Film and TV

Reviews for the Easily Distracted:
Monsters University

Title: Monsters University

Does This Answer All The Burning Questions Left Over At The End Of Monsters Inc.? We do learn that Mr. Waternoose had an Afro at one point. We do not learn why the Abominable Snowman was exiled.

Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: Two-and-a-half scream canisters out of five.

Brief Plot Synopsis: Horrifying beasts undergo training to learn more effective ways to scare the shit out of helpless children.

Tagline: "School never looked this scary."

Better Tagline: "When Mike met Sulley."

Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: Young Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) has dreamed of becoming a Scarer ever since a school field trip to Monsters, Inc. Finally enrolled in Monsters University, Mike finds his dreams threatened by a growing rivalry with legacy student and frat boy slacker James "Sulley" Sullivan (John Goodman) and a fearsome Dean (Helen Mirren). When the pair are unceremoniously kicked out of the program, their only hope of reinstatement is joining a misfit fraternity and winning the annual Scare Games.

See It/Rent It/Skip It: Rent it so it'll enter your kids regular rotation of movies they watch 20 times in a row. Ah, parenting.

"Critical" Analysis: Sequels (or prequels, as the case may be) always face challenges. Chief among these is taking existing (and presumably beloved) characters and thrusting them into new situations without ruining the audience's affection for them. At the same time, we need new characters to play off of, and new obstacles to overcome. If neither is particularly compelling, the jig is up.

Monsters University, which I'm assuming everyone remembers is a prequel to 2001's Monsters, Inc., doesn't do so well on the first count, and only somewhat redeems itself by introducing several new faces and eventually mining the same vein of friendship between Mike and Sulley that anchored the original movie.

Writer/director Dan Scanlon came close to losing me in the first half. It seems weird to say this about a couple of animated characters, but it felt like Crystal and Goodman had to warm up to their personae again. The early scenes, featuring Mike and Sulley's growing competition and eventual expulsion from Scare School, were difficult to sit through. Not because it was painful to watch two characters we know will become best friends at odds, but because it's just poorly done. This is Scanlon's first effort for Pixar (not counting the less mentioned the better "Mater and the Ghostlight"), and it shows.

But things pick up when the two join the hapless fraternity, Oozma Kappa. The new blood is welcome, especially when it's Dave Foley (as one half of a conjoined twin), Joel "Freddy Rumsen" Murray as a middle-aged frat member, and Charlie Day as Art, who gets all the best lines, as Charlie Day should. Nerd favorite Nathan Fillion is also nicely evil as the leader or Roar Omega Rohr, the scaringest fraternity on campus.

Scanlon tiptoes around the glaring issue of how grotesque the idea of terrifying children for energy is by focusing on the Scare Games, which are sort of analogous to things like Big Buck Hunter in that they only simulate actual frightening. There's also a twist on the traditional approach in the final act, when Sulley and Mike find themselves briefly trapped in the human world.

The lack of significant female characters is also a little off-putting. In Monsters, Inc., you could make the excuse everyone but Mike and Sulley were secondary, but the entire second half of Monsters University is practically an ensemble piece, and just about everyone involved is a guy. The only exceptions being a sporadically featured rival sorority and one of the fraternity (Oozma Kappa) member's mothers. If it wasn't for Mike's romantic subplot with Celia in the first movie, I'd make the argument he and Sulley are animation's most enduring gay couple.

Behind Shaggy and Fred, of course.

Kids will like Monsters University's vivid palette ("The colors, children!") and varied characters (no one can accuse Pixar of resting on its laurels, animation-wise), and will appreciate the broad humor. It isn't a *bad* movie, admittedly, but like almost any other second installment, it just feels unnecessary. And with as many sequels (Planes, Finding Dory) as original films scheduled, it makes me wonder if Pixar is just going on inertia or concerned with anything at this point besides naked cash grabs.

Monsters University is in theaters today. I'm never going back to my old school.

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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar