Screaming in Digital: Pixar Takes Us to College in Monsters University

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Monsters University
Sulley and Mike chase a fraternity mascot.

Ever since John Lasseter’s Toy Story in 1995, the Disney-owned Pixar Studios have been leading the charge when it comes to computer-generated animation movies. Like the parent company, however, the CGI pioneers have been struggling in recent years – hitting rock bottom with head honcho Lasseter’s Cars 2 in 2011. Despite Brave winning the Oscar as Best Animated Feature Film in February, the studio’s latest releases wowed neither critics nor audiences. Now Pixar has brought back some favorites from 2003’s crowd-pleaser Monsters, Inc. with the hope of returning to former glory. Will Dan Scanlon’s $270-million prequel Monsters University do the trick?

As a six-year old, cute little Michael ‘Mike’ Wazowski (Billy Crystal) visits the scaring company Monsters Inc. on a school trip. After sneaking into the human world with one of the employees, the boy is scolded but also reassured that he might have a future in the scaring business. Roughly thirteen years later, Mike starts learning the trade at the prestigious Monsters University, sharing a room with the nerdy and shy Randall ‘Randy’ Boggs (Steve Buscemi). During their first class there, the stern Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) tells the newcomers that the final exam will determine whether they can continue the program or not.

One night, Mike meets a fellow scare student, the arrogant and boastful James P. ‘Sulley’ Sullivan (John Goodman). Soon, a fierce rivalry between the two breaks loose, culminating in a petty competition during the final exam that causes Hardscrabble to drop them from the program. On top of that, Sulley is kicked out of his fraternity Roar Omega Roar. To get back into his old course of studies, Mike applies for the Scare Games (a sort of Olympics for monsters) and joins Oozma Kappa, a group of misfits led by the again Don Carlton (Joel Murray). When he needs another member for his team, he reluctantly allows Sulley to join his gang. Will the weird bunch succeed against all odds?

With Monsters University, Pixar brings back some of the most beloved characters from its long and successful run as animation giants. A dozen years ago, Monsters, Inc. was both highly acclaimed by the critics and a box-office draw. Mike, Sulley, and company scooped an Oscar for Best Original Song (Randy Newman’s “If I Didn’t Have You”) and received another three nominations. The award-winning composer and some of the top monsters have returned for the sequel, but this time debutant Dan Scanlon sits in the director’s chair.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing, because some of the more established Pixar people like the big kahuna John Lasseter himself failed in the recent past. His Cars 2 was a complete disaster and left many wondering whether the studio had lost it. This year’s Academy Award winner Brave wasn’t nearly as bad, all things considered. Yet it still didn’t come close to Pixar’s older classics such as the Toy Story trilogy, Finding Nemo, or WALL-E. With Disney’s own abysmal projects like John Carter, nobody knew what to expect from the Mickey Mouse behemoth anymore.

To say that Monsters University picks up right where Pixar’s last great movie Toy Story 3 left off, might be a slight exaggeration. It’s not quite on the same level as Buzz Lightyear’s most recent adventure or Monsters, Inc. in some respects, but it’s a much better film than Cars 2 and Brave in pretty much every aspect. Dan Scanlon’s debut as a director proves that Pixar is still alive and fairly well. It proves that all reports of the studio’s demise were premature, despite Monsters University being a somewhat generic ‘as it began’ story.

That being said, Mike Wazowski and Sulley are still as charming as they were when they first showed up on the big screen more than a decade ago. Much of that has to do with the greatness of returnees Billy Crystal and John Goodman as the voices of the two main characters, plus Boardwalk Empire star Steve Buscemi, who lends his charismatic twang to the villain ‘Randy’ Boggs once again. Their performances are what really elevates Monsters University above most recent animation flicks.

Where Dan Scanlon’s movie lacks, however, is in the referential department. Most Pixar classics used to cater to mature audiences by making fun of some pop-culture clichés that the kids would never understand. Unfortunately, there’s none of that in their latest release. Monsters University is what it promises to be – good clean, G-rated fun – nothing more, nothing less. While that’s still better than what many of the rival animation studios can offer, it falls short of what people have come to expect from Pixar.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Monsters University isn’t funny. The film really tickles your funny bones as well as looking and sounding gorgeous. Some of the 3D effects are particularly impressive, as is the soundtrack by legendary composer and Pixar regular Randy Newman. Similarly, some of the parallels to the human world that made Monsters, Inc. so intriguing in the first place are also there again, although some of the inside jokes are quite hard to understand without having seen the first part.

All in all, Monsters University is a step back into the right direction for Pixar. It’s a good, but not a great movie that will appeal to parents and children alike as a thoughtful and entertaining animation flick. The short film shown before the feature, The Blue Umbrella, is the latest entry into a long series of gems we’re used to from the studio. It makes shelling out a few bucks for Monsters University even more worthwhile. Whether all of these pluses will be enough to trump another similar animated sequel, Despicable Me 2 by Universal Pictures, however, remains to be seen. If anything, it will make a great competition for the throne.

Seen at Cineplex, Limburg an der Lahn, Germany, on 22 June, 2013.