Monsters University

by Alex Stroup, staff writer

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


  1. By bumblebeeonarose

    We took our daughter to see this movie yesterday. We really enjoyed the movie. I did not feel it was a copy of other stories/movies. I enjoyed seeing Mike as a young kid and college student. He was so into becoming a scarer because of an experience on a field trip and the comment of a hero. Mike may have been an outcast, but Sulley wasn't. He was accepted right away. His problem was pure laziness. The growing relationship between the two of them, as scarer and coach, was well done. I also felt they did a good job of showing weaknesses in the two characters. *SPOILER

    My biggest gripe with the movie was that they were kicked out of school. I think this may send the wrong message to kids as their ultimate dreams of becoming scarers (or working on the scare floor) come true even though they did not complete college.

  2. By sasmmb

    First, isn't it "Terri and Terry" not "Terry and Terry"?

    *SPOILER the rest of the post*

    Quote Originally Posted by bumblebeeonarose View Post
    My biggest gripe with the movie was that they were kicked out of school. I think this may send the wrong message to kids as their ultimate dreams of becoming scarers (or working on the scare floor) come true even though they did not complete college.
    I actually liked this part.
    It showed that there are consequences for cheating and that is getting expelled. That an "I'm sorry I cheated" doesn't always make things all right. Secondly, even though they didn't complete college it's not like they worked on the scare floor immediately. They started in the mailroom. And worked hard and did a great job, where they got promoted to cafeteria. Where they worked hard and did a great job, and then something else. So I think the too-short montage of showing that starting at the bottom and working hard is an alternative to college is a nice lesson.

  3. By jms1969

    Agree with the was a decent movie, but nothing special, and certainly not up to the usual Pixar standards. The plot was very much "by the numbers" - a predictable story, decent (but not great) new characters, etc. It held our attention while we were in the theater, but was ultimately forgettable.

    It was also accompanied by the weakest short that Pixar has made. The "Blue Umbrella" was every bit as "paint by the numbers" as the feature and headed to a predictable conclusion. It totally lacked the charm and wit of most Pixar shorts, and lacked the one or two good moments that the shorts usually provide.

  4. By cstephens

    I can see why bumblebeeonarose might have had the stated concern in the spoiler box, but I agree with sasmmb's response. There are multiple pathways that take you to the same destination, and given the circumstances that arose in the course of the film, the resolution made much more sense to me.

    I enjoyed the film as well. I can see Alex's point to a degree, but I do think there are many themes and executions in other Pixar films that aren't new or different. But, then, there are Pixar films that many people love that really just didn't do it for me so I don't have them on a high pedestal like many do.

    I do think one problem they had off the bat on this film is the fact that it's a prequel. That's a much more difficult thing to do because the audience (presumably) already knows where you're going, so there are only so many surprises that can arise since you already know where they're going to eventually end up. I liked the story that they came up with which had lots of new stuff to enjoy but also had familiar versions of favorites that you can watch develop. And I loved the "cameos" that popped up as well. Though, I know I didn't catch many of the inside references that usually pepper Pixar films. I think I only noticed 2.

  5. By MidwayManiac

    My review is admittedly lowbrow so I'll just get on with it: I enjoyed it immensely (more than I expected after making the mistake of peeking at the Rotten Tomatoes critic reviews which hover right around 75% - couldn't resist).

    Just as, if not more, significantly: all 3 of my kids and their cousin all loved it to pieces. James P. Sullivan is such a lovable and great character. My 2 year old's eyes light up and he points and announces "Sully!" like he does at the sight of only two other characters (Buzz and Mater).

    For me, the scene in the camp bunkhouse with the state troopers was outstanding. Bravo.

  6. By GusMan

    I waited to read the article until I saw the movie myself, which I was finally able to do yesterday.

    Overall, I thought the movie was great. It did a great job of doing what most prequel's are supposed to do - fill in the gap of time before the original movie or movies. It does so in a real fun way. You get to see the characters grow in a way that was a bit surprising as well since I think fans of MI in general would think, without seeing MU, that Mike and Sully were great friends all along.

    The storyline was real good - and I think there was a good lesson learned at the same time. One that, quite honestly, has not been expressed all that often and one that I was not really expecting given the usual "happy ending" that many animated features present. Does the ending montage somewhat oversimplify the lesson? Some may think so, but it was never intended to be a major plot line.

    Sure, there are some standard "college movie" references, but they will probably be lost on the intended younger target audience. Those of us who lived through movies such as Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds, and even PCU would see some influence from such flicks.

    I will say that the part that got the theater rolling at the end was:

    When Roz gave her famous "Ill be watching. Always watching..." line, the whole theater said it in unison. Followed by a lot of laughter.

    I think the only problem is that I dont really see an opening for a part three of sorts. At least not going beyond where MI left off.

    Do I think Disney/Pixar released too many trailers showing too many clips from the film? After watching the movie - yes. Too many things that looked funny in a trailer kinda got a little diluted when it actually showed up in the film.

    The Blue Umbrella short was ok. I thought it showcased some real cool near-life realistic animation, which may be an indicator of the makeup of future features. It was a bit too similar in plot line to Paperman, though. While I thought it was OK, I did find myself longing to start out with a laugh, similar to watching past shorts such as "One Man Band."

    A solid 8/10 scale for me, which is great considering the second movie in a series is usually more like the tough "second act especially when the first movie was really great to begin with. I will be adding this to my BD collection as well as probably seeing it again at the local second-run theater.

    I would go more into a review, but I dont want it to be a list of possible spoilers.

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