SDG Reviews 'Monsters University'

A charming but underachieving Pixar prequel coasts confidently to an unexpectedly thoughtful finale.

Revisiting the world of Monsters, Inc. in the prequel, Monsters University — set in the salad days of Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan, who meet in college as fellow scaring majors — is perhaps a bit like pulling an old yearbook off the shelf. There are happy memories, pierced by regret and loss. We were young and foolish then, but vibrant and ambitious and full of promise. Not to mention thinner. What happened to our dreams?

A dozen years ago, Pixar was still a relatively new commodity. Before Pete Docter’s Monsters, Inc., their only non-Toy Story animated feature was the cheerfully competent A Bug’s Life, and their greatest triumphs were still ahead. Still, the studio exuded a confidence and energy much like eager young Mike: the smartest kid in the class, eager to prove himself, despite (in Mike’s case, not Pixar’s) being undersized and lacking natural aptitude.

Today, the studio seems in a way more like underachieving Sully, content to coast on his heritage, stature and ability, without the obsessive commitment to excellence that made the family name great. It must be said, though, that Pixar’s ability, like Sully’s, is considerable … and, when they roar, their rivals pale by comparison.

Monsters University, from first-time director Dan Scanlon, is a charming, well-crafted trifle — at least until the subversive last act, when it sets its sights a bit higher. It’s mostly formulaic, but formulated with shrewdness. Why a prequel? Because Monsters, Inc. ended with the conversion of the monster economy from scream-based energy to the power of laughter. What sort of story do you tell about monsters in a world where scaring is obsolete?

The triangle of shaggy Sully, bright-eyed Mike and reptilian Randall has been cleverly rejiggered to give the characters nice arcs as the prequel sets up its predecessor. John Goodman, Billy Crystal and Steve Buscemi step comfortably back into character, raising the energy level and perhaps the pitch of their voices to sound a bit more youthful and callow than a dozen years ago.

Most crucially missing, of course, is the magic of Boo, the toddler from Monsters, Inc., who changed Sully, Mike and their world forever. That, and the insane energy of the finale in the cavernous closet-door warehouse. Visually, of course, Monsters University is far richer and more detailed than the earlier film, and a college campus offers more eye candy than an industrial plant, even one with such a colorful staff.

The story centers around a frat-house competition bringing rivals Mike and Sully together with an underdog team of monster misfits: the nerds and the geeks vs. the jocks and the cool kids. If the competition plot threatens to evoke the specter of Pixar’s one mediocre film, Cars 2, Monsters University goes down easily, where Cars 2 stuck in the throat. There are clever touches throughout and at least one solid, subversive idea that is vintage Pixar.

That one idea flies in the face of countless Hollywood films, both animated and otherwise. Hollywood is always telling us that if you want anything badly enough, you can achieve it; just believe in yourself, and you can accomplish anything you set your mind to.

In a way, Pixar has been pouring cold water on this idea ever since Buzz Lightyear came crashing to Earth despite his deep need to believe that he could fly. Perhaps everyone is special, and anyone can cook — but real superpowers, or the makings of a great chef, are a gift that not everyone has. On this theme, Pixar remains true to its school.

Well, kind of. Monsters University acknowledges that not every monster is cut out for scaring — but this hard truth isn’t consistently applied to a number of cuddly, obviously unscary monsters who wind up making the grade against all odds.

In fact, there’s ultimately only one final goal or happy ending for any notable character in this movie: a career in scaring. The rule is confirmed even by the exception: If you aren’t a jock, you can still make it as a coach.

“Scariness is the true measure of a monster,” the intimidating Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) tells incoming scaring majors. “If you’re not scary … what kind of monster are you?”

Hm. In Monsters, Inc., scaring was prestigious work, but the monster world was full of respectable career options off the scare floor: street vendors, sushi chefs and so forth, not to mention the CDA. (That’s Child Detection Agency, if you forgot. 23-19!) Mike’s girlfriend, Celia, was a receptionist. Did that make her a second-class monster?

