Friday, June 28, 2013


Throughout most of its storied existence, the films of Pixar Animation Studios have struck the perfect balance between adult and kid-friendly entertainment. Their latest effort, MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, a prequel to their own MONSTERS INC (2001), leans more towards the younger minds, offering a fun, yet curious entry into their extensive catalog.
Set some years before MONSTERS INC., Mike (Billy Crystal) enrolls in Monsters U. with dreams of becoming a professional scarer. Once there, he crosses paths and forms a rivalry with Sully (John Goodman). When their rival boils over, the two must learn to work together with their new frat brothers in order to win a campus-wide scare-competition.

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY starts off strong. It clearly defines characters, what they are after and why, and re-introduces us to the Monster-world we’ve been away from for so long. Mike and Sully’s younger selves are written very well: Mike is the studious, but untalented monster, and Sully is the slacker with the talent. They are total opposites of each other in every way, and it is a fun watch to see them interact.
Once things really get rolling however, MONSTERS UNIVERSITY settles into a very familiar setting on campus with themes of college segregation between jocks and geeks…with the latter out to prove themselves to the school, the world, and themselves. Thematically it works, but the film never breaks away from that and eventually borrows from nearly every college-set film from the past two decades. Plot points, situations, and characters become cliché and predictable, and the film never ventures out of that ol’ college mold. Even looking at it from the outside, exactly where characters and predicaments are headed can be seen from a mile away. There are no real risks taken to put a fresh spin on the territory, and the film seems content to entertain young minds only.

Rookie director Dan Scanlon has a blast playing in this universe and it shows. The character design along with their environment is excellent, and Scanlon always puts everything to good, practical use. The pacing is brisk, the humor well-timed, and the dramatic pauses come at just the right time. Scanlon keeps the overall tone light, and it isn’t until the much later goings that the film enters to slightly more mature territory. The new tone feels a bit tacked on, and the overall morality message is never made very clear. Scanlon also gets great performances out of his cast, with Billy Crystal and John Goodman seemingly full of life and energy. The rest of the cast is also perfect…Helen Mirren, Steve Buscemi, Alfred Molina, and Nathan Fillion are all a joy to listen to (and creepily look like their animated characters).
From a technical standpoint, MONSTERS UNIVERSITY is a perfect film. It is visually stunning with a tried-and-true story populated by interesting, fun, and relatable characters. It’s only real sin is that it plays things much too safe, goes by the textbook only, and despite a few interesting turns towards the finale, never does anything bold. The low-risk approach makes one wonder if this is a peek into a new direction for Pixar; thematically light with nothing that might cost the kids any sleep. Overall it’s mid-level Pixar; fun enough for the kids, but older minds will be looking for more to latch onto.


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