Review: ‘Monsters University’ is Good, but Not Quite Pixar

Monsters University, the prequel to Monsters, Inc., hits all the Pixar notes.

A clever world rendered in meticulous detail? Check.

Well-rounded characters with humor flowing organically from their inner character? Check.

A sweet, warm core about the universal value of friendship? Check.

But there is a fatal flaw.

If you could sum up Monsters, Inc, the lesson would be: It’s better to be loved than feared.

After all, children’s laughter is more powerful than screams and monsters and children can be friends, right? That was kind of the point.

And then, in Monsters University, we’re transported back to a time when being scary was the greatest good and terrorizing children is the goal.

It kind of takes the oomph out of the whole thing. We know Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) is destined to befriend Boo and revolutionize monster/human relations, so how can we really, truly get behind his quest to be the scariest scarer in the whole land?

Mike, a small monster of humble origins, is the monster you’d last expect to become a big, mean, tough scarer. The scarers are the astronauts of the monster world, held in awe by mere mortal monsters. But Mike is kind of a runt.

He works hard, very hard. He has heart, tons of heart. So when his admission to the premiere monster training program comes through, he sees it as the next logical step in his quest to be the best.

On campus, he bumps into Sullivan (John Goodman), lackadaisical scion of a great scaring family. His father is a legend. Sully, of course, is built like a mac truck and scares people just standing still.

He has had everything handed to him on a spooky platter.

The opposites become rivals, neck and neck until the moment they both flunk out of scaring school. With their futures in the balance, they enter the scaring contest, their only hope at redemption. The team they gather around them is no help, the monsters equivalent of Lambda Lambda Lambda.

The heart of the film is the rivalry between Mike and Scully that turns to friendship, but only when each admits his own “jerkiness” and changes his ways. That storyline is rich and warm and lovely, as is so often the case in Pixar films.

Also rich is the monster collegiate world, from the guitar playing strummer with lyrics about tentacles to the sorority girls whose laser eyes mean business. There’s a gag in everything and, again being Pixar, they all work. The film is funny and wonderful in its gentle humor.

The passion to succeed that drives Mike and, ultimately, Scully, is also a wonderful thing for kids to be seeing. They love what they do and are willing to work and sacrifice for it. (Unlike the other barometer of teen culture this week…The Bling Ring)

Rated G, there is no wink-wink humor or potty language that will make you regret bringing the kids. A few scenes might be scary for kids, especially a dean whose bat wings and centipede body make her the creepiest thing at the U. But mostly, it’s all bright colors and goofy monsters roaring.

So this is a very good movie from Pixar. Far better than many of the animated movies you’ll be seeing this year. Parents and kids will enjoy it together.

And, yet, from Pixar, we expect more than very good. We expect sublime, excellent, amazing. We expect a movie that makes us choke up just thinking about it, as I do when I remember Toy Story 3.

This is not that level. If it were released from any other studio, it would be one of their best flicks. From Pixar, it’s not even in the top category.

Pixar does amazing work. But not everything can be Up or Toy Story 3, I suppose.

Sigh.

About Rebecca Cusey

Rebecca is a lead critic and editor of entertainment at Patheos. Follow her on Twitter @Rebecca_Cusey


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