Disney-Pixar’s latest offering, Monsters University (2013), a prequel to 2001’s Monsters Inc., is bright and breezy fun. It moves at a brisk pace and has the visual invention consistent of a Pixar project, finding a way to be a little more clever than the other studios. This invention usually extends to the script as well but in the last few at-bats, the company has plateaued a little in that area. None of the pictures have been bad, just lacking compared to Pixar’s greatest hits; they’ve become a victim of their own success. I’m distressed to report that Monsters University, which, as a follow-up to a most original concept, is clichéd and borrowed from countless other plots, and continues this trend.
First things first, Monsters University is a good picture. It’s often uproariously funny and has the zany energy of a cunning Looney Tunes cartoon spread over 100 minutes. The story shows us how Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal), the earnest uni-ocular goblin met and became friends with his future partner Sullivan (John Goodman), a horned, blue and green bear-like creature. Monsters University has little time for those who have forgotten the finer details of the original picture, but to remind you the best I can (I’m certainly no Monsters Inc. expert), Mike and Sully inhabit the world of monsters, who enter through special doors into the human world, kids’ bedrooms specifically, to frighten children, the screams of which are harvested for power in their world. That is a terrifically original concept, one that made for a preternaturally entertaining and inventive movie.
Here in its prequel, we see how Mike and Sully start as adversaries on a college campus, begrudgingly join forces when their academic futures are threatened, and learn that together they are stronger than they ever were individually. That this concept is not original doesn’t bother me so much; it’s a good message for kids to have reinforced (especially when it’s coupled with a message about knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, as our lead characters learn to do). But within that framework we have other uninspired retreads of college-movie standbys, like an intercollegiate competition in which Mike and Sully, by way of an unlikely wager with the crusty dean of the school (Helen Mirren), are competing not only for glory but for their continued enrollment in the university. We also have Mike and Sully forced into the most unpopular Greek house on campus, the lowly Oozma Kappa, barely OK at everything, which must go against the fiercely competitive and arrogant Roar Omega Roar in the competition. I’ll let you guess if the ragtag group of misfits is up to the challenge.
Obviously this is a movie for children, most of whom, unlike myself, haven’t had their tiny spirits broken by movies worse than this one so they won’t realize that what they are seeing is more or less recycled from countless other college movies. Just the same, this represents a creative malaise, one that will be noticed by an alert viewer of any age and does dampen the project. Where Monsters Inc. was a brilliant concept for a complete movie, Monsters University has a number of brilliant moments in a movie completely pieced together from others. There’s enough of that brilliance to make for an above-par experience, but certainly not enough to enter the movie in the studio’s pantheon and perhaps not even enough to justify the picture’s existence.
But let’s focus on that brilliance, shall we, because this is a better movie than I’m currently giving it credit for. It’s a testament to Pixar to take these well-worn ideas and work them over to where they shine like new. Take the sad Oozma Kappas, for example, who are led by a middle-age salesman named Don (Joel Murray), who reentered academia when he was laid off (apparently the recession didn’t miss the monster world [though this brings up an interesting predicament regarding the timeline here because this is supposedly before, perhaps decades before, the action of Monsters Inc., which occurred in 2001 but this movie has modern music and current fashion (oh, never mind)]). Don has a good attitude and a sweet disposition and even wins the girl in the end, though that girl is the Oozmas’ house mother. Literally. The Oozmas live in the childhood home of one of their members, and their intimidating initiation ceremony is undercut somewhat when Mom busts in hoping to do the laundry (“Pretend I’m not here, boys.”).
In the house as well are Terri (Sean Hayes) and Terry (Dave Foley), a conjoined monster with two heads and a shared body. The problem is Terri is a dance major and Terry is not. On top of all this silliness is no shortage of design coups in terms of the look and accouterments of the different monsters. There is a large cast here of a campus’ worth of monsters, and each has a unique and interesting look, none more so than Dean Hardscrabble, who has a cockroachian tail, the body of a dragon and a head that is a mixture of the nasty grasshopper from Pixar’s A Bug’s Life (1998) and one of the most iconic animated villains of them all, Sleeping Beauty’s (1959) Maleficent.
I’d like to celebrate the movie more because it is a lot of fun. Further, I would wager that another studio, given the same story, would have made a far inferior movie (Pixar has no rival, nay, no competition, in making the design and the action of their characters work in symphony with the voice acting and characterization; not only does each monster look great, but they walk and carry themselves in pointed ways). But my thoughts returned again and again to how derivative it is, how borrowed and secondhand. We’re still waiting for the first true Pixar failure, but I liked Monsters University more than the trend it is a part of. In the movie, one of the good bits shows Mike and Sully, rejected by the university’s prestigious, coveted “Scare Program,” struggling to stay awake in one of their newly found classes, “A History of Scream Canisters.” I couldn’t help but wonder if Pixar itself was stuck a little in the creative equivalent of “A History of Scream Canisters.” Here’s hoping, like Mike and Sully, they can get it back.