Not that Monsters University necessarily endorses Dean Hardscrabble’s ruthless point of view — or that of the jock monsters of the Roar Omega Roar fraternity, who obviously agree with her. But does it adequately challenge their viewpoint, at least in this regard?

Not in Mike’s suffocatingly boring "Scream Can Design" class, where an alarmingly bland professor drones on about how some consider designing scream cans “boring, unchallenging, a waste of a monster’s potential” — then abruptly changes the subject.

Not in a scene in which one of the cuddly members of Mike’s fraternity of monster misfits — Oozma Kappa, pointedly abbreviated “O.K.” — sighs that “some of us were made for … other things.” He’s looking at his business card, which says, “Sales.” It’s not cool to be a monster in sales.

“I think it’s time I leave the greatness to other monsters,” a major character says at one point. “I’m okay just … being okay.” (O.K., get it?) Is this Monsters University’s second subversive big idea: It’s okay to be okay? Perhaps, though I’m not sure the movie quite believes it.

I do appreciate the thought (or afterthought) that one can take satisfaction and even strive for excellence even in a mailroom job, though here it’s a stepping-stone toward a scaring career. You know what? That cuddly Oozma Kappa guy totally should have embraced the sales thing. He’d be an awesome salesman.

Perhaps Pixar’s monster world wasn’t built for such close inspection. Even in 2001, as intrigued as I was by the conceit of monsters being as scared of us as we were of them, the whole industrialized energy-based rationale for scaring struck me as diminishing the stature of the monster as a figure of imagination and story. Watching this film, my daughter Sarah wondered what a pre-industrial monster world would have looked like. Were there still ways into the human world, and were screams still a source of energy? If so, how?

Monsters University is the best evidence to date for the “three stages of Pixar history” theory, which divides Pixar films into a) the Disney distribution phase (Toy Story through Cars), when they produced exceptional, creatively driven mainstream animated family films; b) a transitional phase (Ratatouille, Wall-E and Up) of audacious films pushing the boundaries of what family films could be; and c) the Disney purchase phase, from Toy Story 3 onward.

This third phase is characterized by a return to mainstream moviemaking — but in a more corporate, less creatively driven way than the first phase, with more sequels and less dedication to originality and excellence. Toy Story 3, the first film of the Disney purchase phase, suggested that Pixar might continue to maintain its commitment to quality; Cars 2 was a disappointing but inconclusive follow-up, since the original was no great shakes either. 

Will we ever again see the daring, innovative Pixar that produced Wall-E and Up? The upcoming Inside Out (from Docter, director of Up as well as the original Monsters, Inc.) is the most promising candidate. Whatever the future holds for Pixar, Monsters University establishes that, for some films at least, Pixar is “okay just being okay.” (At least the forthcoming Finding Dory will be directed by Andrew Stanton, director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E.)

For all this, Monsters University lumbers along with amiable confidence to an unexpectedly thoughtful finale, subverting genre expectations in more ways than one. Actions have consequences, characters take responsibility, and things don’t work out the way they might have hoped. It’s a low bar, but Monsters University is easily the best animated Hollywood family film so far this year, and it just might stay that way. It’s good enough. I’ll take it.

P.S. It’s both gratifying and slightly maddening to catch a glimpse of Old Pixar at the height of its powers, innovating and experimenting more in the six minutes of the short The Blue Umbrella than in the whole of the feature that follows.

While the theme is familiar (a boy-meets-girl story similar to Disney’s Oscar-winning short Paperman), its power lies not only in its astonishing new photorealistic rendering process, but in its joyous, lyrical spirit and expansive anthropomorphism — a bleeding-edge update of those old-timey cartoon shorts in which every object in sight is alive to the music of their world.

Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.

Content Advisory: Some intense action sequences. Might be a bit much for sensitive youngsters.