Monday, June 24, 2013

Love: Monsters University

In 2001, Monsters, Inc faced off against Shrek for the first Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film.  The results weren't good. Shrek took the prize, marking the only time Pixar has ever lost the trophy to the rival Dreamworks, and kicking off an increasingly unfortunate rash of boxy, loud, and imaginatively dim Shrek-tales.  While I'd perhaps prefer a world where Pixar continued to churn out fresh new ideas instead of resorting to recycled materials, there's an inevitability to Monsters University that cannot be denied.  Inc, in hindsight, clearly had the goods. The film was (and is) an endearing fable, and a fully realized concept. In candy colors, we learned truth behind the criks, craks, and all those creatures we suspected lurked in the shadows of our childhood bedrooms. Now? We get to see everything else.

If you felt Inc got a little too hung up on human-child "Boo" and didn't give you enough of the monster otherworld: all that has been remedied here. Monsters University is, of course, a prequel -and good thing, too. Where a return to the industrial setting of the first film might have led to a lazy, unproductive rehashing of familiar material, turning back the clock and opening up the outside 'monster' world gives the animation new life.
This time around we follow the sprightly cyclops Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) as he steps bright eyed and shiny scaled into his dream school.  Young Mike has spent years studying tirelessly. He's as book smart as it gets, works harder than anyone, and wants to graduate top of the MU 'Scaring' Program class.  The only problem? Mike, as we know, isn't particularly frightening. He's got the knowledge, but not the natural talent. Though he should be the star student, it's Sulley (John Goodman) who impresses without effort.  Descended from a long line of top Scarers, Sulley's big, toothy, and in possession of a roar he deems good enough to close the books on.  They're opposites. Sulley has the raw ability, Mike only has knowledge of the technique. Without both, neither can survive. Since each has what the other needs, they quickly become spiteful rivals.
Their shortcomings force them begrudgingly together, and in a desperate attempt to follow their dreams, they join up with tiny, unbearably dorky fraternity Oozma Kappa to participate in the campus Scare Games. It's a take on a story that should be familiar to any casual aficionado of college comedies. Animal House, Revenge of the NerdsThe House Bunny, and any number of campus flicks run with a pack of underdogs, usually with a surplus of kegs and female nudity. Here, Pixar finds a way to capture the spirit of those films without any of the crudity. Oozma Kappa offers up a new supporting cast of lovable misfits, furry and slimy twists on the freaks and geeks of old.  Together with Sulley and Mike, the group faces off against ingeniously designed sororities and frats in a last ditch effort to prove they've got the stuff to be Scarers to their classmates and the ferocious Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren).  

Though the conceit is old, the monstrous twist makes for lively viewing.  It's immediately clear why Pixar decided to go through with this particular sequel. Moneymaker or not, the film is relentlessly charming and, surprisingly, very funny. The sight gags are crammed into every frame, as can be expected, a clear sign that the animators had a field day with the possibilities.  The script though, too, is impossibly sharp. I say this not simply because I laughed, but because the writers (and possibly the voice talents behind them) really seem to have a feel for the characters and their distinct personalities. Mike and Sulley each have their particular ways of communicating, not in a language of animated exposition, but in revealing bits of their own frustrations. It's something that's echoed in the animation. Technologically, Pixar has only improved since 2001. Here, the movements of our monsters say as much about them as their voices do, and we love them immediately for the humanity they're able to capture that so many campus comedies can't.


  1. I enjoyed this review and I agree, its refreshing to take a look at the genesis of the characters. When a film does a sequel there's always that niggling doubt that you won't enjoy it as much as its predecessor but I've noticed that's not the case with prequels. Maybe its a mentality thing...

    1. Could be. I think prequels are generally safer, they tend not to have as much ability to tarnish the afterglow of whatever happened in the original.


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