6/27/2013 - School nerd Mike Wazowski and party guy James P. Sullivan meet and eventually form a friendship in Monsters University, a Pixar prequel to its 2001 film Monsters, Inc.
Ever since he was just a little one-eyed monster, Mike Wazowski (voice of Billy Crystal) has wanted to go to Monsters University to learn how to be a Scarer, a monster who comes out of the closet to scare human children (after all, their screams are what power the monsters’ world). When he finally gets there, he’s eager to learn all he can and make a good impression. James P. Sullivan, Sulley ( John Goodman), has a famous name in the scaring world and plans to make it to Scarer status based on his big, furry frame and his growl. Not one for studying, Sulley meets Mike while chasing the pig that is the mascot of Monsters U rival Fear Tech through Mike’s dorm room.
It is not friendship at first sight. Sulley is the big monster on campus; Mike is the scrawny nerd whom no one, not even Dean Hardscabble (Helen Mirren), really believes has the stuff to be a Scarer. Like all good college-movie underdogs, Mike eventually teams up with a fraternity of misfits, Oozma Kappa, and tries to train them to compete in the Scare Games — his big chance to prove to the world that he’s Scarer material after all.
It’s tough to be Pixar and make some of the best animated movies of all time (Ratatouille, WALL-E, The Incredibles — I would also accept Up, the first and third Toy Story movies, maybe Finding Nemo, though I haven’t seen it in a while). You make a totally fine, completely OK movie and it looks like you’re phoning it in. Thomas Keller makes you a grilled cheese sandwich, I’ll bet it’s a good grilled cheese sandwich. But compared to what you see on his tasting menu at Per Se, it feels like slumming it. Monsters University feels a bit like a just-rolled-out-of-bed, best 10-to-2 effort. It’s a good grilled cheese sandwich by a master chef but you never feel like it’s that master chef’s greatest creation.
And that’s probably OK. This is a sweet story, one that touches on lessons like appreciating the different skills people have and trying hard to achieve a goal and not giving up when things get rough — but it also never lets the lessons overtake the fun. It has lovely graphics — I was mesmerized by Sully’s fur in particular — and it looked rich and rounded in 3-D, though I’ll bet it looked just as good in the cheaper 2-D version as well.
And, that’s it.
Monsters University will not change your life, will not leave you in tears or keep you breathless. But it is a cute story with a few laughs and some very nice visuals — hey, nearly two hours of above average entertainment in the air conditioning is not a bad use of your movie ticket dollars. B
Bonus review: Don’t head to the bathroom during the trailers; you might miss The Blue Umbrella. Photorealistic animation gives this story of a blue umbrella, delighted to be out in the rain on a city street, a beautiful look, particularly as the faces created by things like storm drains and traffic lights react to the blue umbrella’s quest to find the red umbrella he meets at a stoplight. Not quite as heartbreakingly lovely as Disney’s Paper Man, The Blue Umbrella is nonetheless utterly charming. A-
Extra bonus review: Pixar knows how to make a website. Check out monstersuniversity.com for one of the most detail-filled movie websites I’ve seen in a while, including a “message from the dean” that, minus the monsters, could be one of those ads for the University of Phoenix. How detailed? The “School of Liberal Arts & Monstrosities” includes course descriptions such as: “MON 345: Existential Threats (4 units) Taught by world-renowned Fearologian, Dr. Barnabus Malworthy, this advanced philosophy course engages the timeless debate of whether fear evolved from nothingness or a higher power.” B+
Rated G. Directed by Dan Scanlon and written by Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson and Dan Scanlon, Monsters University is an hour and 50 minutes long and is distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.