Starring: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Helen Mirren, Steve Buscemi, Peter Sohn, Charlie Day
I am not one to watch entertainment talk/news shows, specifically those that run stories on the most irrelevant of celebrity news like Entertainment Tonight. However, bored and having nothing else to watch, I decided to watch The Insider, now titled OMG Insider for some reason. Why does this relate to Monsters University? Well, one of the stories covered was the box office, where Monsters University was #1. One of the anchors, whose name I do not know and don’t feel like researching, stated that he saw it and that, in a very annoyed/condescending voice, “it was cute.” It bugged me that all he could say was that it was cute. Nice would have worked, or sweet, or even good. I just felt that cute wasn’t the word that could describe what many have said is a step in the right direction for Pixar.
Then I actually saw the movie and well…I do have to agree on some terms with him. Cute is a good word to describe Monsters University. Not that that makes it bad, far from it. While it doesn’t delve into edgy territory until the surprising third act, Monsters University is a cutesy children’s film that does its job: expand on the Monsters Inc. world and give a better in sight on how two of Pixar’s most popular characters, Mike and Sulley, became friends. The easiest questions to answer are: does Monsters University surpass the original? and should it be considered one of the studios masterpieces along with the Toy Story franchise, The Incredibles, and Wall-E?, both of which can be answered with a no. But one important question that needs to be answered is this: is Monsters University a sign that Pixar is no longer the animation studio to beat or that Pixar, after a mediocre film that many detest and a sequel that nobody wanted then and now, is on its way to a comeback? Luckily for us and the studio, the answer is the latter.
The plot is simple. Set 10 years before the events of Monsters Inc, the story follows Mike and Sulley during their freshman year of college. Starting off as bitter enemies, they must work together to get back into the scaring program at Monsters University by winning the Scare Games, a series of events that test the scaring abilities of the fraternity’s and sorority’s at MU, with their fraternity Oozma Kappa, a frat filled with the rejects of Monsters University. A plot many have described as “The Internship with monsters” and “the monster version of Revenge of the Nerds,” the plot seems to be one seen before, although with a few tweaks.
Pixar’s first prequel, the movie did a nice job with telling the story of Mike and Sulley’s friendship. Many have complained about the sequel-itis the film presents us (since Mike did mention that they knew each other in elementary school at the beginning of MI), but in my opinion the film completely erases that, making it feel like they truly did meet in college. It does feel by the book at the beginning, not taking many risks with the plotline and giving us the story that we expect. However, the third act becomes a new film entirely. The third act was something of a wonder and felt like an experts course in how Pixar has become one of the animation greats. Each twist in it enhanced the film, with its horror monsters homage and unexpected change of events at the very end. If it wasn’t for the third act, the film would have ended on a predictable and mundane note, but that one turn of events made the movie for me.
Everyone in the voice cast is brilliant. John Goodman and Billy Crystal, despite both being in their early to mid-sixties, easily slide back into the roles of Sulley and Mike, albeit their younger versions. Most of the film I never thought “Oh that’s John Goodman/Billy Crystal’s voice,” making it feel like it hasn’t been 12 years since the original came out, as if nothing has changed. Helen Mirren also does great work as Dean Hardscrabble. It didn’t feel out of place, like many celebrity voice castings of recent memory, and her voice fit perfectly with the winged, centipede-legged Dean. Besides John Goodman and Billy Crystal, the only returning cast member that is worth mentioning is Steve Buscemi as Randall, known as Randy in this film. Despite having very little to do (which I will touch on later), Buscemi is great, as he is in most of his voice work. The rest of star studded cast, including Nathan Fillion as the pompous jock Johnny, Aubrey Plaza as the gothic Greek Council president, and Charlie Day as OK member Art (who gives us one of the most quotable lines in the film), is phenomenal, especially coming from Day, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Peter Sohn, Joel Murray, and Julia Sweeney as the rest of Oozma Kappa and the mother of one of the members.
Character wise the film did well. Not many characters get much character development, save Mike and Sulley and the transformation of the OK frat from weak underdogs to impressive scarers, but the characters we want to route for are likeable and the changes Mike and Sulley go through do build a strong foundation for the film. Some characters actions (mainly a prank on the Oozma Kappa members involving glitter, teddy bears, and an obvious reference to Carrie) are questionable to say the least, but they don’t detract that much from the story. However, my biggest problem character wise was how Randall fit into the story. Randall is my favorite character in the original and being both a Randall and Steve Buscemi fan I was excited about him being in the prequel. After seeing the trailers and reading several message boards, I expected a lot more than was given. The friendship between him and Mike is barely explored, there’s no explanation to why he was chosen to be in the rival frat, and the way they set up the rivalry between him and Sulley is lazy with just one line before *POOF* he’s gone from the film. Many have complained about Randall’s lack of motivation in MI (which I can agree on to some degree) and there was potential for a great side plot that would have not only given some explanation as to why he is the way he is, but also would have connected with a lot of people. Pixar could have given a better reason for his detest for Sulley than a throwaway line.
Other than that, there is not much that I can say that isn’t a rehash of what other reviewers have said. The movie is beautiful to look at with bright, bold colors that appeal to the eye of those young and old. The story and writing, while it does borrow a lot from other movies, is very good, keeping the heart of the original while adding more to the Monsters Inc. mythos. The winks to the original and cameos from characters from the original that aren’t Sulley, Mike, and Randall are perfect. Hearing the music from specifically the garbage block scene brought me back to my childhood and seeing a cameo from a certain slug brought a giant smile to my face. There are some good jokes, but for anyone over the age of 9, possibly 10, many will fall flat. I saw the film in a packed theater with several kids and I didn’t hear many giggles, let alone a ton of laughter, throughout the movie. I can only remember a few spots where everyone collectively laughed, the only time the theater burst into laughter was near the end during the last OK meeting. There aren’t any tearjerker scenes or scenes that will make you cry, which is actually kind of refreshing for me. The last Pixar movie I saw was Toy Story 3 and the one before that was Up and now everytime I see the begnnning of Up or the end of Toy Story 3, I burst into tears. Pixar movies, along with most animated films, tend to add a big sad moment and it has become a bit cliché to me, so seeing Monsters University, the prequel to a film with a pretty good sad moment near the end, trade in tears for laughs is great.
I had high hopes for Monsters University. Monsters Inc. is not only my favorite Pixar film, but also one of my favorite movies, and due to the disappointment Cars 2 was and how outraged fans seemed to be over Brave’s recent best animated feature win at the Oscars, Pixar desperately needed a good movie to get them out of the phase they were in. I never expected it to be better than Monsters Inc, just expand on its universe. Most importantly, I wanted Pixar to be at least start making their way back to their title of best animation studio. Yes, the film has serious character development issues, along with some jokes that fall flat and characters that could have had a better reason to be in the film, but it also has a great voice cast, great character development and pacing for both Mika and Sulley and their friendship, and a third act that solidified the film as more than an underdog story. While I don’t find it the best out of Pixar’s roster or it’s sequels, but it isn’t the worst and it gives me a reason to say something that I have been hoping to say for a very long time: welcome back Pixar.