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Review: Disney-Pixar's 'Monsters University' earns passing grade

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"Monsters University," the prequel to the 2001 Disney-Pixar film "Monsters, Inc.", finally hit theaters this weekend. It seemed a long time coming because the promotion of this movie has been ongoing and seemingly omnipresent, especially for Orlando residents who frequent Walt Disney World. Perhaps that's why I had such high expectations for the movie. "Monsters University" is a fun family movie with a clever premise, detailed imagery and beloved characters. What it lacks, though, is the wit and drama of previous Pixar films -- and even last year's "Wreck-It Ralph" from Walt Disney Animation Studios.

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"Monsters University" tells the story of how Michael Wazowski ("Mike") and James P. Sullivan ("Sulley") met, as the title infers, when they were college students studying to become professional scarers. The pair have a not-so-friendly rivalry in their classes and social lives, but a series of events forces them to compete on the same team in order to have a chance of attaining their college degrees. Along the way, Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) and Sulley (voiced by John Goodman) both learn lessons about teamwork, friendship and loyalty.

To be sure, Mike and Sulley appeal to a wide audience in this film. The large number of children in the theater where I saw the movie were engaged with the story, judging by their outspoken comments. And adults who have attended a university on a traditional campus will relate to the film plot's many typical college activities, such as getting a student ID, meeting a dorm roommate and pledging a Greek fraternity or sorority.

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Also, in "Monsters University," the animation -- clearly a key element on which Pixar Animation Studios has built its reputation -- is on par with other Pixar movies, such as the "Toy Story" franchise. The population of monsters is richly detailed and moves fluidly through the story. My family saw the film in 3D, and although those effects were well-executed, too, they were not integral to enjoying the movie.

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But the story here barely earns a passing grade. Though heart-warming, it is not as fast-paced or as humorous as films such as "Wreck-It Ralph," or even the original, "Monsters, Inc." The story line of this film just doesn't feel as compelling as Ralph saving Penelope or Mike and Sulley protecting Boo from the monster world, so it's more difficult to be emotionally invested in the outcome. Also, the jokes in the film aren't that funny. Today's parents -- and possibly other adults who enjoy animated movies -- have come to expect today's animated humor to be presented in layers, with some jokes appealing to kids and others aimed at the older viewers. That really doesn't happen in "Monsters University," which seems to draw its laughs by relying on some of the same themes we already saw in “Monsters Inc.” From the human-child scream simulator to the Child Detection Agency squad to Mike's joy at seeing a badly shot photo of himself on his student ID, the punch lines come across as unoriginal and, unlike most Pixar productions, unsurprising.

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Overall, Director Dan Scanlon does give it the old college try with "Monsters University," but the product is not the A-plus work we've come to expect from Pixar. Still, families likely will enjoy this summer movie because it is fun to learn the back story of Mike and Sulley and to be transported to their world. And viewers who stay in their seats until the last credit rolls will be rewarded with "extra credit" (a final scene in the movie).

But if this film were a college class assignment, the letter grade might only be a C or B- at most. And if Monstropolis were relying on kids' laughter to energize the monster's world, it probably would be better served in showing a rerun of the original than a less-energized prequel.

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The next post in this blog is SeaWorld's Summer Nights offers old favorites, plus a few surprises.

Comments (2)

cathy mullen:

Hi,
I agree 100%. I loved the first Monster movie but this second one was disappointing. Now the little children in the theater loved it and I heard one ask his mother if he could buy the DVD. I though it was way too long.

R. Vashko:

SPOILERS BELOW


I have to say I disagree. I found it very satisfying and a more than worthy sequel.

I think it was a given going in that the monster world (and the jokes contrasting it to ours) wouldn't seem as original this time around. Such expectations are intrinsic in any sequel. And I will point out that jokes and tropes that veer toward "cliché" territory for a 40-year old adult may nonetheless be fresh and new to a six-year old.

However, what it may have lacked in originality was more than made up for in the story. When you think about it, there are several rather heavy themes in this film - sometimes you can try your hardest and still come up short; even if you can't achieve your dream, you can still be someone special; people who act like jerks can change their ways; even privileged folk can find themselves feeling alone and afraid in the middle of a group of people; negative consequences often need to stick, even if the enforcer is kind and sympathetic; sometimes good people use their good intentions to justify doing bad things. And so on.

Frankly, I commend Scanlon et al for making a movie where things happen more along the lines of real life. The heroes come by their victories honestly. Mike didn't suddenly become the scariest monster on campus at the lat minute to beat Johnny Worthington. Dean Hardscrabble doesn't come in at the last minute with a deus ex machine recission of Mike & Scully's expulsion. The duo has to live with the consequences of their actions, Oozma Kappa didn't quit Monsters U. in protest of the expulsion. ROR fraternity, while comprised of jerks, nonetheless won the Scare Games fair and square (even Randall didn't cheat). And they didn't receive any kind of trite final comeuppance or petty revenge from Oozma Kappa. Again, the way things usually play out in real life.

A lot of these themes certainly go over the heads of kids who haven't gone through the knocks of adult life. But when you talk about Pixar movies having layers, I think there's a wealth of thematic underpinnings in this film that appeal to adults.

And while I agree that Monsters U. doesn't reflect Pixar's best work, one had to remember that even a middling Pixar film is a gajillion times better than almost all other animated films released by other studios.

If nothing else, it was tons better than "Cars 2".


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on June 25, 2013 8:07 AM.

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