November 6th, 2013

disney - prince john

Movie: Monsters University (2013)

Monsters University (2013)

Oh, Pixar. Why are you going the sequel route? It pains me. Yes, I loved Toy Story 2, and Toy Story 3 made me bawl like a baby. But enough is enough! Don’t you get tired of revisiting the same worlds over and over?

I mean, one of the first things John Lasseter did when he became Chief Creative Officer of Disney was kill any direct-to-video sequels that were being planned. He knows that just because you can make a sequel and cash in on well-beloved characters does not mean that you should. But now, for every new movie with original content that comes out, we get a sequel. Ugh.

Well, enough bellyaching. I’ll have plenty of time to do this all over again when Finding Dory comes out in 2016. On to Monsters University.

Monsters University is the sequel to Monsters, Inc. I wasn’t all that enthused about the original film – it’s cute, it has a pleasant story, but it ultimately wasn’t memorable enough that I ever felt like re-watching it in the twelve years between its release and the day Monsters University hit the big screen. If I ever do a Pixar retrospective (after I finally get around to finishing up the Disney one) then I’ll have to re-visit it, and maybe my views will change. Point is, I never felt a prequel was warranted, and if I wasn’t in an insomnia-funk and trapped on an overnight flight to NYC, Monsters University would still be sitting firmly in the unwatched pile.

So little Mike Wazowski wants to be a scarer, and all his life he studies his brains out so that he can get into the School of Scaring at Monsters University. He arrives at college convinced that he will be a star. In his first class he meets James P. “Sulley” Sullivan, the latest in a proud family of scarers. Mike understands all cerebral aspects of scaring, while Sulley simply needs to open his mouth and roar. It’s loathing at first sight, but when the two monsters end up booted from the program (Mike isn’t scary enough, Sulley never studies) they reluctantly team up with each other and with the lamest fraternity on campus to try and regain their places in the School of Scaring.

I grant you, straight off, that the entire genre of frat-boy-college-comedies was never one that particularly appealed to me, and tossing Pixar characters into that environment doesn’t mean I’ll love it more. But if you make the plot almost predictable and formulaic, that isn’t going to help. Sure, the ending subverts the genre’s standard plot, but getting to that point was a bit of a slog.

But I do like the decision made to achieve that ending: Mike Wazowski realizes that a monster who is essentially a tennis ball with an eyeball will never be scary to human children. Mike will never realize his dreams because he simply lacks the genetic material to make it happen. Not every little boy who loves baseball can become a professional athlete. Passion is often a fundamental part of success, but passion does not equate success, and this is a story that almost never gets told in children’s movies. Kudos to Monsters University for being honest with its audience.

Tied directly to that is the fact that Mike and Sulley don’t get that second chance at the School of Scaring. There’s no magical change of heart or last minute reprieve. Instead, the two monsters get the jobs we know they have at the start of Monsters, Inc. the old-fashioned way – they work their way up to the top after starting at the company in the mail room. It’s a good balance – passion can’t make you into something you are not, but hard work and persistence will pay off and reward you in the end.

The one egregious flaw this movie suffers from is this: the story isn’t strong enough to stand without its predecessor. Without knowledge of the background and world-building that was so carefully done in Monsters Inc., this movie would be quite silly and one-dimensional. If you were not already invested in the characters of Mike and Sully, I don’t think the fellows shown here would compel viewers to follow their escapades. Certainly, of all the new characters that were introduced, only two stand out: Johnny Worthington III, memorable only because Nathan Fillion can voice a truly convincing douchebag, and Dean Hardscrabble, whose centipede body, spiked head and giant bat wings are truly the stuff of nightmares.

In the grand scheme of things, Monsters University is an okay film. It might even be good. It certainly isn’t Turbo or Free Birds, so it may even qualify as one of the best animated films of the year. It met my rather low expectations, but it did nothing to transcend above them, and that’s a real shame.