Wednesday, June 19, 2013
Review: "Monsters University"
I've always thought "Monsters, Inc." was the most underrated of the Pixar films. It came out the same years as "Shrek," which grabbed the Academy Award for animated feature and most of the limelight. But it was a sweet, playful story with a smart twist on the scary monsters every child imagines is hiding in their closet.
The sequel, or rather prequel, arrives 12 years later and can't meet the high standard set by its predecessor, though it's still an enjoyable romp. Since "Inc." pretty much wrapped up all the troubles facing that universe -- with the monsters switching to making tykes laugh instead of scream to solve their energy crisis -- there wasn't anywhere to go, story-wise.
Solution: go backward!
So we tag along as green, one-eyed cue ball Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and furry blue behemoth James P. Sullivan (John Goodman) make their debut as freshmen on the campus of "Monsters University." Rather than best buds, they're rivals competing for status as the big scarer on campus (BSOC?).
There's an unavoidable disconnect here, since we know all the sweat and toil they put into horrifying kids will eventually come to naught. And Crystal and Goodman, two guys in their 60s trying to pass vocally as teenagers, sound like ... two guys in their 60s straining at the upper ends of their voice range.
Randall, the fearsome disappearing serpent voiced by Steve Buscemi, turns up in a bit part as Mike's awkward roommate, who falls in with the misguided popular crowd. It seems a poor use of a really good character.
The animation is terrific, and we get to see some more crazy variations of monster biology, including a snail student who races to get to class on time, unsuccessfully. I'd advise you to skip the 3D upgrade, since it doesn't really seem to add much to the spectacle.
The story boils down to a pretty standard college comedy, though toned down for a G rating compatible with even the smallest audience members. There are familiar jocks-versus-nerds contests, dissimilar fraternity brothers finding an unlikely bond, and even a scary dean cracking down on all the fun.
The dean, named Hardscrabble, is voiced by Helen Mirren and is the best creation in the new movie. She scritches about on chitinous legs with an insectoid torso, flies around on bat wings and always seems to be standing so her face is cast in shadow. Neat trick, that.
Hardscrabble, a legendary scarer in her own right, doesn't think either Mike or Sulley has what it takes. So they're forced to enter, and win, the annual Greek Scare Games in order to get back into her loathsome graces.
Rebuffed by the top fraternities, the boys have to join up with Oozma Kappa, a lame bunch of reject monsters ("We're O.K.!"). They include Don (Joel Murray), a tentacled middle-aged salaryman giving college another try; Squishy (Peter Sohn), a multiple-eyed pile of goop with a confidence problem; Art (Charlie Day), a dippy hippie type who looks like an inverted "U" with purple fur and four hands; and Terri/Terry (Sean Hayes and Dave Foley), a two-headed dude who doesn't always agree with himself.
There's some nice byplay as Sulley and Mike butt ... well, cranial surfaces. (Mike doesn't really have a head, unless you count his whole body as one.) The set-up is that Sullivan is the natural talent from a prodigious family of scarers who tries to skate by without trying, while Mike is a grind who knows the academia of fright in and out, but lacks that certain something.
Director Dan Scanlon and fellow screenwriters Robert L. Baird and Daniel Gerson are Pixar backbenchers called up for a turn at bat, and they acquit themselves without swinging for the fences. "Monsters University" is a reasonably fun, not terribly original but never boring ride with a pair of old, likable chums.
Note: the film is preceded by a 7-minute short, "The Blue Umbrella," written and directed by Saschka Unseld. It's about everyday city objects secretly coming to life, and it's a charming mix of hyper-realistic animation and cartoony tropes.