Review: 'Monsters University' Has Just Enough Heart and Laughs
by Jeremy Kirk
June 21, 2013
In 2001, when Monster's, Inc. came out, Pixar was still in its early years. The company had two Toy Story films and A Bug's Life, which some considered a slight disappointment. Adorable as it was, Monster's, Inc. still didn't quite reach the heights of quality storytelling that would come a bit later with films like Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. It's only natural that now, 12 years and ample amounts of that quality later, the company's trek back to the well brings us Monsters University, a prequel. The results are still fine, adorable as ever, with plenty of laughs from audiences both young and old. And maybe that's good enough.
As with the previous Monster's installment, the film focuses on Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) and Sully (voiced by John Goodman), two monsters just trying to be the best Scarers they can be. But just because you're born a monster doesn't necessary mean you get the job of terrifying young children, so it's off to college to learn the ABCs of S-C-A-R-Y. As with real college, something the younger members of the audience won't quite understand, Monsters University throws surprises, obstacles, and disappointments at the two, young monsters.
The first surprise being that Mike and Sully don't hit it off as the best of friends right off that bat. That's the chief motivation in the screenplay at work here, showing us how exactly these two became not only best friends but the top scarers at Monster's, Inc. That part isn't, and shouldn't be construed as, a spoiler.
The screenplay works in enough twists and turns among the countless bits of laugh and cuteness. Director Dan Scanlon, who also contributed to the screenplay along with Robert L. Baird and Daniel Gerson, tries his hardest at keeping Monsters University from being a simple Point A-to-Point B narrative. Even when the film appears to be headed down obvious territory, the message and lessons it holds end up working their own wonders, keeping the viewer completely interested in the story as well as the comedy.
Both work here, the latter aiding in how well the former works. Mike, the small, green blob of teeth and a single eyeball, is going after his dream. At every turn, he's told he just isn't scary enough, but that doesn't deter the little guy from doing the best he can. It's in the film's early moments, when Mike, still a child, visits Monster's, Inc. and sees the scaring masters at work. He's immediately sold on his dream, and no one, not overly critical teachers nor mean-spirited frat brothers, is going to tell Mike what he can't be.
The opening is nowhere as adorable as Boo from the first film and in no way does it tug at the same heartstrings Pixar is known for hitting early on. We're looking at you, first five minutes of Up. But even though this moment, and the rest of Monsters University, for that matter, never nails the perfect Pixar touch, its colorful cuteness and solid pacing are undeniable.
On the other side of the Monster coin, Sully comes from a long line of Scarers. He's a natural, and because of this he's lazy at keeping his scaring tactics in practice. It isn't hard to see how these two are destined to become best buddies even if the start of their relationship is more than a little rocky.
The rest of the characters on hand are just as colorful, unique monsters of every shape and size, some scarier than others. Helen Mirren voices Dean Hardscrabble, an interesting combination of bat and centipede that may have younger audience members flinching in fright. That's kind of the idea, though, but not to worry. A whole new series of laughs are always right around the corner.
That's what Monsters University does best, bringing just enough genuine laughs for everyone in the audience to enjoy. Yes, the message of never giving up on your dream is clear. Some might say obvious. But when it comes to drawing laughter out of the crowd, Pixar still knows precisely which buttons to push and which dials to turn. Monsters University may be as shallow as the fountain in the college quad, but this vibrantly animated version of Revenge of the Nerds went to the school of certified comedy. It passes.
Maybe not with honors, but a pass is still a pass.
Jeremy's Rating: 7 out of 10