WASHINGTON, June 29, 2013 – There was a day not so long ago when virtually every offering from the Pixar animation studios had the potential to make the entertainment earth move. Features like “A Bug’s Life” (1998), “Up” (2009) and of course the “Toy Story” franchise (1995-2010 and beyond) set the highest standards for computer-based animation as well as sophisticated storytelling.
“Finding Nemo” (2003) took these skill sets underwater, and its hilarious French chef sequence almost certainly inspired the later, outstanding “Ratatouille” (2007).
The darker superhero feature “The Incredibles” (2004), this reviewer’s personal favorite, borrowed a bit of its plotline from DC Comics’ 1987 graphic novel, “Watchmen,” but made this material Pixar’s own with a surprisingly conservative, anti-statist (for Hollywood) plotline, and clever, cynical dialogue that endorsed heroism over relativism.
Virtually all these features proved to be hits at the box office, and the original “Monsters, Inc.” (2001) was one of those hits as well. With its goofy characters and outrageously original premise—the monsters’ city runs on the power generated by the screams of kids the monsters terrify in the real world—scored the big bucks as well. So it’s likely that after some consideration, the Disney Studios, which now own Pixar, decided to go back to that well and revive interest in the franchise with a sequel.
Or actually, a prequel.
Pixar’s newly-released “Monsters University” fills in the backstory behind the original Monster film. The current release takes us back to that pre-Monsters Inc. time when our heroes Mike Wazowski (the voice of Billy Crystal) and his big, bad, mostly blue eventual buddy Sulley (John Goodman) were first thrown together on the campus of—you guessed it—Monsters University.
Both aspiring freshman monsters are eager to be admitted as Scaring Majors, the school’s most sought-after and prestigious degree program. Conscientious but decidedly non-scary Mike works diligently to raise a more frightful profile. Lazy Sulley, on the other hand—the latest rising student from a long line of distinguished and very scary alumni—figures he can just coast the family rep to a gentleman’s C.
So our plot-driving conflict — grade-grind but fright-disadvantaged Mike vs. lazy, alleged BMOC (Big Monster On Campus) Sulley, is good to go. But it’s further complicated by the fierce and nasty Dean Hardscrabble (voiced by Helen Mirren).
Dean H. is cleverly re-imagined by Pixar as a tall, looming, evil presence rather cleverly calling to mind the Big Mama real monster in “Alien.” She adds the kind of key plot complication that generally drives the message in both Disney and Pixar-style animated features.
“Monsters U” in the main is fun and entertaining. The high points in the film, visually as well as humor-wise, revolve around the annual scare games, a campus fraternity contest in which the scariest fraternity wins the top award.
The hapless fraternity of losers Mike and Sulley are eventually forced to join — Oozma Kappa — initially comes across like a clones from “Revenge of the Nerds.” But, coached by our pair of would-be buddies, they evolve into a potent batch of tenacious competitors, again a typical but uplifting Disney-style redemption theme.
The action and visuals during the games are exceptional, and also, we think, a sly tweak on the kind of school rivalries and atmospherics that made the “Harry Potter” series of films into such mega-hits. That’s particularly during the spooky library battle, which turns out to be far more challenging and frightening than it looks.
The film concludes with a couple of interesting and in-character plot twists as well as a surprise final challenge which will keep kids and even some adults glued to their seats.
Bottom line: No parent will regret taking his or her kids to see this latest witty and creative Pixar offering.
On the other hand, “Monsters University” is remarkably lacking in anything out of the ordinary. There’s nothing really innovative here. The plot’s college and school rivalry themes have been tried before, and it all pales before the entirely different “Harry Potter” franchise which, admittedly, is not an animated feature (aside from the CGI) but will be hard for any similarly themed film to equal or exceed anyway.
The overriding issue we have here is that the film’s quirky and often lovable characters somehow lack real distinctiveness this time around, an intangeable that’s made a lot of past Pixar characters, including the original Mike and Sulley, so memorable.
Are we off base here? Maybe. Last week’s box office totals had “Monsters University” clearly outpinning Brad Pitt’s troubled blockbuster “World War Z” by over $30 million. Maybe people just love the Pixar entry more. Or maybe “Z” is as lukewarm a vehicle as all-knowing critics predicted it will be.
But time will tell, particularly those often telling upcoming second weekend figures when the real flops tend to take a massive swan dive as word-of-mouth criticism proliferates. Movie preferences can be mercurial anyway, so stay tuned.
Conclusion: In our opinion, if you’re looking for family fun, a few dozen less earsplitting explosions than you’re going to get in the summer’s action and superhero blockbusters, and, perhaps most importantly, zero expletives-not-deleted, “Monsters University” is the summer film for you. But if you’re expecting vintage Pixar creativity, à la “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille,” etc., you’ll find this a pretty ordinary summer cartoon.
BTW: Agree, disagree? That’s what our comments section below is actually for. Movies are mostly a matter of opinion anyway.
POSTSCRIPT: One really original and really funny item that doesn’t appear in this film is “Monsters University’s” incredibly clever spoof of the typical university home page. Check out the homepage here and see what we’re talking about.
Rating: ** (Two stars out of four.)
Oh, yeah. Here’s a trailer. Enjoy:
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