Movie Review: Monsters University- A Charming and Mildly Humorous Prequel Weighted Down by Unoriginal Formula and Predictable Development

MONSTERS UNIVERSITYPixar’s creative soul has slowly begun to drain most likely due to its ill-advised marriage with the overbearing influential force of Disney as we’re seeing their consistent quality and originality slowly disappear from existence with occasional reminders of what made them so unique. Three out of four of Pixar’s last couple of films can all be categorized in the sequel department, including the excellent Toy Story 3, the annoyingly awful Cars 2, and their latest genial yet unoriginal Monsters University, with one original yet subpar effort in Brave that at least reminded us that despite weak plot they can make some awe-inspiring visual animation. Monsters University might be mildly humorous in its animated mockery of college life, whether it’s the obnoxiousness of the frat culture or the awkwardness of social fits, but what it truly lacks is what Pixar is known for, which is meaningfully deep values, inventive inspiration, and original storytelling. This unnecessary prequel to Monsters Inc. simply borrows the template of Revenge of the Nerds and inserts the familiar characters of Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and James P. Sullivan (John Goodman) in a rather typical underdog college adventure giving us an occasionally fun but more often tedious trek through their formative years. Nothing about the film even remotely justifies its own existence since everything from the unoriginal story to the gimmicky humor to the formation of the characters never feels organic. Ironically enough at the heart of Monsters University is the message that sometimes it’s alright to simply be OK, which is the best word that can describe this arguably watchable but incredibly unambitious work of animation. Pixar has gone from creating exceptional original storytelling combined with gracefully executed pristine animation with the likes of Up, The Incredibles, and Finding Nemo to now churning out basic children’s entertainment which is not only disappointing, it’s practically shameful. Despite this relentlessly negative perception on the unnecessary existence of Monsters University there is enough guilty charm and likeable scenarios featuring two favorite characters from the Pixar universe that will undoubtedly please most audiences at the basic level. But basic was never a word that would even enter a conversation about the quality of a Pixar film and it’s unfortunate that this is the third consecutive film in a row from the company to warrant that description.

There is an inherent weakness in tackling a prequel because of the ingrained knowledge that the audience has of how the characters will be formed by the end of the film making their prequel development a bit of a laborious and monotonous journey. However, that doesn’t mean that you can appropriately play around with that expectation, which screenwriters Dan Scanlon, Robert L. Baird, and Daniel Gerson do in charming if not an entirely inventive fashion. Monsters University sets out to make a thematic distinction between enthusiastic Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) who is determined and strictly studious in order to fulfill his dream to be a “scarer” and the ambivalent Sully (John Goodman) who thinks sheer attitude and reputation will provide him with success. When they’re both ousted from the Scare Program by the daunting and no nonsense Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) these two conflicting personalities must face their strengths, weaknesses, egos, and eventual collaborative cohesion in order to make their way back into the program through the coincidental presence of the Fraternity Scare Games on campus. Moving beyond the initial two protagonists is where Monsters University begins introducing its weakest elements including the mixture of the Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds familiar story template, the relatively forgettable side characters who deliver humorous distractions instead of deep necessity, and a plethora of gimmicky humor that will satisfy children but lacks the relentless clever quips that Pixar films have always been known for. As an embodiment of the 80s college comedy Monsters University does offer some humorous twists and mild satirical insight on the genre and the film should be praised for its slight serious turn in its third act where a reflection on how not all dreams can come true is important though might not land with a great number of audience attendees. Basically Monsters University has an amiable atmosphere and a consistently charming presence throughout its runtime but lacks the morally conscious themes and the reflection on values that has made Pixar films enjoyable entertainment mixed with thought provoking lessons. Story wise Monsters University can comfortably fit in somewhere in the middle of Pixar’s work between their weakest films but because of its lack of exceptionally gripping visual animation it also secures itself from never approaching their strongest visual masterpieces.

