‘Monsters University’ Scares Up an Enjoyable but Inferior Prequel
In 2001, Pixar (still in its infancy) released their fright-tastic Monsters, Inc. and introduced us to a world where the screams of little children were harvested as an energy source for the city of Monstropolis, home to the creatures that go bump in the night. The monsters’ mission — to scare the bejesus out of children everywhere — might have proven to be a horrifying one had it not been for a cast of characters that were as goofy and colorful as a Woodstock acid trip. With the help of best buds Mike (Billy Crystal), a sarcastic, one-eyed charmer, and Sully (John Goodman), a gentle, furry, horned giant, the monsters of Monstropolis eventually learned that there is far more power in laughter than fear — a lesson that has Disney written all over it.
Now, 12 years later, cue the inevitable origin story. As wide-eyed and energetic as a college freshman (and as vibrantly beautiful as the original), Monsters University may be the unnecessary prequel to one of Pixar’s earliest (and arguably weaker) creations, but it has a monstrous amount of fun trying to prove its worth.
Quite possibly the biggest hurdle for the prequel is the familiar quandary shared by most prequels: how do you revisit a world and its characters that have already been established and give them that new car shine? Moving the action to college, where all kinds of trouble await our characters, is a wise start.
MU, as the school’s apparel affectionately sports, finds Mike and Sully crossing paths for the first time as freshmen at the titular institute of scarier learning. However, it is anything but bromance at first sight for the future pals. When they meet, Mike is an overachiever desperately trying to compensate for what he lacks in scaring ability with book smarts. Conversely, Sully is a chill-laxing slacker riding on the coattails of his family name and an inherently big roar. After a run-in with their stern headmistress (voiced by the majestically menacing Helen Mirren), the two archrivals are banished from MU’s famed School of Scaring and must compete alongside each other in the Scare Games — a physical competition of scaring skills between the fraternities and sororities — in order to earn a second chance at their dream education.
Trying to take in every bit of MU’s vast and exciting campus is a daunting task, but for the most part it is on par with your everyday college: scrambling students, wild parties (though toned down to adhere to Disney kid-friendly values), Frisbee on the lawn and the frantic cramming for finals we all know and hate (one four-armed student feverishly drinks more coffee than he has arms to pour). But it also boasts some rather distinguished attributes, like its 50-foot librarian with a nasty distain for noise and final exams that test how well you can scare the pee out of little kids. Showcasing the ups and downs of the college experience (which seems to transcend the human or monster distinction), Monsters University is the equivalent of an orientation video that is wildly entertaining but ultimately lacks true purpose beyond narrative fodder.
In Monsters, Inc., Monstropolis was a city teetering on the verge of crisis (well, at least, a fathomable level of crisis for a Disney movie). The scream-energy returns were diminishing due to increasingly desensitized youth and citizens dealt with the constant fear that children were toxic and may break into the monster world. These immediate issues gave the film a sense of duty to leave Monstropolis a better place than when we first saw it.
Monsters University doesn’t have that urgency because we know what Monstropolis’ future looks like, and where it’s inhabitants will end up. At best, this film is a nostalgic snapshot of a time when Mike and Sully didn’t have to worry about singlehandedly solving their city’s energy crisis. Instead, the only weight on their shoulders is whether or not they can rally the troops, rise to the occasion, win the Scare Games and be the cool kids on campus — Revenge of the Nerds-style. While there is a monkey wrench or two thrown in there, the story can only go so far to amaze an audience that knows the real, game-changing adventure lies a few years down the road.
Thus, the whole meaning of this prequel isn’t to entertain with an audacious new narrative but to give the film’s cast of all shapes, sizes and species a chance to frolic in a new environment. In their sophomore outing as Mike and Sully, Crystal, with his fast-talking neuroticism, and Goodman, with his fuzzy-wuzzy warmth, slip effortlessly back into their duo’s scary shoes. They may be two very different monsters — Mike is as shapely as a pool ball and Sully is no smaller than a grizzly bear — but their chemistry is magnetic, and seeing it blossom from one-upmanship to true partnership is this film’s strongest asset. As for the new monsters on the quad, Mike and Sully’s Oozma Kappa frat brothers stand out as a skittish but lovable bunch that must conquer their fears to reign as campus kings. Let’s just say doing so isn’t easy, but going from zero to hero never is, and the journey is half the fun.
Compared to the door-hopping, child-saving adventures of its predecessor, Monsters University, and its college fun and games, just seems, well, juvenile. It is an undoubtedly heartwarming tale (Pixar’s specialty), and the return to the vibrant color of Monstropolis is a welcome sight in a summer full of bleak apocalyptic fare. But when we already know how the story ends, the prequel’s road to get there needs a little more substance to fully justify the return trip.
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars
“Monsters University” opened nationwide on June 21, 2013, and will be shown in Disney Digital 3D™ in select theaters.
Trailer Courtesy of ©2013 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
Featured image: “Monsters University” (L-R) Sulley and Mike. Photo Credit: ©2013 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.