Monsters UniversityReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/21/13 05:28:55
The great 2001 Pixar feature "Monsters Inc." started off by asking an intriguing question--"What if there really were monsters, albeit reasonably cuddly ones, that snuck into the rooms of little kids late at night in order to make them scream?"--and then answered it in such an ingenious and entertaining manner that it went on to be one of the most beloved animated films of our time. "Monsters University," on the other hand, starts off with a somewhat less pressing query--"What if we took the two characters that everyone loved in "Monsters Inc" and jammed them into the kind of storyline that was growing whiskers when Rodney Dangerfield tackled it more than 25 years ago and which has them being antagonists for most of the running time?"--and then answers it in such a dull-witted manner that it is almost impossible to believe that anyone involved with its production had actually seen the original, let alone worked on it. In a summer season already teeming with one big-budget disappointment after another, this will surely go down as one of the biggest of the bunch.This is not to say that a follow-up to "Monsters Inc." is an inherently bad idea on the surface. Like many of you, I loved the original film and the sly comedic byplay that developed between the two monster pals at its center, the wise-cracking walking eyeball Mike Wasowski (Billy Crystal) and the shambling blue hairball James P. "Sulley" Sullivan (John Goodman) and wanted to see more of them. Besides, as the brilliant "Toy Story" sequels demonstrated, the folks at Pixar, when they put their minds to it, are capable of turning out sequels to their hits that are just as good, if not better, than the originals. On the other hand, as the dire "Cars 2" also proved, they are just as capable of making a lazy by-the-numbers sequel as anyone else in the business if the only evident driven force behind the project is the desire to make a ton of money off of the sales of tickets, DVDs and merchandise. "Monsters University" hardly even blinks its eye before going down the second path so thoroughly that the entire enterprise feels more like a filmed deal memo than an actual movie--so much so, in fact, that I wouldn't be surprised to discover that the inevitable kid meals include the name of a good notary alongside the fries.
Like so many follow-ups to films that ended on a perfectly satisfactory note, "Monsters University" is a prequel that answers any number of the questions that you didn't necessarily ask yourself after watching "Monsters Inc." In a prologue, the young Mike goes on a class field trip to Monsters Inc and decides that his dream in life is to become a scarer--one of the creatures that goes into the human world to harvest the children's screams that power all of Monstropolis. A few years later, he shows up for his first semester at Monsters University to major in scaring in the hopes of making his dream come true. He has the focus, the drive and the ambition to become a scarer but as everyone he encounters is quick to remind him, he is lacking one crucial thing--he is just not particularly scary. Of course, some might argue that there are few concepts in the world more potentially terrifying than that of a giant walking eyeball with the voice of Billy Crystal--especially if he is doing his ever-so-poignant old man routine--but never mind.
Adding to Mike's frustration is the way that classmate Sulley--a natural-born scarer from a family famous for them--half-asses his way through his classes while coasting on his natural talents and the legacy of his predecessors. The antagonism that develops between them eventually leads to the imperious Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren, who presumably lost the coin toss with Maggie Smith over who was going to play the role) kicking both of them out of the scaring program. The only chance they have to get back into the program is to win the annual Scare Games, a campus-wide contest among the various fraternities and sororities to determine who is the scariest of them all. Alas, the only fraternity they can get into is the one populated by the least scary rejects imaginable (asked about his most terrifying attribute, one replies, in what is the film's funniest line by far, "I have an extra toe--I don't have it with me now. . .") and unless they all pull together and Mike and Sulley learn to put their differences aside and combine their separate-but-equal talents, preferably during a montage or two, they will never triumph.
Although the Pixar name was once a guarantee of high-quality entertainment that offered viewers of all ages the chance to watch and enjoy films with ambitious narratives, stunning visuals, endearing characters, genuine wit and powerful emotional underpinnings, the brand has had a few slip-ups in recent years, such as the relatively lackluster "Cars" films and the underwhelming "Brave." That said, even those missteps at least had some ambitions to them and they were still better, if only from a visual standpoint, than most of the animated films that have cropped up in recent years in the hopes of copying their box-office success. "Monsters University," on the other hand, is so uninspired and lazy that it pales in comparison to most of the output of the studio's competitors. For most of the time, in fact, it has the slapdash feel of a direct-to-video project slapped together in order to squeeze a few more bucks out of a once-proud title by providing viewers with a cut-rate simulacrum of something they previously loved. More so than anything else, it is the absolute lack of ambition or effort--especially coming from the same people responsible for the boldly innovative likes of "Ratatouille," "Up" and "WALL*E"--that is the most depressing thing about the film.
For starters, the film fails to make any real use of its campus milieu, preferring the usual tired stuff about the nasty fraternity of Type A types (led by Nathan Fillion) who are constantly trying to thwart our heroes for no other reason than to keep the plot moving along, the weird-looking misfits who wind up becoming the big things on campus (literally) and the imperious professor who needs to be won over in the final reel. Hell, even the campus itself is kind of boring, especially in comparison to the glories that the Harry Potter movies offered up with Hogwarts. Why not have some fun with the material by playing with the cliches? How about having the campus misfits being the handsome types while making the alpha things more hideous to look at? (For that matter, why not have one monster on display that does not look like a plush toy in the making?) Why not show us some of the day-to-day existence of what being a student there would actually be like ranging from classes to the monster equivalent of a panty raid to gaining the freshman 15? Obviously I am not asking for a CGI recreation of "The Rules of Attraction" but I'll bet that you and I could meet for lunch and hash out a dozen better ideas than anything seen here. All we get now is essentially a lame retread of the old warhorse "Good News" and at least that film was willing to acknowledge just how silly and nonsensical it was.
Even on the level of a modest multiplex filler, "Monsters University" comes up short. Virtually every frame of the film is bursting with gaggles of monsters--there are time when it almost resembles the pages of MAD back in its glory days--but it never finds anything to do with them. There are some splendid visuals here and there but they aren't enough to make up for the lack of invention and even their impact is literally dulled by the always-intrusive 3-D technology that once again adds nothing to the proceedings but a grey pallor and $3 to the ticket price. (Needless to say, stick with the 2-D if the option is available and you are forced by circumstance to see this despite my best efforts to convince you otherwise.) The repartee between Crystal and Goodman just doesn't click this time around since they spend a good chunk of the time at each other's throats (or whatever) and none of the new voices make much of an impact. (The film has enough wit to hire Aubrey Plaza to play one of the Scare Games commentators but not enough to give her anything to do that is actually funny.)"Monsters University" is like the University of Phoenix of Pixar movies--it may sound like a legitimate film from the studio on paper but couldn't be less like a real one if it tried. Little kids--very little kids--might like it as long as they aren't particularly demanding but this is arguably the first film from them that will have very little appeal to anyone whose age has reached double-digits. That said, it does present viewers a couple of life lessons, though they, like everything else, are delivered with far less grace than one has come to expect from Pixar. On the one hand, it offers up the message that while it is important to follow one's dreams, it is equally important to know one's limitations. On the other hand, it also counsels that while natural ability can get one so far in the world, coasting on that ability without expending any effort--especially when trading upon one's good name--can lead to trouble as well. It is just too bad that the film itself is a better example of both those notions than anything in the film itself.
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