Were you dying to witness the story Mike and Sulley’s college experience after watching Monsters, Inc.? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth exploring. While it isn’t Pixar’s best work (and it doesn’t aim to be), Monsters University is a fun journey that ultimately delivers some refreshing messages.
Decades before the events of the first film, an elementary-aged Mike (Noah Johnson) discovers his dream of becoming a great scarer while on a field trip to Monsters, Inc. Cut to several years later, and Mike (voiced once again by Billy Crystal) is well on his way to achieving his goal at the prestigious Monsters University… or so he thinks. The problem is that others simply don’t see the potential in his less-than-frightening stature. Before long, he finds himself at odds with natural-born scarer Sulley (John Goodman), and the tension between the two sparks some disastrous consequences. This story makes up most of the opening half-hour, which, while amusing, focuses too heavily on monster gags and callbacks to Monsters, Inc. The heart is lacking, and Mike and Sulley’s rivalry just isn’t engaging enough to carry the first act.
Thankfully, things ramp up significantly when the duo is forced into a fraternity with rejects Don (Joel Murray), Squishy (Peter Sohn), Art (Charlie Day), and conjoined Terri (Sean Hayes) and Terry (Dave Foley). These hilarious characters rejuvenate the film in the exciting second act, which sees Mike and Sulley team up with their new allies in a series of challenges at the annual "Scare Games." Here, the duo’s partnership begins to grow believably, injecting some much-needed emotional resonance into the story. It all leads into a surprising, character-driven climax that nails every story beat.
In these final minutes, the filmmakers explore some unexpected and realist themes in a very effective way. So often movies proclaim that everything will work out if we follow our dreams, but Monsters University suggests that sometimes dreams don’t work out – and that hard work, not sheer ambition, is what ultimately counts. Director Dan Scanlon executes these ideas without being ham-fisted, cleverly intertwining them with Sulley and Mike’s budding friendship. It’s a smart lesson that justifies a seemingly unnecessary prequel.
Visually, Pixar continues to astound. MU takes an exaggerated and cartoony approach – a nice change of pace from last year’s Brave – but still remains true to the style of Monsters, Inc. Bright crowds of monsters and sweeping campus shots provide plenty of eye-candy, and the animators handle delicate story moments with expert precision. The lighting is gorgeous, as well; a lakeside moment between Mike and Sulley comes to mind.
Monsters University sets its sights on entertainment first and foremost, and it mostly succeeds. Despite some first act missteps, the film gets better and better as it goes along, eventually finding a satisfying theme at the core of its story. It doesn’t come close to the emotional heights of Inc., and it lacks the artistic ambitions of Ratatouille, WALL·E, or Up, but Monsters University is enjoyable in its own right and has some worthwhile statements to make. Besides, some more time in the monster world is never a bad thing.
The Blue Umbrella: An interesting companion to MU, The Blue Umbrella is a charming and distinct short directed by Saschka Unseld. The incredible visuals combined with Jon Brion’s fantastic music evoke a uniquely gentle, melancholy mood that’s unlike anything Pixar has done before. The basic story doesn’t quite live up to the tone it establishes, but you’ll have a smile on your face as the credits roll. (And dear Disney: Please release a soundtrack for this one!)
Seen Monsters U or The Blue Umbrella? Sound off in the comments!