Monsters University Review

(3.5 STARS)

Three of Pixar‘s last four films have been “familiar” projects. Whether a sequel (Toy Story 3, Cars 2) or a prequel (Monsters University), the idea that the beloved animation studio was out of “original” ideas—or at least that the minds at Pixar were content falling back on the familiar—have permeated many a discussion of their latest film. What I took away from Monsters University is that it heartily challenges the common cinematic definition of the word original. Does this film feature characters and concepts that we already know? Yes. Does it do so in a way that’s new and imaginative and original? Absolutely.

The studio’s most fun film since 2010 begins with a prologue set some 20, 30 years before the events of 2001’s Monsters Inc. Young Michael Wazowski (voice of Billy Crystal) is the smallest and least ferocious monster in his class. But he has a lot of nerve. During a field trip to the scaring floor of Monsters Inc., Wazowski toes past the safety line and follows his favorite scarer into a child’s bedroom to watch him in action. It’s behavior that goes untolerated by his teacher, but it’s at that moment that he realizes his destiny: Wazowski will be a scarer himself one day.

The rest of the action takes place during his schooling and training at Monsters University. Wazowski is still the smallest guy in class, but he’s also the hardest worker and the most studious. James P. Sullivan (voice of John Goodman) is Mike’s polar opposite, then. Born into one of the most famous scarer lineages, he doesn’t need to try hard to succeed. Sure, Dean Hardscrabble (voice of Helen Mirren) is tough to please, but she’d never deny a Sullivan a slot in the scarer program…right?

Mike and Sulley’s rivalry directly leads to their mutual expulsion from the program. Hardscrabble also notes that Mike simply isn’t scary enough to succeed in this career path. So he offers her a challenge: If he and his fraternity of misfits can win the prestigious Scare Games, they’ll all gain admittance back into the scaring program—even their reluctant sixth partner, Sullivan.

What ensues is right out of Old School, oddly enough, but it’s wildly imaginative and entertaining. The film’s themes are predictable—the importance of working together, being comfortable and confident in your own skin, etc.—but none of that has to do with the fact that these are familiar characters. It’s a G-rated family movie, so it needs to hit certain story peaks and valleys. The university setting, however, is great for the older set who ought to pick up on some over-your-kid’s-head zingers and homages to classic college movies.

The film’s visual appeal is undeniable. Pixar might not be at its apex when it comes to story creativity, but the quality of their animation is ever subtly improving with every film (not that it even needs to). Monsters University moves fast, but there isn’t a single beat missed, and the vibrancy of the many colors is simply incredible.

Crystal and Goodman are once again the stars when it comes to voice acting, but both Mirren and Dean Hardscrabble are welcome additions to the franchise. Mike and Sulley’s fraternity brothers, too, are great new characters. (Scott “Squishy” Squibbles, a hapless, five-eyed momma’s boy, was my personal favorite.)

I’m really happy Monsters University exists because it proves Toy Story isn’t the only Pixar franchise that can succeed past its first film. And with a pleasing blend of sequels and original properties on the horizon, I’m totally comfortable with the direction the world’s best animation studio is going in. Those at Pixar still making terrific movies, and despite a hiccup or two recently, there’s no reason to doubt their excellence.

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