2013 - 104 minutes
Directed by: Dan Scanlon
Written by: Robert L. Baird
Starring: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Helen Mirren, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Charlie Day, Peter Sohn, Alfred Molina, Steve Buscemi, Nathan Fillion
Pixar has been on the receiving end of negative backlash of late, with many claiming the animation studio just doesn’t make ‘em like they used to. Though they aren’t totally infallible (“Cars 2” was pretty bad), of course much of the blowback is unwarranted and their track record is still mighty impressive.
One way to appease the masses is to revisit characters they love, and “Monsters University” certainly fits that bill – a prequel to 2001’s fantastic “Monsters Inc.” that brings us the college years of Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman). The loveable monsters who would become successful scare professionals and friends didn’t exactly start out as buddies.
The film opens with a very young Mike on a school trip to Monsters Inc. where the seed is planted for his desire to become the best scare professional ever. Fast-forward to his freshman year at Monsters University and Mike is the hardest working student at the prestigious Scare School, though he’s certainly not the most fearsome. On the first day of class, the large Sulley saunters in, confident his intimidating look and revered family name will be enough to carry him though school to future glory with no effort.
The film’s first act introduces us to the lay of this fantastical collegiate landscape and is the strongest section by far. The Greek scene on campus includes fraternities Roar Omega Roar, among others, and several little details add to the colorful landscape. A sensitive hippy monster strums an acoustic guitar on the quad; a multi-armed monster that was up all night cramming walks to class downing several cups of coffee at once.
As the first semester nears its conclusion, rivals Mike and Sulley have an unfortunate incident involving the university’s dragon-like and hardnosed Dean Hardscabble (Helen Mirren, with a perfect voice performance), and the pair find themselves out of the scaring school. Their only chance for re-admission is to win the annual Scare Games – a Greek sponsored event that includes a series of challenges pitting frat against frat. Mike and Sulley’s sole option is to join the rag-tag outcasts of Oozma Kappa and somehow lead them to victory.
This is where the film becomes less inspired and settles into a familiar outcasts vs. jocks tale we’ve seen so many times before – from “Animal House” to the recent “The Internship.” Only this time with cute animated monsters. The majority of the film’s second half focuses on the games and Mike and Sulley coaching their outsider team – including a middle aged and meek Don (Joel Murray), two-headed Terri and Terry (Dave Foley and Sean Hayes), nervous Squishy (Peter Sohn) and fuzzy Art (Charlie Day) – to overcome their one-dimensionally drawn fears and take down the jerks of Roar Omega Roar.
While the film follows this standard plotline to an expected conclusion, there is an extended finale that serves as a bridge to “Monsters Inc.” and establishes the Mike and Sulley relationship we were already familiar with. Though often fun and charming “Monsters University” feels a bit too easy, but ultimately earns a passable recommendation.
© 2013 by Blake Crane