Combustible Celluloid
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With: (voices) Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, Peter Sohn, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Charlie Day, Alfred Molina, Tyler Labine, Nathan Fillion, Aubrey Plaza, Bobby Moynihan, Noah Johnston, Julia Sweeney, Bonnie Hunt, John Krasinski, Bill Hader, Beth Behrs, Bob Peterson, John Ratzenberger
Written by: Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson, Dan Scanlon
Directed by: Dan Scanlon
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 110
Date: 06/21/2013

Monsters University (2013)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Good Scare Day

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When I reviewed Pixar's Ratatouille in 2007, I wrote: "Animation studio Pixar is so far ahead of its competitors that the question regarding any new releases is not whether it's any good, but whether it's great." And this written was before the studio had reached true greatness with WALL-E (2008) and Up (2009), and also before they made their first stinker, Cars 2 (2011). Even so, that statement remains true today, and Monsters University is a good one, even if it's not a great one.

The original Monsters, Inc. (2001) was also a good one, though it has always been on the bottom half of my list of favorite Pixar movies. (See below.) There's just something about the combination of Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) and Sully (voiced by John Goodman) that, while charming and funny, just simply lacks the magic that Woody and Buzz have in the Toy Story movies.

One thought I had is that the Mike character simply lacks confidence. He's not comfortable with, or perhaps not aware of himself, which is fine -- it's good for a character to have flaws -- but he's less appealing than the others because of it. However, Mike and Sully together make a fine team. Their strengths and weaknesses match up well.

The prequel Monsters University tells the story of how they met, at scare school. After visiting the factory on a school field trip as a boy, Mike dreams of becoming a great scarer, even though the odds are always against him. He studies hard, but he never seems to be able to get a break, and then there's the simple fact that he's not scary.

Sully waltzes into school, the son of an already-legendary scarer, and simply drifts through his days, convinced that whatever he needs to know is already in his genetic makeup. When the sinister headmistress, Dean Hardscrabble (voiced by Helen Mirren), kicks them both out of school after a particularly bad foulup, they team up to enter the "Scare Games." If they win, they'll have a chance to get back into school and become scarers.

However, they need a team for the games, and they are forced to join the biggest bunch of losers on campus, the fraternity of Oozma Kappa, or "OK" for short. Together they enter a series of contests -- each an exhilarating set-piece -- vying for the title. I wish I could say that these sequences were as funny as they were thrilling. Happily, things don't quite turn out as expected, and the movie ends on a truly impressive sequence with Mike and Sully stuck in the real world.

Without spoiling too much, Mike must use his vast knowledge of scare techniques to frighten a group of adults, and the result is like a reverse horror movie, as shown from the inside out. It's absolutely brilliant, both technically and creatively.

Credit this to first-time director Dan Scanlon, who had made an independent live-action feature and one non-theatrical Pixar short (my least favorite, Mater and the Ghostlight), before taking on this, his first Pixar feature. Whatever shortcomings Monsters University has is more inherent with the previously-existing material itself, than it is with the writing or filmmaking on this new one.

The good news is that Monsters University is indeed a good movie, and that's still something to celebrate, especially given the dud summer this has been so far. Better still, there's a new bar for lowness (Cars 2), and Monsters University is head and shoulders above it.

Note: for the morbidly curious, here's my ranking of the fourteen Pixar features to date: 1) Up, 2) Toy Story 2, 3) WALL-E, 4) Toy Story 3, 5) Toy Story, 6) The Incredibles, 7) Brave, 8) Finding Nemo, 9) Ratatouille, 10) Monsters University, 11) Monsters, Inc., 12) A Bug's Life, 13) Cars, 14) Cars 2.

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