Review: 'Monsters University' Is a Masters' Program

Monsters University

It's exquisitely appropriate that Monsters University is set in a school, because anyone who's had the misfortune of moving up through the grades after an exceptional sibling can understand the frustration the folks at Pixar must have felt every time they've released a new movie during the post-Toy Story 3 era. True, not all of them have been winners -- Cars 2, anyone? -- but to work for years on a new picture, only to know it's going to be endlessly compared to the stuff the studio released in the good old days, has got to be demoralizing.

This isn't to say anyone at Pixar deserves to be let off the hook for substandard product, just that complaining that its latter-day releases don't measure up to its classics is at least a little unfair -- or that it makes about as much sense as holding up modern-day Warner Bros. releases against The Wizard of Oz. Every movie deserves to be judged on its own merits, in the context of its era, genre, and apparent artistic goals; everything else is irrelevant at best and counter-productive at worst.

All that being said, if you aren't old enough to remember animation before Pixar revolutionized it with Toy Story, you may not fully appreciate just how integral the studio has been to the current renaissance in kid-friendly fare, or how their movies came to be held to such an unreasonable standard. Suffice it to say that yes, once upon a time, the studio put together an incredible winning streak of animated films that dazzled the senses while expertly tugging at the heartstrings -- but nothing lasts forever, and not every movie can be a classic.

In a roundabout way, that's kind of the message behind Monsters University, which revisits our heroes from 2001's Monsters, Inc. Rather than following up that movie's story, University winds back the clock, letting viewers see younger versions of Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and James Sullivan (John Goodman) when they meet in college. In terms of story framework, it's a lazy screenwriting bunt that lets the filmmakers painlessly work in passing homages to everything from Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds, and Carrie to The Karate Kid -- but in true Pixar fashion, writers Daniel Gerson, Robert L. Baird, and Dan Scanlon (who also directed) use that outline as a springboard for imparting a fair amount of life wisdom.

Monsters, Inc. used its story to smartly (and not-so-subtly) argue for renewable energy, but University's concerns are much more personal. Essentially, if you watched Inc. and wondered how Mike ever scared a single child, University answers the question by taking us back to his youth, when he decided he wanted to grow up and be a "scarer" -- and following him to college, where he's ostracized and belittled because he just isn't scary.

He can't help it. It's who he is -- he's a little green one-eyed guy. But he has a dream that he can't let go of. Who hasn't felt the pain of reality jutting up against a dream? Who hasn't had to -- or ultimately decided it was simply easier to -- let go of one? That's really what Monsters University is about, and without delving too deeply into plot spoilers, it deals with its themes with an eminently Pixar-like intelligence and grace.

In the context of Pixar's earlier films, this isn't surprising; the studio's creative teams have always favored protagonists with fatal flaws, whether they're old, or weak, or simply ill-suited for their particular place and time. That thread is tugged on a little more explicitly here, with a plot that rests pretty much squarely on the fact that Mike isn't really cut out for what he desperately wants to do and Sulley is too lazy and/or afraid to live up to his natural gifts, but it's still really effective, particularly for the generation that's now parenting the kids who will want to see Monsters University -- we grew up with movie after movie that reinforced the myth of exceptionalism, but here's one that tells you to stop coasting, get off your ass, and try, to understand (and even embrace) your limitations, and to understand that yes, you really might not be "special" in all the ways you hope for.

Of course, Pixar being Pixar, there's a whole lot of digital splendor overlaying this look at the great tug of war between natural talent versus gumption, and it's truly a sight to behold; this is one great-looking movie, with beautifully detailed textures and pristine 3D to help the medicine go down. And like all the best family-friendly flicks, it can be appreciated on different levels -- you can see it as a poignant tribute to dreams denied and outsiders pressured to fit in, or you can simply soak it in the way my kids (7 and 5) did: "That was the best movie ever because it was funny." Either way, it works.

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About Jeff Giles

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Jeff is an entertainment writer and editor whose work currently appears at a variety of sites, including Rotten Tomatoes, Paste, American Songwriter, Popdose, Dadnabbit, Diffuser, and Ultimate Classic Rock.

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