Friday, July 5, 2013

‘Monsters University’ Proves a Worthwhile Return to a Beloved Pixar Property

Mike and Sully end up in a fraternity with a slew of other cast-offs,
who, surprise surprise, show there's more to them than there seems.
In reflecting on Monsters University, the recently released sequel to Monsters Inc., I can’t help being a bit amused by how meta a film Pixar has crafted.

Over the last few years, the Pixar brand has lost a bit of its luster. Three of the studio’s last four films have been sequels, while the one original work – last year’s Brave – was largely viewed as a slight effort, despite walking away with last year’s Oscar for Best Animated Film.

In reviewing Brave earlier this year, I agreed it was lower-tier Pixar, but suggested there was nothing wrong with being merely good. The folks at Pixar might agree, because the major lesson of Monsters University seems to be it’s okay to be okay.

The film shows how Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) meet as students at Monsters University, and the duo are immediately set up as adversaries, with Mike being a well-studied but unscary student, and Sully being an arrogant kid who believes he can coast on his innate ability and famous last name. After an argument between the two gets them kicked out of the “scarer program,” the two are forced to join Oozma Kappa (OK – get it?), the lamest fraternity on campus, for a chance to compete in the “Scare Games,” a Greek competition that, if won, will get them back into the scarer program.

Pixar made little Mike Wazowski ridiculously cute.
However, boiled down to its essence, this is a film about a boy with a dream, who, despite trying harder than everyone else and working nonstop to achieve said dream, ultimately fails because he just doesn’t have what it takes. Early in the film, the intimidating Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) says scariness is the measure of a monster, and so, if you’re not scary, what worth can you have?

Even though the film indicates there’s value in failure, that’s still a pretty ballsy core to structure an animated kids’ movie around, especially since it is so at odds with the typical “you can do anything you set your mind to” spiel.

The timing of this film is worth noting since the children who first fell in love with these characters when Monsters Inc. was released in 2001 are now college-aged themselves. Some will achieve their dreams, but many more will not, and I expect this film will speak to many of them, not to mention the rest of us who will relate to Mike’s existential crisis. 

Unfortunately, as potent as the emotional throughline of the story is, the rest of the film is incredibly formulaic. This is Pixar’s take on the college underdog comedy typified by the likes of Revenge of the Nerds, and it moves along exactly as you’d expect, up to and including the triumphant moment when our seemingly hopeless ragtag team of misfits prevails over the douchey popular kids.

Making matters worse, almost no character beyond Mike and Sully is given more than a modicum of development, including their four fellow fraternity brothers. We’re meant to be emotionally invested in these guys, but they aren’t even afforded the development of the extra girls in piffle like The House Bunny. The crazy one voiced by Charlie Day brings some welcome zaniness to the table, but middle-aged monster and monster with mom are both underserved, while two-headed monster is almost pointless. Their names don’t matter; these descriptors are how most will remember them.
This picture was too funny not to include here.
To be fair, right when a normal college comedy would be ending, Monsters University takes a hard left turn into fertile thematic territory. Up until then, the film is mostly an amiable diversion, but the final 15 minutes really deepen the story and elevate the whole thing quite a bit.

Furthermore, while I generally feel prequels are pointless endeavors, I’ve got to give Pixar credit for crafting a story that stands on its own while simultaneously enhancing the original. The film has plenty of clever nods to Monsters Inc., including a well-handled subplot involving future nemesis Randall (Steve Buscemi), but, more than that, it deepens the connection between Mike and Sully, a partnership that did feel a bit one-sided in favor of scare-master Sully in the first outing. Here, they balance that out quite a bit.

Overall, this is middle-of-the-pack Pixar, more impressive than the likes of Cars, Brave, and A Bug’s Life, but not quite up to the level of the rest of the studio’s oeuvre. But at this point, it’s silly and unfair to keep measuring Pixar’s output against the likes of Toy Story, Wall-E and Ratatouille.

By the end of Monsters University, big dreamer Mike realizes it’s okay to be okay, but even that undersells what Pixar has accomplished here. As far as this film goes, it’s better to say it’s good to be good. B+