!  Soon Mike finds himself enrolled at Monsters University, the top school for producing scarers.  Unfortunately, he soon also finds himself a rival in the form of James P. Sullivan, a natural-born scarer from a family full of famous monsters.  Sulley's laid-back attitude toward scaring versus Mike's by-the-book approach immediately put them at odds with each other.  However, when the two monsters' rivalry leads to them accidentally get kicked out of the scaring program, they have to join a rag-tag fraternity group full of scaring program rejects in order to win the "Scare Games", or face leaving the university forever.

It's hard to ignore the fact that the story is rather awash with college film cliches.  And, for the most part, Monsters University is content to play the story pretty straight, which means that a lot of twists and turns happen as you would expect for the most part.  The jokes about college life.  The underdog team full of losers with hidden potential.  The unlikely duo putting aside their differences and becoming friends.  It's all here, just as you would expect.  And I admit that the first act of the film does kind of drag for it, as the set-up for the story never really veers off of the tried-and-true formula.

But Monsters University manages to turn these familiar elements into a compelling narrative thanks to its solid script, lovable cast, and the fact that it keeps the story going beyond the traditional endpoint of these kinds of tales.  Without spoiling too much, I can say that the third act of Monsters University veers off in a delightfully different direction that is perfectly Pixar-ian, leading to a down-to-earth message about learning to embrace your natural talents and who you are, even if they don't allow you to reach the pie-in-the-sky dreams you might have once hoped for.  It's a story that fully takes advantage of the monster world that the characters inhabit but also manages to present a heartfelt and realistic message that should resonate with many viewers, as nearly everyone has faced a crisis at some point in their life where they must find a new purpose when an old dream is rendered unobtainable.

Additionally, as a prequel, Monsters University does a good job of showing how Mike and Sulley became the characters we already know and love.  Though it may seem a bit contrived to have the duo's roles reversed at the beginning of this film, with Mike being the responsible one and Sulley being the insecure and selfish one, the story does an excellent job of developing their personalities in a natural way, which leads perfectly into their arcs from the original film.  Despite telling an origin story that didn't exist before, Monsters University does a remarkably good job of creating a backstory for Mike and Sulley that doesn't poke too many holes in the existing continuity. 

Well, as long as you can ignore the rather glaring oversight that Mike and Sulley clearly knew each other long before college in the first movie, that is.  Yeah, that's never really addressed here, and it makes a couple lines from Monsters Inc. seem a bit out of place.  But still, I was pretty impressed with how they managed to weave things together, even managing to make it make sense that the existence of Monsters University itself is never brought up in Monsters Inc.

That being said, as odd as it is to admit, the only times I ever really found that Monsters University stumbles is when it tries to tie in connections to Monsters Inc.  Though Mike and Sulley's arc flows beautifully into the original movie's plot, many of the other callbacks and cameos feel surprisingly out-of-place and a little jarring.  Most of the returning characters from the first film are reduced to blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameos that do succeed in foreshadowing future events, but feel a little at odds with the tone and style that Monsters University is trying to achieve.  I kept finding that characters and locations from the first movie just didn't quite feel like they belonged in the movie I was currently watching.  It's a rare instance where I'm honestly inclined to say that a little less continuity might have actually done the film some good, as Monsters University's plot is largely disconnected from it's predecessor's events.

Randall in particular gets the short end of the stick in Monsters University.  The film does devote a few scenes to explaining his fierce rivalry with Sulley as seen in the original film, but it's not given a lot of time to develop.  This is a prequel that assumes you've already seen what happens next, so Randall's character arc is pretty thin here and goes unresolved if you treat Monsters University as a stand-alone story.  But if you did happen to watch this film before Monsters Inc., I'm not sure it would do a very good job of setting up Randall as the villain we later see.

Still, these are relatively minor issues in the context of a story that is, overall, very solid and enjoyable, and though I think they could have been handled better, they don't really detract from the quality of the film.  The musical score, again composed by Randy Newman, manages to be very tasteful in its references to the first film's soundtrack.  There are a number of familiar themes that occur from time to time, but they are mostly limited to the handful of scenes that take place at the Monsters Incorporated facility itself.  Most of the story unfolds in entirely new locations and, for the most part, entirely new score accompanies it.  As a whole, the new material isn't quite as memorable as what what heard in the first movie, but it gets the job done just fine.

And, of course, like all Pixar films, Monsters University is absolutely beautiful, with some of the finest visuals ever to be seen in a computer animated film.  The lighting, in particular, is absolutely top notch.  But that shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone at this point.  Pixar movies never disappoint from a visual standpoint, and Monsters University continues to push the medium forward.

So, in the end, Monsters University is a fine example of art imitating life, or perhaps life imitating art.  Just as Mike learns to embrace his talents and abilities, even if that doesn't mean becoming a famous scarer, Monsters University embraces its strengths and, despite not being able to reach the heights of previous Pixar films, tells a compelling narrative that is strong enough to allow it to stand alongside its predecessor.  It may not completely restore everyone's faith in the studio, but Monsters University convinced me that Pixar hasn't totally lost their touch.  It's unlikely to go down in history as one of the studio's finest, and it's probably not going to make you cry, but you'll almost certainly enjoy what it does have to offer.  And there's nothing scary about that.

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