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Review: Monsters University (2013)

Monsters University (2013)

Directed by: Dan Scanlon

Premise: A prequel to Monsters, Inc. In a world that is powered by the screams of frightened children, young monsters grow up wanting to be “scarers.” Mike and Sully (voice of Billy Crystal and John Goodman) enroll at Monsters University to launch their careers, but Mike lacks scariness and Sully is a poor student. In a last ditch effort to save their academic careers, they enter a campus scare contest.

What Works: Monsters University is a sufficient amount of fun. It’s never particularly inspired but it is competent and the filmmakers accomplish what they have set out to do, which is to create an entertaining movie for families. Viewers who enjoyed Monsters, Inc. are likely to enjoy the prequel. It has the same style and sense of humor and it has the general good heartedness that distinguished the first movie. The biggest assets of Monsters University are imports from the previous film: the characters of Mike and Sully. They are memorable and fully realized characters and the filmmakers wisely choose to make them college adversaries who gradually learn to respect and befriend each other. This gives the characters a story arc, even if viewers are well aware of exactly where this is going. Monster’s Inc. was led by Sully but Monsters University is Mike’s story and the character is surprisingly engaging and endearing. Monsters University is a Pixar film and, as expected from this studio, the quality of the animation is superb. The texture, lighting, depth, and attention to detail are all first rate and a few shots are virtually indistinguishable from live action filmmaking.

What Doesn’t: The problem with Monsters University is that it is a movie that has no reason to exist. The original Monsters, Inc. did not suggest a sequel nor did the premise of the story demand further explanation. This is the kind of sequel that was made for its own sake—and for the sake of selling toys—and it never fully overcomes its lack of utility. The approach that the filmmakers have come up with, to tell the origin story of the friendship between Mike and Sully, makes for an entertaining movie but it often seems like the kind of spin off that would be more befitting of Disney’s direct-to-video sequels. Very little about Monsters University is surprising. That is partly a result of the inherent story problem of prequels. Because of the existence of the original movie, audiences walk into a prequel already knowing the outcome and so it is incumbent on the filmmakers to tell a story that makes the premise of the original movie more interesting or changes our understanding of the characters and their relationships. The filmmakers of Monsters University don’t really accomplish that. Aside from its shortcomings as a prequel, the film also lacks the inventiveness of the original film. There’s nothing much new to the world of Monsters University and its story is a cliché college plot. A lot of animated movies, including those of Pixar, often borrow cliché story templates and follow them beat-by-beat. Pixar has generally gotten away with that because they’ve told their stories so well and created memorable characters. Monster’s University adopts the college boilerplate of movies like Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds but because it is lacking in inventiveness the cliché qualities are more noticeable here. 

Bottom Line: As prequels go, Monsters University is better than a lot of them. There isn’t much to it and its best understood as an industrial product designed to sell toys but Monsters University is well made and entertaining enough to make for an enjoyable family afternoon at the movies. 

Episode: #445 (June 30, 2013)