‘Monsters University’ Review
College is not an obvious setting for a Pixar movie. For all the vaunted animation studio’s reputation for producing mature, adult children’s films, college lends itself to a more immature brand of adult humor — the kind with lots of nudity, profanity, and outrageous drunken antics. Sure enough, Pixar’s ‘Monsters University‘ brings new meaning to the phrase “safe school” — this G-rated riff on ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ and ‘Animal House’ (they probably thought about calling it ‘Monster House’ at some point, right? They had to) doesn’t push any envelopes in terms of content or humor. It’s basically a formula college comedy, minus the raunch, in the world of ‘Monsters Inc.’ Nevertheless, it’s a formula executed by some very talented animators, who’ve produced a lively, if mostly forgettable, movie.
The film reunites “Monsters Inc.” heroes Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) and James “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman) in a story set years before the original film. In this prequel, the future best friends and co-workers meet as heated rivals at Monsters University, Monstropolis’ top college for developing “scarers,” the monsters who journey into the human world to frighten little children. Their screams of terror are captured by special doors and harvested as energy that is used to power the city.
Since he was an adorable little, one-eyed kid, Mike has dreamed of attending Monsters University and becoming the greatest scarer of them all. But the undersized Mike isn’t particularly scary, a fact no amount of overcompensation in the library can fix. His instant animosity with Sulley, a naturally terrifying blue-and-purple furred monster from a famous line of scarers, leads to a fight that nearly gets them both kicked out of school. Their only choice at that point is to team up and join the losers of the Oozma Kappa fraternity (they’re just O.K., get it?) and win Monsters University’s annual Scare Games in order to get back in good graces of the stern Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) and back on the fast track to a job at Monsters, Inc.
If you’ve seen almost any college-set movie about lovable misfits who triumph against long odds and the BMOCs (up to and including ‘The Internship,’ just a few weeks ago) then you’re familiar with all the rough story beats here: Mike and Sulley and the Oozma Kappa guys fumbling their way through some challenges, learning to tolerate and then like one another, and then finding that their idiosyncrasies actually makes them better and stronger than their more traditionally handsome (or, in this case, monstrous) rivals.
These scenes work in ‘Monsters University’ on the strength of the outstanding character design and animation from director Dan Scanlon and the craftsmen and women of Pixar, and because the work of the very energetic voice cast, which also includes Peter Sohn (a blob called Squishy with half a dozen eyes but just one ear), Joel Murray (a middle-aged salesman with a bat-like moustache whose gone back to school), Sean Hayes and Dave Foley (collectively a two-headed monster that loves to dance), and, my personal favorite, Charlie Day, as a lanky, roly-poly purple monster who encourages his fellow frat brothers to keep dream journals and delivers my favorite line in the movie (I won’t spoil it, but it comes during the scene where the O.K. monsters sneak into Monsters, Inc. to find inspiration). At the very least, all these monsters are very pleasant company for a fast-moving and entertaining 110 minutes.
For all the jagged edges of the ‘Monsters University’ monstrous production design (where everything from picture frames to porticos are rimmed in toothy ridges), the film could have used a little more bite. Most of the humor is broad and physical, aimed squarely at a very young audience who, I’m sure, will be dazzled by the movie’s cotton candy color palette (to be fair, I was pretty dazzled too). There are a few scenes near the end of the film that refocus things on Mike and Sulley’s budding friendship, and get at something deeper about life and its many disappointments — including a quiet and contemplative scene by a lake that is both beautiful and touching — but mostly ‘Monsters University’ is content to be a frivolous but enjoyable prequel. It won’t win any awards for ambition, but on its own terms, it’s satisfying, a movie that clearly embodies the credo that one character utters near the end of the film: “It’s okay to be okay.”‘Monsters University’ opens in theaters on June 21.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’