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Monsters University (2013): A Review

In a computer animation marketplace that grows ever-crowded, with contenders appearing from Dreamworks, Fox, Sony and even Walt Disney Pictures, it’s not quite as special for a Pixar film to be released to the world.  In the past, Pixar stood above for their technical acumen met by storytelling filled with heart.  As the contenders have raced toward the crown, Pixar’s shine has lost some luster, but all it takes is a few moments in any of their films to realize why Pixar stands above the rest – and Monsters University is no different.

A prequel to 2001’s Monsters Inc., the film takes the focus away from the interesting relationship between children and the (made up) monsters which torment them at night, and instead gives us a story of what came before, a fully realized film set in the world of the monsters.  Granted, I didn’t walk out of Monsters Inc. feeling as if I needed additional closure on the story, but Monsters University smartly zeroes in on two ideas – one, the life story of tiny cyclops Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), and two, to create an homage to every 1980’s college comedy ever made.  It’s not the most obvious connection to make – monsters and films like Revenge of the Nerds, but somehow the odd combination of flavors pays off in spades.

We start with Mike as a child, being the runt of the monsters and ignored by his friends in elementary school, when during a fateful trip to Monsters Inc. (the business, not the film) he meets a monster, a proud Monsters University graduate, and learns that which he wants to do for the rest of his life – work on the scare floor.  He works hard his entire life, and is accepted in to the Scarer program.  It is here where he first meets James “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman), a slacker jock who is coasting on his family name.  Sulley and Mike both have their reasons to want to be scarers (Sully to live up to expectations, Mike to make something of himself finally), and its their intense want to make this happen that makes them instant rivals.  An adventure ensues, including all of MU’s biggest frats (including the hyper jock Roar Omega Roar and the way lame members of Oozma Kappa) and a big showdown as a part of the Scare Games (think Harry Potter’s Tri-Wizard tournament, and you have the idea).

As a whole, the film is a fun, breezy watch, with fantastic voice casting and jawdropping visuals.  You’ll hear many of your favorites, as Crystal and Goodman are joined by such great actors as Charlie Day, Joel Murray, Dave Foley, Nathan Fillion and Aubrey Plaza, and even some of the Pixar animation crew doing voices (Peter Sohn, a lead animator, returns to voice acting after doing a great job as Emile in Ratatouille).  Each inch of camera space is full of eyepopping designs, with the Pixar team doing a beautiful job of realizing the world necessary for these monsters to live in.  The level of detail provided for the MU campus is remarkable, and feels completely realized from the Quad to the sports stadiums, and even the custom school buses.

That said, the film isn’t without its flaws.  A storyline including Monsters Inc. villain Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi) feels tacked on as nothing more than an extended wink and a nod to the first film, and as much as I enjoyed the movie, I couldn’t help but wonder to myself what exactly about the story was compelling and necessary to tell.  Why exactly did Pixar need to return to the world of Monsters Inc.? Even after seeing the film, I’m not entirely sure.  With Pixar’s best, you always felt like there was a depth to what they were trying to say – some lesson or universal truth to the characters.  Here, the story is compelling to watch, but there’s no real depth to the proceedings.  And maybe that’s OK, but after the run of films from Ratatoullie to Wall-E to Up and Toy Story 3, this felt somewhat limited.

No matter how you cut it, Monsters University is a great time at the movies and a fun watch for the entire family.  The movie may not stand as one of the greatest films the studio has created, but you’ll laugh and smile the whole way through, and in a Summer full of explosions and destruction, it’s the perfect detox.  It’s just a shame to have received a really great hamburger when you’re used to a steak.

Before I forget, a special nod must be given to the absolutely sublime short which ran before the film, The Blue Umbrella. Featuring a Pixar first – incredibly photo-realistic animation, along with a beautiful Jon Brion soundtrack and some smile inducing moments of pareidolia, it’s a great segue into a fun film. Be sure to arrive early so as to not miss it.

Monsters University opens on June 21st.