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY

Monsters Inc. original story creator and director Pete Doctor is completely absent this time around in the creation of Monsters University and his absent is not only felt in the writing but also the flow of the story, the chemistry in the characters, and the clarity of the animation. All of the animators at Pixar did a phenomenal job in their creation of the an animated college life but there just seems to be a bit of lacking inspiration in the details that was so prevalent in their last film Brave which had exceptional depth of field, incredible attention to detail, and a great balance of colors. Monsters University doesn’t really have a distinction between places where the wide array of bright colors seem to be overbearing when compared to the original Monsters Inc. where there were various physical environments to create, such as the impressive and vast door vaults, as well as intense details in the blocking of characters and varying lighting of scenes. Instead of offering the most complex of these qualities Monsters University settles on the standard giving just the bare minimum of visual excellence that’s required of such a subpar narrative with formulaic development and typical character arcs. Screenwriter Dan Scanlon takes on the task of filling in Pete Doctor’s essential role in any Monsters recreation and has the insurmountable task of delivering quality due to his lack of experience as a director and relatively new understanding of cinematic narrative. Because of these difficult hurdles it’s not surprising that the characters chemistry feels a bit off or that the jokes seem a bit juvenile in comparison to the first film where there was cleverness, wit, but most importantly heart. This doesn’t mean that Monsters University doesn’t have heart because there is a superficial bit of it in the developing relationship of Mike and Sully but that can mostly be attributed to the fact that we know they become collaborative workmates and best friends in the aftermath of this struggle. To Scanlon’s credit he does allow his film to possess a great deal of charm in the place of inventiveness and originality that isn’t a quality that is easy to accomplish giving Monsters University a slight enhancement in quality compared to a great deal of lacking animated films that are always venturing into the cinema.

Even though Monsters University has some stilted chemistry problems attributed to the gimmick filled script and predictable plot scenarios it’s still nostalgic and heartwarming enough to hear the voices of Billy Crystal and John Goodman as Mike and Sully respectively. The script never gives them the opportunity for full emotional voice acting as it did in Monsters Inc. but there are enough humorous scenarios where their varying personalities flare which are aided by their distinct voices. Other characters serve their purposes well, either for cute effect or visual distractions, which includes a majority of the members of Oozma Kappa, the humorously cute and drastically unscary fraternity on campus. Rounding off the Revenge of the Nerds fraternity is Don (Joel Murray) the ex-salesman and captain of fraternity Oozma Kapp, the flexible and utterly brainless Art (Charlie Day), the self-dueling double headed Terry and Terri (Dave Foley and Sean Hayes respectively), and a suitably named blob character named Squishy (Peter Sohn). Unfortunately Steve Buscemi is drastically underutilized in his return as Randy, the disappearing villain from Monsters Inc., mostly because he’s a nostalgic prop instead of used for necessity and even his development explanation is rather unfulfilling. The marvelous Helen Mirren provides the voice of the hardened Dead Hardscrabble and is greatly effective in her chilling ambivalence and strict persona towards those she deems less than Monster-like while Nathan Fillion does his best fraternity jock impression as Johnny, the egotistical scarer on campus. Overall the cast does it’s written job of playing the jokes in overly cute fashion which works often in its charming initiative but lacks the gripping emotionality and character complexity that most Pixar films allow their lead and side characters to have. Monsters University is filled with unsurprising character turns and two dimensional archetypes which are qualities usually expected of DreamWorks animation and not of the quality we’ve all grown up with related to Pixar.

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The most basic question for people curious to revisit the enchanting Monster world first introduced in Monsters Inc. is whether or not you’ll enjoy this rather unnecessary and blatantly lame prequel known as Monsters University and the answer is most likely a resounding yes. Despite all of the unoriginal plot choices, the timid chemistry between characters, and the cutesy humor intended for children and not full-fledged family entertainment there is a great deal of charm to make it worth seeing once. But the issue at hand is that it’s only worth viewing once and revisiting the film again wouldn’t result in any new insight on the values, meanings, or lessons that Pixar films usually provide ample thought on because it’s mostly an unsurprising experience with nothing unexpected and everything being familiar. There isn’t a great deal of imagination in thought or story in Monsters University nor are the sets all that visually inspiring either leaving behind a relatively humorous but sorely uninventive outcome. Perhaps Pixar will find some more creative inspiration in tackling some original material in the near future but it seems Disney’s franchise building is getting in the way of expanding the inventive story templates that Pixar used to be known for. The sentiment in the movie that it’s just alright to be OK might be a passable platitude for most audiences looking for a shallow feel good message but when it comes to Pixar it’s not alright to just be okay because they used to be extraordinary.

Grade: C+

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