There is absolutely nothing wrong with Monsters University. Unfortunately, there is also nothing particularly right about it, either.
It is, of course, unfair to compare every movie to the best of all movies—but with Pixar, it is difficult not to do so. "That was pretty good for an animated kids movie" is fine... but after seeing Monsters University, I still felt a longing for the sequence of Pixar films that left me thinking, "That has a good chance of being the best movie I see this year."
And regardless of how well the Monsters University script (by Robert Baird, Daniel Gerson, and director Dan Scanlon) had been put to digital celuloid, it was almost impossible for the film to achieve beyond that of a great kids movie. The reason for this? The story is so familiar and trite that to experience it as a new thing almost requires being 8 years old, when everything is a new thing.
Story: A duo finds themselves on the outside looking in at a world they really want to be a part of, but their styles and skills aren't really compatible for the regular way of doing things. In the face of disapproving authority and colleagues, they must prove they belong by overcoming a series of competitive challenges while learning the meaning of teamwork and leadership.
You'll excuse me if I get confused and slip into a review of The Internship, a Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson comedy also currently in theaters. There's nothing wrong with this story, but sadly Monsters University brings nothing more original to it than the fact that all the characters are monsters.
A prequel to Monsters, Inc., Monsters University takes us back in time to learn how Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) came to be such great friends and partners on the Scare Floor at Monsters, Inc. It turns out they were both School of Scaring majors at Monsters University. Mike isn't really a natural scarer but he wants it more than anything, and works so hard that he puts other students to shame. Sulley, on the other hand, is a legacy. His father is a top-notch scarer and he just assumes he'll be one too, with no effort needed.
They're natural enemies, and eventually their bickering gets them into trouble with Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), who kicks them out of the School of Scaring and to a new destiny in some ancillary Monsters University program (like scare can maintenance or door theory).
It turns out that the campus fraternities and sororities hold an annual event called the Scare Games. Of course, Mike Wazowski manages to make a wager with Dean Hardscrabble that if he and Sulley can win the Scare Games, she'll let them back into the program. She agrees, but on the condition that if they lose, Mike is expelled from the university altogether.
[I interrupt this plot summary to point out that making a bet with your students that you'll kick them out if they can't do something that you consider far beyond their ability is horrible pedagogy.]
Now they need to be in a fraternity in order to compete—and wouldn't you know it, right over there is a Revenge of the Nerds fraternity (Oozma Kappa) made up of School of Scaring rejects. You have your too-old-for-school non-traditional student Don Carlton (Joel Murray), then there's bickering brothers with one body and two heads Terry and Terry (Sean Hayes and Dave Foley), and Art (Charlie Day), who has a hippieish lack of boundaries. Rounding out the group is super-shy Scott (Peter Sohn), whose mom lets them user her home as O.K.'s frat house.
Duo on the outside looking in. Check. Unable to achieve in the standard way. Check. Need to prove themselves through competition. Check. A way to learn teamwork and leadership. Check, check.
As I said in the opening, there's nothing wrong with Monsters University. The kids in the audience loved it. I enjoyed the quality of the animation, the voice work is solid, and there are some good gags. But more consistently than any other animation studio over the last 50 years, Pixar has been able to bring originality to traditional stories—and they did not do that this time. As we move into a cycle of a sequel every other movie and solidly into the second generation of Pixar writers and directors, I hope they get it back.
- Monsters Univeristy is a Disney Pixar release.
- Wide theatrical release on Friday, June 21, 2013
- Directed by Dan Scanlon
- Starring: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Helen Mirren, Peter Sohn, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Charley Day
- Running time: 110 minutes
- Rated G
- Alex's rating: 6 out of 10