Full disclosure: I hate spoilers in reviews, so there won’t be any in this MONSTERS UNIVERSITY review. MONSTERS UNIVERSITY is a Disney•Pixar film, so, of course, it’s family friendly. The subject matter is a bit mature (it would have to be, given that it takes place at Monsters University), but I think all ages will enjoy it, even very young children, who will probably be as mesmerized as I was by all the vibrant colors on the screen. MONSTERS UNIVERSITY opens in theaters Friday, June 21. For all of the press materials, updates, images, and trailers for MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, click here. And continue reading for the full MONSTERS UNIVERSITY review including “The Blue Umbrella” short.
The screening started with a series of commercials for ABC Family programs, including “Melissa & Joey,” “Baby Daddy,” and “Dancing Fools” (which appears to be a reality show). We also saw a behind-the-scenes look at Disney Channel’s soon to be released (July 19) “Teen Beach Movie,” starring Ross Lynch from “Austin & Ally.” I have to admit, I’m a little intrigued by the storyline, which transports two modern-day teens into a ‘60s teen movie musical. Maybe my nieces will watch it with me the next time I visit them.
The bonus short feature for MONSTERS UNIVERSITY is “The Blue Umbrella.” The story line was similar to that of “Paperman” (click here to read my review of “Paperman”), with inanimate (though animated) objects conspiring to bring two humans together. I don’t know if it’s too soon after “Paperman” or if this one just doesn’t hit the mark, but it wasn’t as heartwarming as “Paperman,” maybe because we never see the humans and the story is purportedly about the umbrella’s romance. I liked the animation of the city, though, and the star umbrellas are cute.
MONSTERS UNIVERSITY is the prequel to “Monsters, Inc.” (disclaimer – “Monsters, Inc.” is my favorite Pixar film, so this movie has a lot to live up to). James P. Sullivan and Mike Wazowski are the heroes of “Monsters, Inc.” and in MONSTERS UNIVERSITY we learn how they met. [In order to avoid spoilers for those who haven’t seen “Monsters, Inc.,” I’m not going to summarize that film here.] The star of this movie is Mike Wazowski. Before the title credit, we meet little Mike on a field trip to Monsters, Inc. We see him ignored and bullied by his classmates and his sweetness shines through as he keeps going, seeming not to notice the slights. In his eagerness to experience scaring first-hand, Mike enters the scare floor, follows a scarer through the door, and makes a big impression on everyone on the scare floor. His passion for scaring blossoms and his goal of attending Monsters University to become a scarer is born.
At Monsters University, Mike and his roommate are both majoring in scaring. (I’ll admit that I expected Mike and Sulley to be roommates, but I was wrong.) His roommate has an unfortunate trait that he believes will prevent him from being a good scarer, but Mike points out that it could be great for scaring, again showing his sweet, optimistic nature.
Mike first meets Sulley in their Scaring class, where they are to learn the intricacies and technicalities of scaring, at which Mike excels. Sulley is the scion of the famous Sullivans. He is arrogant and dismissive, expecting the accolades due a Sullivan. Mike and Sulley do not hit it off and, in fact, the first semester of school is a showdown between the two that escalates until they are both kicked out of the scare program after destroying the dean’s record-breaking scream can during their finals prep.
We see the usual college movie activities – mascot stealing, fraternity and sorority parties (and some hazing and initiation gags – including a reference to a popular horror film that is Disney-fied in a very clever way), the nerds and jocks of the monster world, a mature student, and, of course, the Dean. In order to get back into the Scare Program, Mike and Sulley join a fraternity (can you guess which one?) so they can compete in the Scare Games to prove to the Dean that they’re worthy of being scarers. As they work their way through the challenges, which seem to take place over the course of the second semester, Mike and Sulley discover their own special talents and the talents of their frat brothers, learning, as expected, that teamwork is essential to success. The challenges are clever and fun to watch. The Pixar animators and storytellers may be adhering to a college movie format, but they’re making it special in the monster world. Without giving too much away, I think my favorite challenge was Hide and Sneak.
It’s what happens after the Scare Games that has the biggest impact on the film and on the viewers. The lake scene is the finest bit of animation I’ve seen in a long time; it haunts me still. In a scene that parallels Monsters, Inc., our heroes finally become the team we know and love, but in a way unexpected from the course of the story to that point and in a deviation from the usual “happily ever after” plot, where everything ties together in a neat bow and our heroes win the day. What I kept expecting to happen didn’t – and that’s what makes Pixar such great storytellers, even when most of the film is based on a formula (or, perhaps, because of that).
There are many themes in this film, including acceptance, teamwork, and perseverance. Each of our heroes has to learn to accept things about himself that may not be who they want to be, but are intrinsic to who they are. They learn to work as a team and to identify their strengths, working with them, instead of around their weaknesses. We watch Mike keep going after what his goals, even as his heroes tell him he can’t do it, and we see him share that enthusiasm and support with his frat brothers.
This film had a lot to live up to after Monsters, Inc., but it also has to be able to stand on its own for new fans. It failed a little on both parts. There were many aspects of the scaring world alluded to in this film (the doors, the canisters, why people are scaring) that anyone who’d seen the original Monsters, Inc. would get immediately, but I’m not sure that someone seeing this film on its own would understand what all those things mean. Given their importance in the big action scene of the film, I think more time should have been spent explaining what they are. We are at Monsters University, after all, so a few scenes of professors explaining the bits and pieces would have fit right in.
As for the rest of the film, it’s a fairly formulaic college story without the grossness (if that can be said about a monster movie) or the sexual overtones (or overtness). There are lots of laughs, some great gags and the animation is top-notch (the movement of Sulley’s fur is impressive and the lake scene still has me questioning exactly what it was that I saw). It lacks the heart and warmth of Monsters, Inc., but that doesn’t necessarily take away from the pleasure of watching MONSTERS UNIVERSITY. They’re two different films with very different story lines. The beloved Mike and Sulley shine in both and the cameos from Monsters, Inc. are welcome surprises.