The Shelf: MONSTERS UNIVERSITY
By Kyle Anderson on October 29, 2013
It’s a pretty light week for DVD and Blu-ray releases, so we’re going to get all monstrous by focusing on Pixar’s latest offering, Monsters University. How’s the movie? Does it compare to the company’s best stuff? How about the Blu-ray? Look good? Are the extras worth it? What’s it like to try to make a whole paragraph out of really only one premise and idea? All of these and more will be answered below.
Sometimes I feel like Pixar might have actually done themselves a disservice by making so many great movies in such a short period of time. There have only been 12 Best Animated Feature Oscars given out, and seven of them were won by Pixar movies. Only twice has a Pixar movie been nominated and not won, the first being the original Monsters Inc., which lost to Shrek in 2001, the first time the category existed, and the second was in 2006, when Cars, easily one of Pixar’s weakest movies, lost to Happy Feet. Pretty much, they’re a powerhouse, and movies like Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, WALL-E, and Up have pushed the envelope in terms of storytelling and in making computer animation the best it could possibly be.
All of this is to say that when a movie of theirs hasn’t been up to the high standards they’ve created, as in the aforementioned Cars, Cars 2 (the only one of their films not to be nominated for an Oscar since the category existed), and Brave (which won the Oscar, but I think we can all agree it shouldn’t have), critics start saying, “Oh, they’ve lost it. The magic is gone.” Very doom-and-gloomy there, folks. Pixar has made some absolute, bonafide classics, for sure, but does that mean they have to get a 10 out of 10 every time now for it not to be a critical failure?
I didn’t see Monsters University when it was in theaters, but not because I wasn’t interested. Monsters Inc. is actually one of my very favorite Pixar movies, and has been since 2001, when I first went to see it. The characters and world were so rich and fun and well-rounded and the story was, if you’ll excuse the Tumblr speak, totes adorbs. But with the exception of Toy Story, which hit a new pinnacle with its third installment, and Cars, which is popular with kids for some reason, the studio’s never really felt the need to revisit their earlier characters.
But, it’s been nearly 13 years since Monsters Inc. and, as I was reminded of upon seeing the 3D re-release last Christmas, there are a whole lot of kids who never saw Mike Wazowski or James P. Sullivan on anything other than a television screen. Why not go back and see what they’re up to, or in this instance, go back and see where they came from? Monsters University is the opportunity to revisit the monster world in a time when children were still toxic and screams were still the highest source of energy.
This film focuses mainly on Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), the sidekick and comic relief to Sulley (John Goodman) in the first movie. Mike, if you’ll remember, is the diminutive, one-eyed green ball with legs who helped the giant, furry Sulley in his nightly scaring. However, when he was a kid, Mike wanted to grow up to be the scarer himself after a school field trip to Monsters Incorporated. After getting some encouragement from his hero (played by John Krasinski), young Mike decides the only place for him when he’s old enough is Monsters University.
Once there, Mike, a scare major, studies harder than anyone else to try to ace his midterm exam and prove to the severe Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) as well as the other students that he can, in fact, be scary. Sulley, on the other hand, comes from a long line of scarers and obviously has innate ability, but is lazy and doesn’t try hard at all. After both are kicked out of the scare program, Mike decides he wants to prove his worth by competing in the annual Scare Games, a fraternity/sorority thing to see who’s the scariest. Mike makes a deal that if they win, he and his entire team (the lame frat of Oozma Kappa) get into the scare program. Sulley uses this to try to get back in and volunteers himself.
Just from this small description, it’s pretty clear what this movie is going to be about, and largely that is what happens, but there are quite a few surprises along the way that impressed me, not least of which being the final act of the movie, which I of course won’t spoil for anyone. With prequels, you have to work very hard for it not to just be filling in gaps that didn’t need to be filled, but here is an instance where virtually nothing was known about the characters or the world prior to the events of the original film, so a field day has been had.
Also, it just looks gorgeous. The degree to which Pixar’s animation has improved on the already-fantastic way it’s always looked is astonishing. The many shots of hundreds of monsters populating the frame as Mike walks through the quad or the campus itself being so rich with detail is jaw-dropping to even the most cynical of film fans. Each frame is really a work of art. That coupled with a really fun story make Monsters University, if not on the same level as Pixar’s masterworks, at least high in the second tier. What’s wrong with making a good movie? Nothing, I say.
The extras on Pixar discs are always really detailed and give you a good idea of how much work goes into producing an animated feature, and how awesome it would be to work at Pixar. Over an hour’s worth of making-of features are included, on everything from a day in the life of director Dan Scanlon to the work of the animation and effects teams to Randy Newman’s scoring techniques. It’s a well-rounded disc and is definitely more for the film scholar than for a kid, but since I’m a film scholar and not a kid, I thought it was excellent. You also get The Blue Umbrella, the gorgeous animated short that preceded the feature in cinemas. To see some of the extras, click on this thing.
Monsters University is exactly what you’d want from an animated movie, regardless of whether or not the Pixar name is on it.
To hear from some of the voice cast of the movie, check out our Nerdist News Special.
OTHER MOVIES AVAILABLE
R.I.P.D. – Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges star in a ghost version of Men in Black.
Cars 3D – Speaking of Pixar, their first foray into Radiator Springs gets a 3D Blu-ray treatment.
Byzantium - Director Neil Jordan returns to vampires with a mother-daughter succubus pair played by Gemma Arterton and Saorse Ronan.