Remember that movie Rudy? I know, very inspiring, right. Now imagine they cast all the main roles as monsters, animated it, and threw in some fraternity hijinks for good measure. No, it’s not classic Hollywood overreach – it’s Monsters University, Pixar’s follow up to its beloved 2001 hit Monsters, Inc. And you know what, it’s not half bad either.
To be fair, the Rudy reference wears a little thin as the movie gains its legs, but with the way Monsters University starts it’s hard not to draw the comparison. Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal), the adorable green eyeball we grew to love in Monsters, Inc., arrives at Monsters University to fulfill his dream of becoming a scarer, the monsters tasked with harvesting the scream energy from frightened children. The problem – he’s an adorable green eyeball and not particularly scary.
The first act takes its time reintroducing us to the colourful inhabitants of Monsters University before it transitions into the meat of the story. But writers Daniel Gerson, Robert L. Baird, and Dan Scanlon fill this time with such a great take on the university experience – from the peppy RAs to the hilarious assortment of clubs that seem to populate every college campus – that it’s easy to forgive the time it takes to set the stakes of the story.
Eventually though, Mike and Sully (his familiar friend from Monsters, Inc. voiced by John Goodman) find themselves in the geeky Oozma Kappa fraternity competing in a monstering competition known as the Scare Games, and the movie picks up considerably.
Much of this is due to the fraternity itself – an eclectic group of personalities who seem to be channeling the nerds from the terrific Homer Goes To College episode of The Simpsons (written by the one and only Conan O’Brien, a.k.a. my hero) – who do a fantastic job of complimenting the leads just as their solo act starts to grow stale.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Charlie Day (of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia fame), who steals just about every scene he’s in as Art, the monster philosophy major. Day certainly makes the case for himself as a voice actor, but I don’t really want to limit it to that. Frankly, he’s one of the fresher comedic actors around these days and I would love to see him show up a bit more in any capacity.
In any case, Monsters University can be quite funny when it wants to be. I’ll admit, I often find myself bored in animated movies (I am in the minority on this). While I enjoy the frequent nods to the adults in the audience, I find most of the comedy comes from sight gags aimed at the kids. That’s great for some, but it’s not always for me.
Monsters University on the other hand, while not particularly edgy – and of course it isn’t, it’s a kid’s movie – draws from classic comedy tropes to get its laughs, and that made it a lot more enjoyable. I got the same feeling I did watching The Muppets when it was relaunched a couple of years ago. Frankly, the movie should make you laugh consistently enough that it’s worth the price of admission. And if you have kids to bring along, all the better.
Where Monsters University will suffer most is by comparison. It has lofty shoes to fill in its beloved predecessor. That is what it is. But it also doesn’t have the emotional heft of say a Toy Story movie, or even an Up. It’s a nice story, and I quite liked what they did with the ending – the screenwriters didn’t take any shortcuts – but the truth of the matter is that Pixar has done better.
Monsters University is an enjoyable experience through and through. Much of that enjoyment will depend on your expectations going in though. And that’s the sad truth for the filmmakers behind this movie – Pixar’s reputation may put people in the seats, but it’s also just as likely to make them leave the theatre with a less than favourable take. Such is the price of success, I guess.