Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Movie Review: Monsters University

Monsters University
Directed by: Dan Scanlon.
Written by: Robert L. Baird & Daniel Gerson & Dan Scanlon.  
Starring: Billy Crystal (Mike), John Goodman (Sullivan), Steve Buscemi (Randy), Helen Mirren (Dean Hardscrabble), Peter Sohn (Squishy), Joel Murray (Don), Sean Hayes (Terri), Dave Foley (Terry), Charlie Day (Art), Alfred Molina (Professor Knight), Tyler Labine (Greek Council VP), Nathan Fillion (Johnny), Aubrey Plaza (Claire Wheeler), Bobby Moynihan (Chet), Noah Johnston (Young Mike), Julia Sweeney (Ms. Squibbles), Bonnie Hunt (Mrs. Graves), John Krasinski (Frank McCay), Bill Hader (Referee / Slug), Beth Behrs (PNK Carrie), Bob Peterson (Roz), John Ratzenberger (Yeti), Frank Oz (Fungus).

Last week, I did a post asking if something was wrong with Pixar. The gist of the piece was essentially that after an almost unprecedented run between 2003’s Finding Nemo and 2010’s Toy Story 3, where they made 7 films, 6 of them being great, and the other being Cars which was merely good, Pixar now seems to have three films in a row – with Cars 2, Brave and now Monsters University – that were not quite up to snuff. What I tried to convey in that piece that while it is fair to say Pixar’s films aren’t quite as great as they were during that stretch a major part of the problem was the weight of expectations. I think Cars 2 was a legitimately bad film, but last year’s Brave was very good – it would considered a triumph for any other animation studio, but coming from Pixar, it was seen as a mild disappointment. The early reviews of Monsters University seemed to suggest the same thing – they were respectable, but hardly over the moon like some of the Pixar’s best efforts. What I will say about Monsters University now that I have seen the film is similar to what I said about Brave – not quite as good as Pixar’s best – and as such, a mild disappointment – but miles better than what most children’s animation made in America is. Monsters University may not be WALL-E – but it’s no Cars 2 either.

The movie is a prequel to 2001’s Monsters Inc., where we followed intrepid duo Sully (voiced by John Goodman) and his sidekick Mike (Billy Crystal) on their adventure working for the premier scaring company in Monster Land – which is powered by children’s screams the scarers must get out of them by creeping up on them as they sleep. Monsters University goes back to the time where Sully and Mike first met - and shockingly, didn’t like each other at first. Sully came to MU as it’s called as a legacy – his father is a famous scarer, and Sully can be scary simply by showing up and growling – he slacks off, does no work, but it doesn’t matter – he’s just that good. Mike on the other hand works his eyeball off – reading every book on scaring ever written, memorizing “Scream Theory” and practicing non-stop. There’s just one problem – he’s not really all that scary.

The plot basically involves Sully and Mike butting heads with each other – and running afoul of Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), a wonderfully creepy centipede with wings creation. In order to stay in school, they have to assemble a ragtag group of losers and win the “Scare Games”. You can probably see how this is going to play out – and for the most part you’d be right. Unlike the best Pixar movies, Monster’s University doesn’t really have many surprises up its sleeves. There is the Fraternity led by Johnny (Nathan Fillion), who always wins the Scare Games, and need to be taken down a peg, and then there’s the Frat Mike and Sully are stuck with – amusingly with the intitals OK – that is full of the nicest monsters who would ever hope to meet, who seem like hopeless losers, but who Mike and Sully will whip into shape to surprise everyone at the Scare Games.

So no, Monsters University does not rank alongside Wall-E, The Incredibles or Toy Story 3 as one of the very best films Pixar has ever made. And yet, to call the film bad or even disappointing would be wrong. The film, like even the worst Pixar movie, is stunningly well animated – a colorful world full of the strangest, funniest, creepiest monsters you will ever see in a kid’s movie. And while the plot may be fairly well worn territory, that doesn’t mean that co-writer/director Don Scanlon and company don’t deliver the goods and make an extremely entertaining, often times very funny children’s films. The kids will love Monsters Inc. – it’s got enough bright colors, action sequences and humor they can enjoy for that (although, I do wonder if little kids may be given a few nightmares by Hardscrabble – Mirren does a remarkable job of matching the monster’s creepy exterior with a pitch perfect voice).  And there are a few scenes that just about perfect for older movie buffs – the best being a sequence that relives every horror movie cliché “Boo” moment imaginable, deployed in increasingly clever ways.

Monsters University does not live up to the best movies Pixar has ever made. But it is still a very good animated movies that both children and adults should like immensely. What’s so disappointing about that?

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