Finals are over, and summer is here. Nevertheless, I have volunteered to take the Monsters University Test. It’s a Multiple Choice test with Essay Questions. And I don’t think anybody will count it as cheating if I show you my answers.
Here we go…
1. This Pixar film, a prequel to Monsters Inc., reintroduces us to the green, one-eyed skittle called Mike Wazowski and the big, blue-furred fellow called James P. Sullivan, and tells the story of
a. what happened to Mike’s other eye.
b. how the monsters conspired to create a nightmare called Cars 2 that troubled the sleep of Pixar fans everywhere.
c. how 17-year-old Mike Wazowski — who when he was a kid dreamed of being a “scarer” of sleeping children — grew up to attend college and, even though he was judged “not scary enough” and was barred from a popular scarer fraternity, majored in “scaring” and learned not to let the nay-sayers hold him back.
d. how John Lasseter got his groove back.
Note: The movie isn’t just about Mike Wazowski. First-time director Dan Scanlon, like his Pixar colleagues, is an ambitious storyteller. Monsters University welcomes us into an elaborate world of criss-crossing storylines… like the celebrated Toy Story 2 and the lamentable Cars 2. And while it may not be as a standard-setting classic like Toy Story 2, WALL•E, or Finding Nemo, it’s satisfying, hilarious, unpredictable, and willing to take big storytelling risks.
For example, this is also the story of how Sulley, who comes from a family famous for being scary, tries to coast through school on his reputation and privileged status. It takes courage for a storyteller to reveal that a character as beloved as Sulley was not always likeable… that he was once brash, self-absorbed, and untrustworthy. He had to learn that success — and meaningful friendships — come through hard work, humility, and honesty, no matter what your history and reputation might be.
As film reviewer Steven Greydanus has pointed out, Sulley’s story may be closer to the minds and hearts of Pixar’s storytellers than Mike’s, because his character dilemma relates to Pixar’s character dilemma. The studio’s own legendary reputation for standard-setting achievement in the field of feature animation leads us to expect great things from them, but sometimes it seems they’re expecting us to cheer even when they’re lazy and unfocused. It might not be a stretch to imagine that Monsters University is a sort of apology, and an acknowledgment that if they want to remain the Big Monster in the animation world, they’ll have to earn it with every movie.
2. In this movie, Mike and Sulley meet for the first time and
a. become ferocious rivals.
b. become best friends
c. get in big trouble with Dean Hardscrabble, the scaring program’s glowering headmistress.
d. all of the above.
Note: Yeah, I know. Who knew that Mike and Sulley almost ruined each others’ lives before they found bromance?
3. Mike and Sulley and a group of insecure, unappreciated college classmates move in together and form
a. a rock band called The Terror, inspired by The Flaming Lips.
b. a gang of thieves called “Wazowski’s Eleven” who steal from the evil frat-boy bullies of the school and give to the poor, bullied nerds.
c. a team that enters “The Scare Games,” a competition about teamwork, speed, stealth, and scariness.
d. All of the above.
Note: A lot of the fun of Monsters University comes from the hilarity that ensues when these social rejects band together and find ways to outwit the cocky gang of frat-bullies called Roar Omega Roar, led by a monster named Johnny Worthington. You might call it “Revenge of the Nerd-Monsters.”
a. Helen Mirren and Bonnie Hunt.
b. Nathan Fillion and Sean Hayes.
c. Alfred Molina, John Krasinski, Dave Foley, Frank Oz, Charlie Day, Aubrey Plaza, Bill Hader, John Ratzenberger, and Julia Sweeney.
d. All of the above.
OPINION QUESTION: I had a _______________ time watching this movie.
a. heartbreakingly disillusioning
b. life-changingly thrilling
c. pretty good
Even though Monsters Inc. concluded with one of Pixar’s most powerfully moving scenes, I’ve never been a big fan of it, because I have a low tolerance for the somewhat shrill, neurotic jabber of Billy Crystal. In his Monsters Inc. role, Mr. Crystal jabbered a lot.
But this time around, I found Mike Wazowski to be more pleasant company. Maybe it’s because this is a younger version, one more open to learning, less likely to rant and throw tantrums. And he shares the screen with so many other characters, he doesn’t have a chance to overpower anything.
If you read many reviews of this film, you’ll find a lot of complaining that Monsters University doesn’t rise to the level of the studio’s greatest work. I admit that I, too, have been worried that Pixar — far and away the greatest animation studio when it comes to how things look — is forgetting that they once dominated the field when it came to how a story could startle, enthrall, and mean something.
But some have complained in the past about Pixar’s reliance upon villains and climactic chase scenes. And guess what? Monsters University doesn’t have a villain. Oh, Mike and Sulley do have to deal with some arrogant frat-boy bullies, but this is not a story about beating the bad guys. It’s a story about learning to acknowledge and overcome weakness. And the climactic events are refreshingly fight-free and devoid of any frantic pursuit.
Not only that, but late in the film’s 106 minutes, we get a startling blast of meaningful Pixar storytelling that reminds us of what this team can do when they bring their A game. And when the moment comes — that Pixar twist that makes clear what is truly at stake, that reminds us these storytellers are willing to tackle some heavy subjects — it strikes the audience silent with its gravity. In retrospect, I can’t think of any moment at the movies that pulls the rug out from under the audience quite like this moment… but to say more would risk spoilers.
Is the Big Pixar Twist too little, too late? No, not really. While it’s a long journey to the story’s sobering turn, the getting-there is wonderfully entertaining. Suffice it to say that until that moment comes, we’ve been chuckling our way through one amusing joke after another, stemming from the monsters’ myriad physical anomalies or from the movie’s playful send-up of college life. Clearly, there were people at Pixar eager to go back to the world of Mike and Sulley so that they could bring to life a whole society of hilarious monsters. And they deliver the most colorful, strange, inventive, and entertaining cast of creatures since The Muppet Show.
And speaking of Muppets… where Monsters Inc.‘s biggest boast was the gorgeous innovation in animation that made Sulley’s blue fur look so soft and huggable, Monsters University is ablaze with persuasively realized textures. Everything looks so perfectly material, we may as well be watching a Muppet movie.
Further, college life is a subject that Pixar’s storytellers haven’t yet explored. Here, they do so with inspired vigor, distracting us from a lack of storytelling purpose by giving us a tour of places, faces, personalities, activities, and rituals that will leave only the most cynical viewers unimpressed.
All-in-all, I’m happy to recommend Monsters University. It’s a B-grade movie from a studio famous for A-grade work. But that’s the problem with genius: When you deliver at such a high level for so long, your audience is going to feel a bit impatient when you work something less than a miracle, or deliver something that is only as good as other studios’ best work.
Maybe I’ve been spoiled. If that’s the case, I shouldn’t complain. But I enjoyed being spoiled. Am I greedy to hope that Pixar will go back to the business of spoiling us again?
BONUS QUESTION: To earn extra points in the Monsters University Test, consider this question: Are the monsters of this movie dangerous for children? I offer my answer in this follow-up post.