Format: Sycamore Theater.
Read this blog for a couple of weeks and you start to figure out that I don’t go to the theater that often. Read it for half a year, and you’d guess I never go. My trips to the theater are pretty limited. I don’t love movies in the theater. I mean, I like the giant screen and the surround sound. I don’t like the everyone else in the place. Make it a film designed for kids and fill the theater with children who haven’t learned that they aren’t sitting at home and should shut the hell up, and, well…that’s why I don’t go to the theater that much.
However, Kid #1 is off to Atlanta today for five weeks of intensive ballet. Monsters University opened. It was a last family night together until the end of July, so we went—the first theater visit of 2013 for yours truly. I didn’t go in with massive expectations. Sure, it’s a Pixar film, but it’s also a sequel. Were we going to get Toy Story 3 or Cars 2?
The answer is neither. These days, Disney starts its films with shorts, and Monsters University is no different. The short this time is called The Blue Umbrella, and it’s essentially last year’s Oscar-winning animated short Paperman done with a different, less effective animation style and a couple of brightly-colored umbrellas. Sadly, it’s pretty forgettable. From there, we jump into the main feature.
To follow the basic plot of Monsters University, you’ll need to remember the basics from Monsters Inc. What you need to recall is that the monster world uses the energy derived from the screams of young children to power their world. This is done by having professional scarers creep into the human world through specially constructed closet doors. We learn in the opening that the little round, green, one-eyed Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) has been fascinated by scarers since he was a little social outcast in monster grade school.
Fast forward to college. Mike attends Monsters University (which is a catchy name for a film) as a scaring major. And it’s here that the film begins to play with our knowledge of the previous film as well as our expectations in this one. Mike enters his dorm room telling himself that behind the door will be his best friend for life, and it turns out to be the college-age version of the first film’s villain, Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi). Our two heroes from Monsters Inc. don’t meet until the first day of class where we learn that Mike is something of a teacher’s pet and Jimmy Sullivan (John Goodman) is a slacker who has gotten by on native talent and the reputation of his father.
A rivalry starts between the two and culminates in a showdown that eventually earns the wrath of school dean Abigail Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), who responds by kicking both of them out of the program. This is devastating for Mike, who has dreamed of a career in scaring his whole life. For Sully, it means destroying the family tradition and being booted out of his new fraternity, Roar Omega Roar, headed by Johnny Worthington (Nathan Fillion). Shortly after this, the campus holds a scare contest and Mike decides to enter it. To do so, he needs a fraternity, and the only one that will have him is Oozma Kappa, the campus nerds. Mike gets Dean Hardscrabble to agree to let the entire fraternity into the scaring program if they win, and agrees that he will leave the school if his team loses. But they have only five members and need six to compete. Naturally, their sixth member is a reluctant Jimmy Sullivan, who agrees based on the possibility of getting back into the scaring school. The rest of the team is made up of Don Carlton (Joel Murray), downsized middle-aged salesman returning to school; Terry/Terri (Dave Foley and Sean Hayes respectively), a two-headed monster, one of which is a dance major; Art (Charlie Day), a purple new-age philosopher with giant legs; and Scott “Squishy” Squibbles (Peter Sohn), with multiple eyes and even more social phobias. Their fraternity house is actually Squishy’s home, which means they all live with his mom (Julia Sweeney).
If you guess that what follows is going to be an animated, kid-friendly version of Revenge of the Nerds, you guessed right. The Oozmas luck through the first two events, realize that everyone on their team has particular skills and qualities, and start to work together until the big final confrontation where each member of the teams needs to “scare” a human child in the simulator.
I don’t want to spoil the film, so I won’t go into what happens. Suffice to say that I’m of mixed feelings on the ultimate message of the film. There are some real positives here—Dean Hardscrabble, who goes through much of the film as the main obvious villain, turns out to not be that much of a villain in the end. She’s strict, she’s a bit draconian (yes, that’s a pun you’ll get when you see her), but she’s not bad or evil. She’s intimidating and demanding without being cruel or heartless. The RORs are much more sadistic and cruel.
On the other hand, a great deal of the third act comes down to a single point—Mike Wazowski is about as scary as a litter of baby bunnies. He wants desperately to be a scarer and has dreamed of it his whole life. And he can’t do it. It’s kind of a brutal message to send to kids; there are dreams that you will have that you will never realize because of your own limitations. Oh, sure it all ends on a high note, but that does seem kind of cruel.
I will say this—I appreciate very much how the end works out and how it all ties into the first film. Since this is a prequel, there is a certain point that we must reach to get to that first film, and we’re left at a point that seems like it would be impossible to make that happen. We do get there through a pretty inventive sequence. Most importantly, based on how the plot of Monsters University finishes, we get there honestly without shortcuts or deus ex machina.
Best of all, Monsters University is Pixar back in form. This is a smart movie and a funny one. I laughed multiple times at it, and so did my wife. Most importantly, so did my kids. If you haven’t seen Monsters Inc. in a few years, you’ll want to brush up to get some of the really good jokes, but even without a refresher, there’s a lot here that makes this one fun on its own.
Oh...this is my 1,000th post. Go me.
Why to watch Monsters University: Hey, it’s Pixar.
Why not to watch: It’s also recycled from other films you know.