Sunday, June 23, 2013

Monsters University / **** (G)

Featuring the voices of:
Mike: Billy Crystal
Sully: John Goodman
Randy: Steve Buscemi
Dean Hardscrabble: Helen Mirren
Squishy: Don Sohn
Don: Joel Murray
Terri: Sean Hayes
Terry: Dave Foley
Art: Charlie Day
Professor Knight: Alfred Molina
Greek Council VP: Tyler Labine
Johnny: Nathan Fillion
Claire Wheeler: Aubrey Plaza
Chet: Bobby Moynahan

Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Pictures present a film directed by Dan Scanlon. Written by Daniel Gerson, Scanlon & Robert L. Baird. Running time: 110 min. Rated G.

I was disappointed with the last two Pixar outings, “Toy Story 3” and “Brave”. They’re both good movies, but they just weren’t up to the snuff of Pixar’s usual ingenuity. Many have speculated that the wonder company is losing its touch by succumbing to the Hollywood sequel engine, with little more original ideas or characters in their reserve. “Monsters University” might fall back on a setting and characters they’ve explored in the past, but like “Toy Story 2” before, it proves that there are multiple avenues in one city that can act as roads to success.

I was a huge fan of the original “Monsters, Inc.” back in 2001, perhaps more so than most critics. I loved how completely the Pixar production team had created this world for these childhood fears of the monster in the closet. Their premise that the monster’s world was powered by the screams of little children in our world was unique and allowed for the monster heroes to be sympathetic, rather than malicious. Their world was filled with incredible detail and homage that made multiple viewings rewarding. And, boy did I get multiple viewings. My first-born was obsessed with the movie.

The fear was that “Monsters University” would just rehash all the details and ideas that worked the first time around. In a way it does. It’s still about the friendship between the little single-eyed globe monster, Mike Wazowski, and his big fluffy, but loud enough to be scary bud, James “Sully” Sullivan. This one takes a look at the creation of that friendship and places its events in a completely different environment than the first film. Gone is the workplace humor, which is replaced by a monster spoof on college life. This cleverly keeps the humor aimed squarely enough at adults for this colorful, cuddly monster story to appeal to all ages.

Again, like the original, it doesn’t try to break any molds with its story. It essentially embodies the same plot as “Revenge of the Nerds” or “National Lampoon’s Animal House”, but on family friendly levels. Mike dreams of becoming the best scarer ever for the premiere scare factory, Monsters, Inc. ever since visiting the facility as a wee little one. When he finally enrolls in Monsters University, it is the first step toward fulfilling his dream, even though no one believes he can be scary. Sully comes from a long line of famous scarers. He thinks he can skirt on the tails of his family name and his raw ability to scare.

A rivalry quickly forms between the two. Both learn the hard way that true success must be earned when they are kicked out of the scaring school by the program’s head, Dean Hardscrabble. The only way they can fulfill their mutual dreams of becoming the top scarers in the school is to win the Greek Scare Games. Of course, the only way they can enter the games is if they are members of a fraternity, but no fraternity will have them after they’ve been kicked out of the scaring program. No fraternity, but the loser frat that is.

Like most of Pixar’s early films, it isn’t the originality of the story that distinguishes this movie; it’s how they tell it. Beginning with Mike’s elementary school trip to the scare factory, which includes every detail any of us remember from field trips. The teacher acts exactly as elementary teachers do in such situations, with a positive attitude no matter what awful things the kids are doing to each other. The way Mike looks up to the scarers as heroes mirrors the hero worship any of us had as children. Plus it is all imbued with the established practices of the monster universe that is already established from the original film and further enriched with new details here.

Later, every aspect of Mike’s and Sully’s personalities play into their rivalry and eventual friendship. It’s Mike’s belief in study versus Sully’s belief in pure skill. When Sully steals another school’s mascot, watch the different ways the two of them pursue the pig when it escapes. It all matches everything we’ve learned about each of them.

I especially like the way the screenwriters structured their plot, so it is impossible to figure out how it will all turn out. It’s easy to predict where Mike and Sully will be at the end of it all, but how they get there unfolds before your eyes without much to indicate what will lead to their ultimate conclusion. Will they win the Greek games? Will they get back into the scare program? The answers to these questions aren’t necessarily what you’d predict, but the characters and the environment in which they exist support all the reasoning behind them. This is how a great movie is made. Plus, it’s funny and fun for all ages. You can’t beat that.

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