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Monsters University – Movie Review

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Monsters University – Movie Review

Rating: B- (Okay)

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For the longest time, the works of Pixar Animation Studios were considered the pinnacle for the potential heights of motion pictures, animated or otherwise. Starting with Toy Story, John Lasseter’s computer animation mecca had a impressive knack of telling exceptionally crafted stories with memorable characters and willing to take on adult themes, while pulling our heart strings. Monsters University, a prequel to the wonderfully delightful Monsters, Inc. is a disappointment from Pixar and it really does hurt me to type that. It is not poorly put together, but the story is a generic one with shockingly little character development and few winning jokes. Most of the creativity can be found on the designs rather than in the screenplay. Although the story is a little weak, I’d still want to become a walking stuffed toy, if I could get my hands on a Sulley onesie.

The challenge with making a prequel is we already know the outcome. Mike and Sulley are best friends in Monsters Inc, so we know their younger, feuding selves are going to eventually make up. In order for that to still be interesting, that dynamic from the first film has to still be on display, even if they are polar opposite competitors. The banter between the two in Monsters, Inc was tremendously funny and perfectly timed, thanks to Pete Docter’s direction, the screenplay co-written by Andrew Stanton and the vocal performances of Billy Crystal and John Goodman. Crystal and Goodman are still very strong in the roles and manage to sound believably younger, but the script gets in the way of giving them good material to work with. New director Dan Scanlon simply goes through the motions and while Daniel Gerson and Robert Baird are both returning writers from the earlier feature, they are unable to recapture that spark and dialogue. Some of the more funny bits are the references to the first film, which shows the lack of original gags on display here.

Most of the creativity to be found in Monsters University is the work of the animators. It is redundant at this point to praise the animation in a Pixar film, but their ability at creating this world is certainly impressive. The most enjoyable part of the film is the first ten or so minutes, not only because that is when the comedy is at its most consistently funny and charming, but also because of how we are re-introduced to the monster universe. The hand-drawn opening titles are particularly delightful and the most smile-inducing part of the whole picture. They even manage to reflect how much technology can grow in decades with the door stations being more bulky and less sleek than in Monsters, Inc. That level of detail is notably evident with the classrooms, dorms and the exterior architecture of the university buildings. The character designs on the monsters are also terrific, with many varied creatures with their own individual powers. While the fraternity brothers Mike and Sulley befriend are not that interesting or funny, their various designs and abilities were certainly crafted with careful attention.

Another aspect that works is Randy Newman’s score, which features his usual strong compositions. The main theme expertly fits the tone of the film and the music is memorable and charming through the entire running time, especially the end credits score which is unlikely to leave my head. Newman even borrows some cues from his earlier score for Monsters, Inc., choosing the right moments to harken back to it. The re-usage of the tracks “Randall Appears”, “The Scare Floor” and even “Boo’s Adventures in Monstropolis” is done to perfect effect in Monsters University. While the film does surprisingly lack a song with Newman’s recognisable vocals, he does compose a fun, little ditty in the style of university anthems. Chalk this up as another memorable score from one of Pixar’s most frequent musical collaborators.

The lack of much character development is particularly disappointing to see in a Pixar feature. The progression towards Mike and Sulley becoming friends did not feel that natural as it happens suddenly and worst of all, in montage form. Considering Pixar’s mantra of story having prominence over action, it is surprising how most of their screen time together consists of montages and a series of Scare Games. Even the moments that could have been heartfelt and sweet didn’t particularly register. Comparing that to the natural progression of Sulley and Boo in Monsters, Inc only makes the lack of genuine emotion that much more obvious. In regards to the other fraternity members, their development is telegraphed a mile away as the screenplay follows a very by-the-numbers structure.

In looking to recreate the typical tale of misfits beating the odds, Monsters University fits closely to that trope a little too much. Meanwhile, Randall gets the shortest end of the stick. He was a delightfully twisted villain in the first film with his special chameleon-like powers and Steve Buscemi’s slimy voice made him particularly memorable. In Monsters University, he is introduced as a sympathetic character and chum to Mike, only to become evil at the snap of a finger with the weakest explanation possible. Randall’s descent into villainy could have been a really dramatic story to further strengthen the bond formed between Mike and Sulley, but he instead becomes a throwaway character.

The lack of strong and consistent humour also results in a lesser product. The middle act particularly drags as I constantly waited for something to get a chuckle out of me. It almost seems like the background animators and character designers have to pick up the slack from how uninspired the screenplay is. Pixar is known for its inner Brain Trust that oversees every single phase of production and giving suggestions to their directors for how to potentially improve the story and humour in a given film. It is possible that original writers Pete Docter and Andrew Stanton were too preoccupied with their own projects or Scanlon simply felt satisfied with his own hit-or-miss material. The potential was limitless for what could have been with a monster-populated university, much like a scream-powered electricity plant, but this film just fell short of meeting them.

It pains me to give even a mediocre review to a Pixar film. Calling me a fanboy of The House John, Ed and Steve Built would be an accurate assessment. Sadly, I never found myself caring about the characters or the story enough in Monsters University to give it a positive score. Even the humour and entertainment value that I got out of the critically maligned Cars 2 was almost non-existent in this effort. Every time I have seen that lamp hop across the screen, I knew I was in for a special film and my lack of appreciation for Monsters University will certainly not stop me from anticipating their future projects. Thankfully, it is somewhat passable and there are little hints of their creativity on screen, but as a whole, this rather forgettable effort unfortunately ends my personal streak of enjoying every feature film Pixar has released.

Review By: Stefan Ellison


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