Review: ‘Monsters University' finds own niche while remembering original


This publicity image released by Disney-Pixar shows a scene from “Monsters University.”

The Associated Press
Published: Friday, June 21, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, June 20, 2013 at 6:18 p.m.

Is it possible for a Pixar movie to somehow escape the notice of the movie-going public?

Facts

‘Monsters University'

Rated: G
Starring: Voices of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Helen Mirren, Nathan Fillion
★★★★

It seems unlikely, but in a summer movie season dominated by superheroes and starships, “Monsters University” is arriving relatively unheralded. Maybe this is for the best; audiences haven't been pummeled by a marketing blitz and now have a chance to be genuinely surprised by how good the movie is. With its charming story, well-rendered characters and sly humor, “Monsters University” is a delight for anybody looking for something at the box office not aimed exclusively at male geeks.

Set as a prequel to 2001's “Monsters, Inc.,” Pixar's latest entry brings us back to Monstropolis, the land where the monsters from under our beds actually live. As a youngster, Mike Wazowksi (voice of Billy Crystal, returning from “Monsters, Inc.”) is inspired to become a Scarer during a school field trip, and he's told that the best place to learn to be a Scarer is Monsters University. Once he reaches MU, Mike enrolls in the scaring program, only to butt heads with both fellow students and the school's overseers.

His chief competition is James “Sulley” Sullivan (voice of John Goodman, also back from “Monsters, Inc.”), the lazy son of a current Scarer who feels entitled to a job but has no work ethic. Mike and Sulley's feud gets them both in trouble with Dean Hardscrabble (voiced with delicious sardonic wit by Helen Mirren), a legendary Scarer who thinks neither of them has the right stuff. Thus the enemies must become frenemies and join forces to win a series of competitions to earn another shot at becoming a Scarer.

Seeing as we already know Mike and Sulley end up as lifelong friends, Pixar's team deserves lots of credit for not making any of the proceedings seem preordained. Crystal and Goodman both excel in their old roles, tweaking them enough to fit the new story while also retaining enough of their characters' elements to maintain continuity. The script from Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson and writer-director Dan Scanlon also is top-notch, with subtle visual and verbal callbacks to “Monsters, Inc.,” though they wisely shift the focus to Mike instead of creating another Sulley-centric narrative.

The script also does a good job of gently ribbing the institutions of college life (this is where most of the jokes come from, including a hilarious “Animal House”-esque scene in which Mike and Sulley steal and then misplace the mascot of a rival university) while also using them to develop the characters. Mike is a nerdy outsider going up against Sulley the legacy jock, but both of them have something to learn from the other.

If there's one area where the movie flails just a bit, it's that it doesn't work on as many levels as Pixar's true gems. It lacks a little something extra: the nuanced relationships of its ancestor, the visual grandeur of “Wall-E” or the flirtation with mortality that gives “Toy Story 3” its emotional gut-punch. Both adults and kids will like “Monsters University,” but it doesn't offer quite as much to the former as the latter. It must also be said that since this is a prequel, by definition it's lacking a bit in originality.

All that really means, though, is that it's not quite as good as Pixar's best, and there are very few movies as good as Pixar's best. “Monsters University” may not be perfect, but like its heroes, you love it for its flaws all the same.

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