dir. Dan Scanlon
Release Date: Jun 21, 13
“Pixar is not dying.” Say that aloud. In particular, if you happen to subscribe to the increasingly prevalent idea that Pixar is trapped in an irreversible place of decline, please keep repeating that until you see that claim for the logical fallacy it is. Sure, Pixar’s last two films were horrendous (Cars 2) and a serviceable but unremarkable Disney Princess entry (Brave), but that’s hardly evidence of a decline. It’s just a settling down from the torrid 2005-2010 production period they enjoyed. Monsters University, like any film the company makes from this point forward, will be compared to that run, an unenviable marker of quality for any cinema. And if it isn’t quite as good as films like Wall-E or Up (or indeed, even Monsters Inc.), it’s still an above-average family flick, quick in wit and accessible to any and every age.
Before they were a record-shattering scare team in the monster world, the prequel finds Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and James P. “Sully” Sullivan (John Goodman) as students at Monsters University, the pre-eminent academic institution for future professionals in the fear industry. While both have designs on the university’s acclaimed Scaring School, Sully expects to skate into the program based on his father’s reputation and his naturally fearsome roar, while Mike reads every book and absorbs every theory to make up for his diminuitive stature and the fact that nobody at the school, including the imposing Dean Hardscrabble (an icy Helen Mirren), finds him all that scary. The two become heated rivals until a mishap leads to their expulsion from the program, and their only means of re-entry hinges upon their ability to win the Scare Games, a skill competition for the school’s Greek fraternities.
If this sounds like Revenge of the Nerds, or virtually any college underdog story, that’s because Pixar seemingly chucked them all into a blender and went to town. Sully and Mike pledge Oozma Kappa, the dweebiest frat on campus, in hopes of proving to the school that they’re worth more than anybody could’ve expected, and it should come as no shock that they do. The pleasures of Monsters University lie not in the plot itself, which lacks some of the emotional heft and big ideas about adulthood that Monsters Inc. offered, but rather in the honest warmth and small jokes that emerge along the way. Moments like Oozma Kappa’s trip to the Monsters Inc. headquarters for a jolt of inspiration, featuring a wonderfully left-field aural cameo from prog-metallers Mastodon, offer plenty of genuine laughs (as opposed to the polite chuckles induced by, say, the Shrek films) and an upbeat message about living by your own muse even if you don’t fit any conventional molds for success.
Crystal and Goodman once again nail the voice performances, even if they make the somewhat questionable choice to give Mike and Sully the same voices they had twelve years ago, when they were older characters. There’s an inimitable rapport between the two that buoys the film through its trite moments and lends it the proper gravitas when the film puts on its serious face. And in those moments, director Dan Scanlon (a first-time Pixar helmer) leans on his cast’s ability to find the heart in platitudes, to such a point that only the most jaded souls will get locked up in whether or not they’ve heard all this before. He also manages a few wicked sight gags, particularly one in which the question of how Mike and Sully would handle scaring adults is answered. (Minor spoiler: It’s not that hard.) To criticize Monsters University for not living up to its predecessors is to miss the entire point of the movie itself, that you’re only defined by what you do, and not the people who did it before you. And, ultimately, even if you sometimes screw it up, it’s never too late to pull it together and work your way up to the greatness everyone expects.