Re-View: MONSTERS UNIVERSITY

Not only one of Pixar’s flat-out funniest films, MONSTERS UNIVERSITY is surprisingly moving and resonant, and shows that rumors of the legendary studio’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

It’s my job to make great students greater, not make mediocre students less mediocre.

–Dean Hardscrabble

The “follow your dream” trope is one we’ve seen dozens — make that hundreds — of times throughout cinema history, where a plucky protagonist has a hidden talent that few others can see, and overcomes obstacles to achieve their goal, making friends and shaming enemies along the way. This goes back decades (back to the old “A Star Is Born” musicals of the early 20th century), and has continued in modern years through films like Rocky, Rudy, Slumdog Millionaire, August Rush, The Soloist, Finding Forrester, and countless others. In all of these, as expected of the “Inspirational” genre, the main character’s dream is validated, no matter how impossible the odds.

What makes Monsters University kind of brilliant, however, is that it doesn’t do this at all.

If MU were a standalone film, without the exceedingly wonderful Monsters, Inc. to precede it, the audience would know what to expect from the get-go: Mike Wazowski (hands-down, my favorite Pixar character of all time) is not a scary monster, but he wants to be a scarer more than anything in the world, and we assume that with hard work he’ll overcome his handicap and prove everyone wrong–that’s what usually happens, right? But the story zigs when we expect it to zag. The simple truth is that everyone is actually right: Mike’s just not cut out to be a scarer. He’s incredibly smart and knowledgeable, but no matter how hard he tries, no matter how many books he reads, no matter how deep he digs, he doesn’t have it in him.  Now, since we have seen Monsters, Inc., we know he’ll go on to be happy and successful anyway as a door tech, but young Mike doesn’t. His dream has blown up in his face.

It’s shocking, and refreshing, to see a story play out like this. Countless viewers, myself included, can identify more with Mike’s struggles because he tries and fails, not because he succeeds. We all have had dreams in our childhood — whether to be a musician, athlete, actor, or some other kind of celebrity — that get derailed because circumstances and our natural abilities get in the way.  Mike is able to pick himself up and set himself on a new path, a path where he can win, only after he owns up to his shortcomings. The world needs salesmen, mail clerks, janitors, and door techs just as much as it needs those that get on trading cards.

Okay, that’s enough navel-gazing. Though the previous paragraphs don’t really let on, MU (as directed by Dan Scanlon, his first animated feature) is most of all a vibrant, hysterical “college film.”  Every corner of the screen is filled with clever gags and characters, and the origin of Mike and Sully’s friendship is laid out in an organic way that dovetails brilliantly with the original film. Mike has worked extremely hard to get into the scaring program while Sully has coasted on his family name and raw ability, but both find their futures in jeopardy when a classroom brawl gets them kicked out. Their only chance of re-entry is to win the annual Scare Games, a gauntlet of challenges both think they can ace, by joining the only fraternity that will have them: the cast-offs and misfits of Oozma Kappa.

This middle section finds the film at its most conventional, as Mike and Sully must learn to work as a team, both in completing the challenges and in bringing their squad — which includes a two-headed dancer, a philosophy major, a mama’s boy, and a middle-aged guy named Don — up to scratch.  Here Pixar’s skill at character design is on full display, as across the campus we see a breathtaking array of monsters, all of them fully-formed characters with implied backstories. From the elegantly creepy Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), to the horned Big Man On Campus (Nathan Fillion), to the gigantic tentacled librarian and various others involved in Greek life, the film is full to the brim with memorable creatures. And they all service the story — many running gags turn into beautiful payoffs down the line. The dialogue is sparkling (Billy Crystal and John Goodman, who record their sessions together, still have delightful chemistry), and the physical comedy — especially one sequence where the students try and and fail to avoid toxic urchins — is as perfectly executed as anything Pixar has done.

From a technical standpoint, the animation is once again flawless. The campus is nearly photo-realistic, and the fur, hair, and other textures of the monsters show even greater detail and life than the (at the time revolutionary) effects of Monsters, Inc. Even Randy Newman’s score is splendid, carrying on a few themes from the previous film while wonderfully utilizing a drum line and horn section to evoke that “alma mater” feeling. Pixar’s knack for voice casting is also shown once more, as Charlie Day, Dave Foley, Sean Hayes, Alfred Molina, John Krasinski, Aubrey Plaza, and more — including, as always, Pixar employees like Pete Sohn — fill in small roles in memorable ways.

The studio has been viewed as being on a downward trend in recent years, as the releases since the universally-acclaimed Toy Story 3 have been disappointing (Brave) or an outright misfire (Cars 2). But by bringing back these truly beloved characters without losing sight of the emotional core of what makes a Pixar film live up to its brand, Monsters University is a big step back in the right direction. With the braintrust of Lasseter, Docter, Stanton, and Bird still in place, and a couple of truly intriguing projects in the pipeline (Docter’s Inside Out, due in 2015, sounds extraordinary), I feel fully confident in remaining a raving Pixar fanboy.

Grade: B+

UPDATED PIXAR RANKINGS:

  1. The Incredibles
  2. Ratatouille
  3. Monsters, Inc.
  4. Up
  5. Toy Story 3
  6. WALL-E
  7. Finding Nemo
  8. Toy Story 2
  9. Monsters University
  10. Toy Story
  11. Brave
  12. A Bug’s Life
  13. Cars
  14. Cars 2
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