The short review: Ignore the cynics mourning the golden age of Pixar; Monsters University is a vibrant, rollicking ride of a film that shows not only how to do a prequel right but that sometimes, it’s okay to be a screw-up.
The long review: Go and take a peek at Rotten Tomatoes. Go ahead, I’ll wait. How many times did you see people complaining that this is another nail in Pixar’s coffin? That Disney’s stewardship signals the beginning of the end? If you put your ear close to your computer, you can actually hear my eyes rolling! I don’t know if I was watching the same film as many of my colleagues, but Pixar’s latest offering, Monsters University, is one of the brightest animated lights in today’s cinematic landscape and is, for my money, miles better than last year’s Oscar-winning Brave.
It’s been twelve years since 2001’s Monsters Inc. took theaters by storm, winning over audiences with its surprisingly sweet, fervently funny take on things that go bump in the night. Realistically, that film’s target audience has now grown up, gone through high school and is going off to college. And now Pixar is there for them yet again with a follow-up in the guise of a prequel that takes us back to the delightfully offbeat world of Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and James P. Sullivan (John Goodman). Although Boo’s presence and human connection is noticeably absent, the film has enough heart that fans of the original’s fears are quickly assuaged.
The trick with doing a prequel is that the audience knows where the story is going to end, so the journey to get there needs to be engaging enough to keep viewers on board. This is something that Monsters University takes to heart; we know that Mike and Sulley wind up working at Monsters Inc., but how? The film brings us to our heroes’ formative years at their alma mater of Monsters U., at times feeling like it could have easily been subtitled When Mike Met Sulley. After being unceremoniously kicked out of the school’s top-notch Scaring program by the terrifically terrifying winged centipede Dean Hardscrabble (played by a deliciously strict Helen Mirren), Mike and Sulley must join the lamest frat on campus, Oozma Kappa (their motto — “We’re OK!”) and compete in the campus-wide Scare Games to reclaim their rightful spots.
Much like Revenge of the Nerds, the island of misfit monsters that makes up Oozma Kappa (voiced by excellent folks like Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Joel Murray, Peter Sohn, and Charlie Day), who provide a colorful cast of characters for Mike and Sulley to play off of, are faced with seemingly impossible odds and must use their wits and wiles to save the day. But can they? First-time Pixar director Dan Scanlon and producer Kori Rae wisely use Monsters University to teach children — and let’s face it, some adults — that sometimes it’s okay to fail, because life isn’t like a Disney film. You’re going to get knocked around a bit, and sometimes your worst nightmare will come true.
For most of a child’s life, they are told that if they can dream it, they can do it. They’re special. They’re different. It’s positive reinforcement that helps a child build self-confidence, a valuable trait to be sure, but once they’re out in the real world, as often is the case, it turns out that they’re not special. Sometimes, even if you want it more than anyone else, you’re not going to get what you want. Sometimes you’re going to fail. You’re going to fall on your ass and it’s going to smart.
This is precisely what happens to Mike Wazowski, who continually convinces himself that he’s something special and is forced to admit that maybe he isn’t. But that isn’t the end. You can still pick yourself up and move on. Onwards and upwards is the prevailing message of Monsters University, a spot of real life wisdom couched in the colorful, off-kilter environs of the creature-filled college.
Does Monsters University reach the emotional peaks and and valleys of a film like Up? No, not quite, but it is still a marked improvement over Cars 2 and Brave, and should give the armchair skeptics out there a reason to reevaluate their opinions of Disney-Pixar. With a stellar voice cast, an impressive attention to detail, stunning visuals and heart and humor in spades, Monsters University is one of the better pictures to come out in this crowded summer season and provides a truly enjoyable experience for kids and parents alike. Despite what others might tell you, don’t be afraid to have a good time, you guys.
Monsters University is in theaters everywhere today. For more awesome Monsters University content like Chris Hardwick’s video roundtable and my behind-the-scenes interviews, head on over to the Nerdist Channel. Then, be sure to let us know what you thought in the comments below or hit me up on Twitter.