Movie Review: Monsters University
Pros:The relationship between Mike and Sully is engaging, the voice acting is mostly impeccable, its climax is worth waiting for.
Cons:Some of its supporting characters seem weak, there's no real reason for it to be in 3D, it flags a little in the second act.
Pixar’s latest movie isn’t quite on a par with the company’s most venerated films, but it’s still a satisfying, witty and engaging effort that returns to the world of 2001′s Monsters, Inc.
Have pictured Pixar jumped the shark? After years of producing must-see animated movies, which enabled the studio to quickly gain a reputation as the pre-eminent distributor of kids’ films that were unrivalled in their quality (and crucially, also frequently appealed to adults), there have been signs in more recent times that the company’s best days are behind them. Their acquisition by Disney invoked the first suspicions that all was not well, and uninspired recent films, such as Brave and Cars 2, consolidated the belief that they were on an irrevocable downward spiral.
Consequently, there is much riding on Monsters University, and though it is not exactly a renewal of Pixar’s glory days, this engaging Dan Scanlon-directed effort represents a partial return to form for the company.
It is also, of course, a prequel to Monsters, Inc – the well-liked 2001 movie about a team of monsters hired by a company to consistently induce scares in thrill-seeking kids. Unsurprisingly, while the setting is different, the basic themes and set-up of Monsters University is hardly drastically dissimilar to its predecessor.
The film reunites Mike Wazowski and James P “Sully” Sullivan, the two protagonists from the first movie, again voiced by Billy Crystal and John Goodman respectively. Some of the supporting characters also return from Monsters, Inc, such as the cantankerous and cynical Randy (an underused Steve Buscemi), another young monster, who possesses a natural ability to disappear whenever he sees fit.
Naturally, this being a college movie, it features archetypal jock and nerd characters, while there is also an inevitable degree of thinly veiled soul-searching undertaken by the protagonists. Accordingly, at the moment in time in which the story is set, in contrast with their later fully-grown incarnations, Mike and Sully are merely two insecure Scaring majors at the university, who dream of one day startling children for a living.
Both main characters have taxing issues to confront – Mike has doubts as to whether scaring people is his forte. He is regularly being told by various skeptics that he lacks the supposedly inherent ability to induce fear, while his rather unthreatening physique serves to exacerbate this lack of confidence prompted by the unwillingness of others to show faith in him. Sully, meanwhile, suffers from the exact opposite problem – too much is expected of him. He is a monster of quite considerable girth, who everyone assumes is destined for a life of frightening, especially given that his father has already gained legendary status in that very profession. He consequently struggles to escape his dad’s shadow. And unlike the hard-working Mike, he lacks the motivation required for the more academic elements of his course, and is prone to selfish pursuits of glory in the various challenges that the instructors present, at the expense of the strong team ethic that the university promotes.
An argument between these two entirely different characters results in the destruction of the college Dean’s beloved vase, prompting her to harshly test their scare knowledge on the spot, and subsequently expel the duo when they fail to pass her quick-fire exam. However, they are soon handed a shot at redemption in the form of the Scare Games – a Hunger Games-esque series of elaborate though non-violent challenges – which they must win in order to regain their places at the university. Mike and Sully are, at this stage, bitterly contemptuous towards one another, yet they are forced to work together in order to achieve their common goal of returning to where (in their eyes) they rightfully belong.
There is much to like about Monsters University. The love/hate interplay between Mike and Sully is compelling enough to distract us from the absence of the type of tender relationship portrayed in the first film, involving Sully and his cute child compatriot, Boo. Moreover, thanks largely to the flair of the vocal performances, the film is consistently witty and will induce laughter among adults and children alike. Its underlying messages, too, extolling the value of working in groups and emphasising that looks are no substitute for diligence and wit, while not exactly original, are bound to resonate with viewers.
Nevertheless, there are conspicuous shortcomings too. The film drags to an extent near the middle and some of the supporting characters aren’t particularly well drawn (in the figurative sense) – the dictatorial Dean Hardscrabble (voiced by Helen Mirren) character type has been seen countless times before, and it’s never convincingly established as to why she’s such a sourpuss/deeply antagonistic towards virtually everyone.
However, the movie is rejuvenated by a particularly well-executed final act. The scene where the protagonists abruptly enter the human universe – a clever metaphor for leaving college in general and going out into the big bad world – is a clear highlight. In order to return to their world, they must induce genuine scares in a large group of children and cops, with the latter intent on incarcerating them. Without spoiling too much, what occurs thereafter is both a whimsical parody and a loving homage to virtually every horror movie ever made, with its ironic mix of tension-heightening clichés, such as eerie rocking furniture sounds and cacophonous mechanical dolls interrupting a disconcerting silence.
Therefore, while it may not be as touching as Up, as beautiful-looking as WALL-E or as sophisticated in its storytelling as Toy Story, Monsters University is a solid addition to the Pixar canon. It’s not as audacious or innovative as the three aforementioned films either, yet it emulates their ability to effectively tug at the heartstrings, which alone renders it superior to the average big-budget summer animation.