Review: Monsters University

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The inherent problem with prequels, whatever their quality, is that they inherit a sense of inevitability. Despite offering a new story to enrich the previous narrative, there is little suspense in discovering the outcome of the plot. It’s a bit strange, consequently, that Pixar chose to provide a backstory for one of its finer buddy teams, the monstrous duo of Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan in Monsters University. There’s no need to wonder whether the two will end up becoming friends, since their rivalry in college is the core conflict of the film. Nevertheless, Monsters University manages to explore surprising themes, while also emerging one of the most purely fun films Pixar has made.

Monsters University commences with a field trip in which tyke Mike Wazowski visits his future place of employment, Monsters, Incorporated. There, he learns that all that great scarers got their chops from Monsters University. His decision for higher education made for him, the film leaps forward to his first day of college. Mike is instantly overwhelmed yet intent on the challenge for becoming a top scarer. However, in his first class, he unwittingly comes face to face with a monster whose family legacy predisposes him for scaring greatness: James P. Sullivan. Where Mike studies endlessly trying to perfect his (admittedly sterile) scare look, Sulley argues that scaring is inherent, with no need for perfection. When the annual Scare Games arrive, Mike and Sulley are forced to join an unlikely fraternity in order to prove themselves the team we know they’ll become.

Again, there isn’t much tension in the overall narrative arc to make us doubt that Mike and Sulley will eventually become best buddies, and that is an admitted major flaw in Monsters University. However, there are some excellent moments of suspense that come in the episodic form of the Scare Games. Each competition is markedly different and executed memorably, and all incorporate critical aspects needed to becoming a good scarer. As has been standard for Pixar, the voice acting is predictably great, with welcome veterans Billy Crystal and John Goodman starring, along with newer voices courtesy of talents such as Alfred Molina, and especially a sinister Helen Mirren. Pixar’s animation and design is also excellent here, for with the opportunity to return to the world of monsters, hundreds of inventive new faces and figures come to life, and the lighting team also do a stellar job for creating the proper moods of each scene.

Where Monsters University truly impresses is in its thematic content, some of which is spoiler-esque in nature. Over the course of the film, try as he might, Mike is forced to come to terms with the fact that he’ll never become a great scarer because of his non-threatening physique. This runs highly contrary to endless other children’s films which advocate, “You can do anything!” In this sense, Monsters University is almost Darwinian in nature, making the case that your inherent attributes predispose you for a certain place in society, and that nothing you do can change that. This is a wildly new thematic direction for Pixar and can certainly appear troubling, but the film never paints a dour picture. Mike comes to terms with himself, and thus the film becomes more about self acceptance rather than quiet diatribe on the perils of socialism.

Even with its new looks at individual themes, Monsters University is primarily an immensely enjoyable animated film. It hits many of the hallmarks of the college experience right on the nose, and is able to stand on its own while remaining connected to its workplace sequel. The film likely recognizes that it will always be lesser than its more emotionally complex older brother, but that does not keep it from being a surprisingly solid sibling.

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~ by romancinema on July 10, 2013.

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