Mark Reviews Movies

Monsters University


2 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Dan Scanlon

Cast: The voices of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, Peter Sohn, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Charlie Day, Alfred Molina

MPAA Rating: G

Running Time: 1:50

Release Date: 6/21/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 21, 2013

Monsters University depends on us to simultaneously remember and dismiss everything that constituted the heart of its predecessor. We must, for example, recall that Mike Wazowski (voice of Billy Crystal), the short green orb of a monster with a mouth and a single eye, and James P. "Sulley" Sullivan (voice of John Goodman), the furry monster whose roar could frighten any child (and whose blue hair made us to realize just how far computer animation had come at the time of the original film's release), will become the best of friends, though they start bitter rivals upon their first meeting in college. It's the central emotional connection we have to the material here, and we need that memory to keep us going as the characters work out their issues with themselves and each other.

We must remember that these beasts have human concerns, like jealousy and insecurity and confusion about their place in the world. The movie knows it, beginning its story and focusing the climactic scene of the central friendship on these things, but in the process of its plot about a team of misfits coming together to tackle a series of competitions, the screenplay by Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson, and director Dan Scanlon loses sight of its characters.

It's important that we're reminded how this world operates—that the most important work a monster can do is to help power everything by sneaking through door-shaped portals into children's bedrooms, scaring the kids, and collecting their screams. It may sound easy enough for some of these creatures, but we learn here that it takes an education to learn the various types of scares that can be utilized on kids with very different fears.

With this point, the things the movie wants us to ignore come into play. We have to overlook the main lesson the characters learned by the end of Monsters, Inc.—that children are not commodities and need protection. Needless to say, it's a little jarring to see the characters and the movie itself celebrating the ability to frighten kids. Yes, the events of this movie occur before the previous one, but this one is still informed by what's come before it. Of all the things to abandon from the previous movie, its conscience seems like an unfortunate choice.

Above even this, though, we must forget the first film's creative ingenuity. It created an entire world out of the childhood fear of a monster in the closet—one that was vibrant, colorful, and filled with lovable characters and a sense of endless possibility. The prequel is resting on its predecessors shoulders, complacent in the knowledge that the difficult work is behind it and not stretching its own imaginative potential too much.

The story follows Mike—first as a youngster on a field trip to the company of his future employment where he, an outsider, decides that he wants to be a professional child "scarer" when he grows up and then, after a jump of a decade or so (shifting from braces to a retainer), at the prestigious Monsters University (The first sight of the sprawling campus is quite impressive). He's studied for most of his life to prepare for his dream job. When Sulley arrives at class, he's already a star based on the career of his father; he's spent his life prospering on reputation and talent without any hard work. Neither likes the other.

They're brought together after a catastrophic mid-term exam that destroys Dean Hardscrabble's (voice of Helen Mirren) prized trophy—a canister containing the all-time scream record. She kicks them both out of Scaring School as a result. A competition for the fraternities on campus offers a chance for them to regain their place on the path to get the degrees they want, but after the incident, only the frat of outcasts (Oozma Kappa, which makes them O.K.—and only just) will take them as members. Their frat house belongs to the mother of one of the members.

We're introduced to the rest of the fraternity, who are a likeable enough collection of wimps and oddballs, but there's no time for them to become anything more than whatever qualities make them immediately endearing. Those qualities are mostly on the surface in the quirky design, such as a two-headed monster with different personalities and a fuzzy, purple thing with a face in the center of the arch that is its legs. No sooner do we meet them than the movie throws them into one challenge after another, like trying to race through a dark tunnel with spiky creatures that cause an immediate allergic reaction or attempting to sneak past the mountain of a librarian who will not tolerate even the slightest noise.

This is generally amusing material, and as each of the two adversaries-turned-friends starts to appreciate what the other brings to the table, Monsters University starts to find an emotional core, centered around a nighttime confessional in which they both admit to feeling like failures no matter what their successes may be. We're briefly reminded of the first film's poignancy and realize how much this one has forgotten it.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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