Movie Review: Monsters University
By Matthew Huntley
July 1, 2013
For the record, Monsters University is a fun, loveable movie - bright, cheerful and filled with amusing sight gags and slapstick humor. But it’s no Pixar film. Yes, I know it’s been made by Pixar, but it wasn’t that long ago the venerable studio was forever associated with inventive, cutting-edge storytelling that happened to have mainstream appeal. Lately, though, it only seems concerned with the latter. Movies like Cars 2 and Brave, and now prequels like Monsters University, are light and entertaining to a lot of people, but they’re not indelible like Ratatouille and Up, which were bold, heartfelt and arguably ingenious with their narratives. There even seemed to be some risk involved in their making.
That sense of audacity has been slowly fading away from Pixar’s agenda and the studio seems too comfortable with recycled material. Their latest movies may hold our attention and make us smile, but inspiring they are not. Compared to the Pixar greats, or even typical family entertainment, Monsters University is standard and conventional, which is not to say it doesn’t have energy and heart, but in this day and age, and with computer animated movies being so prolific, the filmmakers need to aim higher.
The movie is essentially Monsters, Inc. meets Revenge of the Nerds and Animal House, or at least the Disney version of them. In the alternate world of monsters, a grade-school-aged Mike Wazowski (voice of Billy Crystal) takes a field trip to Monsters, Inc. and falls in love with the idea of becoming a professional scarer, who generates power to the city of Monstropolis by collecting the screams of little kids. Years later, Mike’s ambitions have earned him a spot in the scare program at Monsters University.
Here he meets his eventual best friend, James “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman), although we learn they actually started out as enemies. After Sulley takes wrongful credit for capturing another school’s mascot, he’s accepted into the Roar Omega Roar fraternity and Mike is sent off to join the nerdy Oozma Kappa, whose members are your typical social outcasts - the kind who never get invited to parties and still live with their mothers.
Mike and Sulley each claim to be the better scarer and vow to show the other one up by the end of the semester. While Mike earns straight A’s and learns everything there is to know about being scary, he overlooks one simple fact: he’s not scary, and he seems to be the only one unaware of this. Sulley, on the other hand, may not have Mike’s brains, but he’s got the brawn. It helps that he comes from a long line of professional scarers.
During their final exam, Mike and Sulley accidentally destroy one of Dean Hardscrabble’s (Helen Mirren) prized possessions and she kicks them out of the scare program, forcing them to take up other majors. Mike makes a deal with the Dean, however, and if he and his team win the annual Scare Games, he’s back in; otherwise, he must leave Monsters University for good. Of course, Mike and the Oozma Kappa gang need one more team member to compete, which is where Sulley comes in.
Clearly, this is not the most original story. In fact, I wonder if John Goodman, who appeared in Revenge of the Nerds, experienced any déjà vu when reading the script for Monsters, since the similarities between the two almost seem deliberate. Not that little kids will know this, or even care, but I think the likeness between Monsters University and so many other college comedies is indicative of Pixar’s freshness bloc. The filmmakers have basically rehashed a dependable formula and filled it with monster puns and cute characters.
This doesn’t leave the movie completely devoid of entertainment value, but I find myself resisting to recommend it out of sheer principle. Because I know what Pixar is capable of, and because they’ve set such a high standard for themselves, I have to put it on them to exercise their creative energy and brainstorm for something better and more challenging than Monsters University. Light, entertaining and mindless just don’t cut it this time. And if it’s any consolation to Pixar, I would feel the same way even if Monsters University was produced by another studio. But because it’s Pixar, the movie feels especially ordinary. This latter comment is something they should take as a sign of flattery.