Monsters University ReviewJuly 1, 2013
They still need to work harder, but Monsters University shows that Pixar is making a comeback.
Pixar has hit some bumps in the road in the past couple of years. Ever since the release of their magnum opus, Toy Story 3, things have not been so great for the beloved studio. Cars 2 was a near-disaster with critics, and although Brave was a good film, it was an undeniable disappointment. With that in mind, they are hoping that a prequel to their popular classic Monsters, Inc. can help get them back on the right track. Does Monsters University prove that Pixar has not lost their stride?
As a child, Mike Wasowski (Billy Crystal) dreamed of becoming a top-of-the-line terrorizer – to do so he would need to attend Monsters University to gain the proper scaring education. Many years pass, and then he finally becomes a freshman at the famed school. Meeting the nerdy and shy Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi) and stuck-up legacy child James P. Sullivan (John Goodman) along the way, he soon learns that the Scaring program is much more competitive than he originally thought. He struggles – and ultimately fails – to stay in the program after the first semester, unfortunately, and then he only has one last chance to become a Scaring Major: the Scare Games. After recruiting Sullivan and the absurdly unpopular fraternity Oozma Kappa, he does whatever he can to win, lest he be expelled from the university.
I am sad to say that Monsters University is nowhere near as good as Pixar’s many masterpieces. However, it is definitely the best film that they’ve crafted since Toy Story 3. This is chiefly because it is actually funny – very funny, in fact. Brave had its silly moments, but Monsters University benefits greatly from witty dialogue and Pixar’s usual knack for great humor in small visual touches. Sometimes the humor is more friendly to children than adults, but I guarantee that there are plenty of jokes that will tickle your funny bone – that’s a testament to the fact that Pixar knows how to appeal to all ages.
Other than that, it’s great to see Mike and Sully on screen again. This film is also interesting in the way that they developed their friendship while also dealing with personal issues and college. The main problem with Monsters University is how formulaic its plot is. If you have seen any comedy where a group of underdogs or misfits attempt to outclass others, you have seen this film already, which is disappointing considering how original Pixar can be with storytelling. Despite creative touches, this film suffers from the usual predictability of prequels, and I felt that its tie-ins to the original film could have been more subtle. Thankfully, though, at a point where Monsters University could have ended on a cliched, schmaltzy note, the film continues on and takes a refreshingly realistic direction. Monsters University even explored the idea that sometimes our dreams are simply unattainable even though it’s always great to work hard, which I found fascinating.
Pixar has always been known for assembling great voice casts, and that talent is once again seen here. Of course, everyone is already aware of the comedic genius of John Goodman, Billy Crystal and Steve Buscemi, and here all three do a fine job reprising their roles from Monsters, Inc. Even though their characters are much younger in this film, surprisingly their voices still match their respective characters very well, and all of them deliver their lines with great comedic timing. Thankfully there are many other great comedians here that provide some excellent supporting work, as well. If names such as Nathan Fillion, Alfred Molina, Aubrey Plaza, John Krasinski and Bill Hader don’t excite you, I don’t know what would. They are all used perfectly in this great voice ensemble, and their lines are enough to make any cinephile geek out. Helen Mirren also does fine work as the Dean of Monsters University; her vocal performance underscores her character’s intimidating nature to just the right degree to make Dean Hardscrabble a memorable addition to Pixar’s long line of side characters.
This animation studio has never disappointed when it comes to visuals, and they don’t let us down in Monsters University. Not only is this a bright, colorful animated picture, the campus in which this story is based felt like a fully-developed world, while it also has a great sense of place in the narrative. This is a very detailed universe, and the characters that dwell amongst the campus are the results of great imagination. Each monster felt unique and likable, and it’s amazing how each one feels like a fun caricature of different personalities one might see in a public university. That fine attention to detail is one of the things that makes Pixar so great. The animation is simply fantastic, to say the least. Pixar veteran Randy Newman returns to compose the music, and while it may be less memorable than his previous scores, the soundtrack for Monsters University still works very well to enhance the emotional impact of the picture.
Monsters University is not the perfect Pixar film that we have been waiting for. With its formulaic plot and predictable screenplay, it’s obvious they need to work harder in order to fully recover from Cars 2. Nevertheless, this is still the best film they have made since 2010, which saw the release of their bona fide masterpiece Toy Story 3. Sporting an excellent voice cast, a funny script and a surprisingly emotional final act that carries with a message about ambition – and the disappointment it can bring – this is an animated comedy for moviegoers of all ages.