After the somewhat disappointing Brave and (though I haven’t seen it) the considerable critical displeasure directed towards Cars 2, many had begun to worry that perhaps Pixar had lost its way. The same magical company that gave us the heartwrenching tale of lost love and a squandered life in Up or the tale of maturation and leaving behind childhood in Toy Story 3 or the brilliant modern superhero story of The Incredibles had seemingly lost its inspiration and ability to tell character-driven stories that appeal to both the young and old. Thankfully, I can report that Pixar has found its magic touch again with the highly enjoyable Monsters University, the long-awaited sequel to 2001’s Monsters Inc.
Though Monsters University may not reach the same emotional heights of Up, the Toy Story franchise, or The Incredibles, it makes up for it by being arguably one of the funniest films that Pixar has done in years and years. Continuing Pixar’s trend (one that I’m perfectly fine with) of making their sequels a meta-commentary for the children who grew up with these films in the first place, the team at Pixar turns Monsters University into a spoof of classic college films like Revenge of the Nerds, Animal House, and others in such a way that I legitimately wonder if kids will even be able to get many of the jokes. But as one of the kids who can remember watching the first film in theaters 12 years ago (when I was myself 12), it’s great to return to this world.
After visiting the Monsters Inc. scare factory (where the screams of human children are converted into the energy that powers Monstropolis) as a child, Mike Lazowski (Billy Crystal) makes it his life-long dream to become a professional scarer. Considering that he’s a tiny circular green ball with a massive eye, that’s easier said than done since Mike can be better described as “cute” or “cuddly” than “horrific.” But Mike refuses to let that stop him, and thanks to the inspiration given to him by one of the scarers he meets as a child, Mike knows that there’s no better place to learn how to scare than at the prestigious Monsters University.
But, arriving at Monsters University is an immediate reminder to Mike that he’s going to have to work harder than anyone else if he wants to earn his place in the ranks of Scare Majors. Led by the stern and imposing Dean Hardscrabble (The Queen‘s Helen Mirren), the candidates to be scarers face a rigorous curriculum that only the toughest can hope to survive. And early on, the studious but ultimately unscary Mike bumps head with the ferocious but lazy Sully (The Big Lebowski‘s John Goodman) as the two compete to be the best in their class. But when the Greek Scare games arrive, the two must find a way to work together in order to stay in the Scare program.
One of the biggest compliments that I could give Brave (when I wasn’t thinking about the many things I felt the film was missing) was that it was undeniably a beautiful looking film. Pixar had completely redesigned their graphics engine for that film, and the level of detail and artistry showed. That same absurdly high caliber of detail continues over to Monsters University. Just click on the pixar above of Mike and Scully for the full-size image and see just how insanely detailed the texture work on Sully is. It’s like they individually modeled almost every single hair on his super fuzzy body. And, though Monsters University may be more cartoonishly stylized than Brave, that almost allows the directors to go even more wild with their imagination in crafting fantastic creatures. Monsters University is a visual delight.
Though neither of them have played the part in over ten years now, Billy Crystal and John Goodman slipped comfortably back into these roles that brought so much joy to children so long ago now. I’m sort of sad that Billy Crystal has dropped off the pop culture radar over the last decade (other than the odd Oscars hosting gig here and there) because he picked up the slack of neurotic, nebbish leading men that Woody Allen left off when Woody primarily disappeared behind the camera. And I firmly believe that John Goodman is the best supporting comedic talent of the last twenty-five to thirty years.
Though the film starts off just a wee bit slow, it allows the film to fill in some of the emotional blanks that make the rest of the film pay off. But, once the laughs come, they hit hard and often til the final credits roll. Of course, I’m 24 and was watching this film in an audience full of little kids (I worry that my 19 year old sister and I were the only non-parent adults in the theater), and I was laughing at all of the moments that the kids weren’t. There’s a scene before their finals where a multiple-limbed monstrosity is downing coffee and twitching like a crackhead that had me laughing hysterically and it was just a little sight gag. But, the film is overflowing with jokes that will more likely appeal to the older people in the crowd than the kids watching with their parents.
I’ve reviewed two movies today. I want to watch the season 1 finale of Twin Peaks as well as an episode of Game of Thrones (which I have to catch up on because I didn’t get to watch this season when it aired) and I want to watch a movie on my Netflix Instant queue before it disappears in two days so I’ll draw this review to a close. Monsters University may not have made me bawl like a baby like Toy Story 3 or Up, but it certainly wasn’t lacking in an emotional pay-off. The film may not be the height of children’s entertainment, but as a nostalgic throwback to the heroes of my youth, Monsters University was a great way to spend an evening.
Final Score: B+