Friday, July 19, 2013

Monsters University Movie Review

Someone suggested that a more fitting title for Monsters University, the prequel to Pixar’s hit Monsters, Inc., would have been When Mike Met Sulley. Not only do you get the Sully/Sally pun, but of course Mike is voiced by Billy Crystal, who played Harry, the man who met Sally. That’s neither here nor there, having little to do with the movie itself. It’s just an observation, but essentially Monsters University is the story of how Mike Wazowski, the irrepressible and energetic little walking eyeball became best buds with Sully, the big pastel-hewed fierce and furry “scarer” voiced by John Goodman. This is the story of how they came to be the powerful team that generates innumerable canisters of screams to power the Monster city.

In what will be only the first of a laundry list of clichés utilized in the film, we see Mike as a young kid on a field trip to the energy plant where we know he’ll later work. His eye is agog at the wonder and magic of the Scare Floor, where legendary scarers (essentially the Monster world’s version of sports heroes) ply their trade going into children’s bedrooms in the human world. From that moment, there’s no turning back for Mike. He becomes the Rudy Ruettiger of the Monster world, intent on becoming a top scarer despite the physical limitations of size and general lack of scariness. Hard work and perseverance land him in Notre Dame – Oops! – I mean Monsters University, where he’s nervous about meeting his new roommate, whom he expects will be his new best friend. He opens the door and meets…Randall Boggs, the disappearing lizard-like monster voiced by Steve Buscemi who served as the principal antagonist in Monsters, Inc.

The whole movie owes a great deal to the Revenge of the Nerds tradition with its fraternity of geeks going up against the most popular, most athletic, and scariest frat on campus. It’s that plus a tinge of Harry Potter, I guess, what with various courses of study all related to the production of scream energy. Nothing from canister design to door building is as enticing as the Scare School. After they’re thrown out of the program, Mike works out a deal with terrifying Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) that if they win the Scare Games – a Goblet of Fire like campus competition – he and Sully can be readmitted to the program. Their team includes the least desirable and nerdiest group on campus: the middle-aged Don (Joel Murray); a two-headed dance major (Dave Foley and Sean Hayes); a multi-eyed retread of Russell from Up; and a groovy mop-looking creature in touch with his inner hippie (Charlie Day).

It’s all visually imaginative with eye-popping color and stunning art design, as Pixar is so good at. But overall this is a less film in the canon, somewhere above the Cars films, but not nearly as good as Toy Story or even Monsters, Inc. I was generally amused, but never in stitches. I like the way the story informs a little bit of what comes later, but I could have done without it.

Directed by Dan Scanlon from a story and screenplay by Scanlon, Daniel Gearson, and Robert L. Baird, it’s full of the well-worn clichés you would expect from a story of underdogs going head-to-head with the top competition. There are big themes at work here: follow your dreams; don’t discount the little guy; hard work is the best path to success; teamwork is an essential element to anyone’s success. These are simple ideas I would criticize in a live action film intended for grown-ups, but in a kids’ film they are welcome for what they hopefully instill in young minds. 

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