"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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
The previous post in this blog was Don't miss: Roasting marshmallows and making s'mores at Walt Disney World hotels.
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