Movie Review: Monsters University
Director: Dan Scanlon
Reviewed: 25 June 2014
jamesintexas rating-- ***
A prequel to the sublimely silly Monsters, Inc., Monsters University offers insight into the backstory of James P. Sullivan (John Goodman) and Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) before they teamed up and became scaring buddies, and the result is this funny, albeit underwhelming story that loses its way a bit but offers enough winning moments to be enjoyable. The new film does not have the kinetic propulsion of Monsters, Inc. or its bureaucratic and baroque silliness, though setting these two lovable monsters in a college setting allows for some big laughs. From his childhood, Mike has always been inspired by the scarers who trained at Monsters University, and Sully is a legacy, the son of a great scarer with a nonchalance that borders on disrespect of his education. Much like the recent film 22 Jump Street, director Dan Scanlon focuses mostly on the bachanalian parties of college in lieu of spending time in classes or eating in a dining hall or visiting a library. At some point, someone should do a serious study of the depiction of college life in American film to catalogue the increasingly narrow vision of what higher education is shown to be. But, alas, back to the movie. An elaborate Scare Games contest designed by the fearsome dragon Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) serves as a group challenge that will allow the book smart Mike and the coasting Sully a way back into the Scaring Major after finding themselves kicked out for some mindless hijinks. To enter, they must form a team with the lowly Oozma Kappa fraternity of castaways who create some of the film's biggest laughs. I loved the Grover-Animal-like-bendy-monster named Art (Charlie Day) with his criminal past and silly personality. The film's structure quickly resembles the quintessential college film competition-style, with different challenges designed to test each team's overall scariness, and various lessons about teamwork and self worth are sprinkled throughout.
The only challenge that really works involves a monstrous near-blind librarian and the team's stealth movements through her domain. The scene is really quite well-done in its grandeur and art design. But otherwise, these moments feel rote and by-the-numbers here until the ending which offers a bit of a twist. I was so happy to see Randall (Steve Buscemi) back, but instead of being the villain, he starts out here as Mike's roommate but is criminally underused and underdeveloped. More Randall, please! Scanlon's team of animators fills the frame with gorgeous and striking looking creations, and I loved some of the minor details (the slug trying to get to class, the hacky sack players, and the hard-rocking mom in a van). There were many moments when it was hard to believe that the film was animated; the technology has advanced so incredibly that I really am impressed by what I see on-screen.
These characters are fun, and their world is one with richness and texture. Monsters University does not try too hard or push itself too much, but it has a strong message about honesty, enough callbacks to the first film to reward an attentive viewer, and the colors dazzle. The eyeball of Mike Wazowski is a wonder to behold in its expressiveness and green-white beauty. I think the first film remains the classic film, one of the best of the past decade, but Monsters University is nonetheless a lot of fun.