Title: Monsters University
Cast: Billy Crystal (Mike Wazowski), John Goodman (James Sullivan, aka “Sulley”), Steve Buscemi (Randall), Helen Mirren (Dean Hardscrabble), Peter Sohn (Squishy), Joel Murray (Don), Sean Hayes/Dave Foley (Terri/Terry), Charlie Day (Art), Nathan Fillion (Johnny Worthington III)
Director: Dan Scanlon
The Basics: In this long-awaited prequel to Pixar’s 2001 hit Monsters, Inc., we travel back in time to when Mike met Sulley as freshmen in the prestigious Monsters University Scare Program. The monsters initially clash (Mike is a hard-working bookworm while Sulley tries to get by on pure talent and family reputation), but they learn to work together when both join Oozma Kappa, a fraternity full of lovable outcasts. This colorful, hilarious, and surprisingly deep film is more than just Pixar’s take on Revenge of the Nerds. It’s a story about what happens to our goals and dreams as we grow up and learn that sometimes life doesn’t go according to our best-laid plans. While it may not be as narratively original as the best of Pixar’s films, Monsters University is still a great example of what this studio does better than any other.
M.V.P. (Most Valuable Performer): The animators on this film deserve to be singled out for their incredible achievements. No two monsters look exactly alike (with the exception of the PNK sorority sisters), and that’s no easy feat. The color palette in this film was brilliant. The vibrant colors were a great fit for the energetic and youthful tone of the film; when you first go to college, it’s like entering a bright new world filled with colorful new people, and the animators captured that feeling perfectly. Also, they did an incredible job with the amount of detail shown on each monster. From the scales on Don’s skin to each strand of fur on Sulley’s body (especially his totally in-character spike of hair), I was blown away by the care taken to make each monster look as lifelike as possible.
Scene Stealer: While the entire voice cast was stellar, I cannot get over how genius it was to cast Helen Mirren as the voice of Dean Hardscrabble. Her voice oozes class and poise but also a sense of controlled intensity that was ideal for the character. Every time her character was onscreen, I found myself hanging on every word she said, which is exactly the way students feel when addressed by such an important faculty member. Pixar always manages to surprise me with the talent they put in their films, and this was no exception.
Bring the Tissues: Monsters University may not be a sobfest like Toy Story 3 or the opening minutes of Up, but it still offers some very powerful scenes about the realities of growing up and the struggles we all face in trying to determine if the dreams we had as children are compatible with the realities of who we are as adults. To make a long story short, if you’re 18 or over, you should probably be prepared to shed a tear or two.
Should I Stay or Should I Go? If you stay until after the (very long) credits, you’ll be rewarded with a cute and funny scene referencing an earlier gag in the film. It has no bearing on the plot or any future films, but it’s fun and gives you a chance to hear Bill Hader’s voice again.
Most Memorable Scene: I don’t want to give away any spoilers for the end of the film, so I’ll just say there’s a nice twist that takes Monsters University from being a cute film about a group of outcasts overcoming obstacles to a much deeper film about one of the hardest lessons of adulthood: Sometimes things don’t turn out the way you think they’re supposed to. With that twist (involving Mike, Sulley, Dean Hardscrabble, and a scare simulator), this film joined the pantheon of great Pixar films about growing up. It has lessons for kids about honesty and the importance of working hard, but it also has an important message for young adults struggling to carve out their identity: There’s more than one way to be successful, and being unable to live up to the expectations we put on ourselves (or our parents/teachers put on us) doesn’t mean we’ve failed. It just means we get to find a new dream—one more realistic to who we’ve become. Without that plot twist, this film is just another typical underdog success story, but with that twist, it becomes so much more.
Strengths: This film’s biggest strength is the resonance of its story for the generation who grew up with its predecessor. Monsters University follows the Toy Story model of franchise storytelling rather than the Cars model, thankfully. Where Cars 2 failed was in its emotional content, and that’s because all Pixar sequels (and now prequels, too) seem to be geared toward the people who were kids when the first film came out. With Cars 2, that audience was still young, so the film had a more juvenile tone than most Pixar films. However, the Toy Story franchise had enough time between films to explore important themes about growing up as its main audience continued to grow. Monsters University is like the Toy Story sequels in that enough time passed between Monsters, Inc. and this film that the first film’s main audience is at the stage in their lives where a story about going to college and struggling with issues of self-identity was able to resonate with them.
It’s almost like Pixar took so much time to create this prequel not because they needed over a decade to craft a story but because they needed a decade to pass before the kids who laughed at Mike and Sulley the first time grew up into the young adults who would be able to grow with and relate to (and still laugh at) Mike and Sulley this time. I know I’m probably giving Pixar too much credit, but the emotional resonance of both Toy Story sequels and this film for young adults cannot be overstated. It may just be a coincidence that they all got made just in time for the kids who loved the first films to be old enough to appreciate the themes of growing up in the sequels/prequel, but I really don’t think it’s a happy accident (and it makes me really excited for Finding Dory).
The other major strength in this film is its brilliant cast of voice actors. I was amazed at how Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, and Billy Crystal were able to make their voices actually sound younger from what they were in Monsters, Inc., and Goodman and Crystal’s quick banter is as good now as it was back in 2001. The rest of the cast is populated with great voices as well. I’ve already praised the choice of Helen Mirren as Dean Hardscrabble, but I also have to give special attention to Nathan Fillion’s work as the arrogant Big Man on Campus, Johnny Worthington III. Fillion’s smooth voice and easy charm translated perfectly to his animated counterpart. I was also impressed with how much of Aubrey Plaza I could see in Claire Wheeler—from the monotone delivery to the side-swept bangs. There were famous voices sprinkled throughout the film—from John Krasinski to Bobby Moynihan—and I loved this wasn’t billed as a showcase for these actors but instead let us discover each one like a nice surprise.
There were plenty of laughs to be had, especially from the monsters of Oozma Kappa, and they ranged from the silly and slapstick to the witty and subtle. This was a film that had something for everyone, which is exactly what you want in a family film—and exactly what people have come to expect from Pixar.
Weaknesses: The one weakness I found in this film is the fact that I felt like I’d seen so much of it before. The problem with doing a prequel to a film as conceptually creative as Monsters, Inc. is that it’s hard to recapture the sense of originality that made the first film so wonderful to discover. We’ve already been inside this world, and so much of the joy of the original film was exploring that world for the first time. The plot itself also felt a little unoriginal at times. I know that it was paying a kind of homage to college classics (like Revenge of the Nerds), but the “diverse group of nobodies vs. Campus Kings” story has been done so many times (even as recently as Pitch Perfect). Ultimately, that familiar trope was used to lull the audience into a false sense of security before the twist ending, so even its semi-cliché nature seemed to serve a larger purpose.
Final Verdict: Monsters University is a film about what happens when you don’t end up with the life you think you’re supposed to have, so it’s fitting that the film itself ended up being different than the film I thought it was supposed to be. The maturity of its storytelling proves once again that Pixar knows how to grow with its audiences to achieve maximum emotional impact. And the comedy it brings to the table proves that it’s a film for all ages. While it may not have the sense of novelty that made its predecessor so unique, this film adds so much to Monsters, Inc. that I can’t wait to watch it and find new emotional resonance in what was already a great Pixar film. Monsters University stands on its own, too, as a charming story with an emotional core that sneaks up on you like the great scarers its heroes aspire to be.
Grade: A –