Monday, June 24, 2013

Review: Monsters University

by Adam Riske
I doubt I’ll remember anything about Monsters University at summer’s end. However, it’s an entertaining and charming movie in the moment. Cute is the right word to describe it.

Not to harp on a point I’ve already made in last week’s Riske Business, but is it good enough for Pixar to just be cute? The studio has made most of the seminal animated movies of the last 18 years. Unfortunately with the bar set so high, they are at the unique disadvantage of having every movie that’s not a classic be seen as a disappointment. I will say, though, that Monsters University is many steps above Cars 2 and Brave and probably one of the best prequels ever made (which is a backhanded compliment).
I really liked a lot of the movie. It is gorgeously animated, and I love how the animators were able to animate a college that somehow "felt" like a real campus. There are great sequences near the beginning where Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) goes through college orientation, checks into his dorm, takes his first college course (they get the desks right!), etc. that really do a good job of capturing the excitement of those moments. The movie is a great ode to the exuberance and joy of the college experience -- even more so because we don’t get the usual party time cynicism of most college movies (e.g. it’s somewhat jarring to watch a college movie where you know there will be no drinking or drug use, but there’s tons of sex…just kidding…#oneeyedmonster).

The plot in brief: Mike and Sully (voiced by John Goodman) enter their first year at Monsters University, where they are not friends at first but rather bitter rivals. Mike is a bookish overachiever and Sully is a spoiled monster living off of his family’s respected name. The movie follows Mike and Sully as they navigate the fraternity system and the all-important Scare Games, a series of events to crown the scariest fraternity on campus. Mike and Sully find themselves on a team with the least intimidating fraternity on campus, Oozma Kappa. Will Mike and Sully be able to rally the troops to win the Scare Games? Can Mike and Sully overcome their differences with each other and become friends?
As you can read from the plot summary, this movie is really slight. It barely has a reason to exist. In that, it almost finds a freedom to be its own thing. Even though the movie is a prequel, it is so unnecessary that it barely feels like it’s tying events from Monsters University to Monsters Inc. (though I admit, that could be the case because I’ve seen Monsters Inc. once and that was 12 years ago). The movie owes more to the Tri-wizard Tournament in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Revenge of the Nerds than anything else. Even though it’s not original, I give credit to the filmmakers because it’s not lazy or stupid. The movie is consistently clever and imaginative and sometimes very funny (I laughed out loud a couple of times). The scare games challenges are different enough to not feel repetitive, and the third act doesn’t devolve into action nonsense that happens all too often in Pixar movies.

I didn’t care for the dean (voiced by Helen Mirren), who is one heavy too many. She’s the headmaster of the scare school and just a completely unlikable and unnecessary foil. Is the college experience not intimidating enough without some dragon threatening to expel you for EVERY FREAKING DISCRETION? Also, with Mike and Sully being friends in Monsters Inc., why not have them start out as friends in Monsters University? What’s the point of having them dislike each other only to later grow into being friends? It is forced drama and a waste of time. I think the filmmakers missed some opportunities by not having them start out as friends and get into some adventures together.
The movie has something interesting to say about popularity. It hit me for sure. There’s a subplot about how Mike, Sully and Randall (voiced by Steve Buscemi, another character reprised from Monsters Inc.) are all desperately trying to curry the favor of the popular frat on campus, Roar Omega Roar, who are fickle jocks and jerks. Through the course of the movie, Mike and Sully learn the values of true friendship and brotherhood with the much less polished Oozma Kappa crew. This subplot reminded me of my own road less taken. Short personal digression: when I was a freshman at Indiana University, I rushed a whole bunch of frat houses and chose intramural champs Sigma Pi because they had the status, the booze and the girls. Plus a lot of guys I knew from my dorm were pledging Sigma Pi. Pledgeship was a terrible experience – demeaning, cruel and harmful to my GPA. My fellow pledges and I were treated like shit so much that we wondered if being on the other side -- i.e. a Sigma Pi brother -- was really worth it at all. We gritted our teeth and bared the abuse and crossed our fingers that it would all pay off. It didn’t. And it was all for naught. My best friends in college were not in my fraternity, I could get booze whenever and wherever I wanted at the apartments or dorms and I might hold the record for Pizza Express booty calls -- where you go outside your dorm to pick up a pizza at 2am and end up getting a different kind of slice instead (great place to pick up girls, just the best). I never got any because I was a Sigma Pi. All the while I thought about the “loser” frat I rushed called Delta Upsilon (which we called Delta "Oops I joined the wrong fraternity"). My smug ass and my friends used their rush opportunity to get drunk and make fun of them behind their back. In retrospect, those were the nicest guys I met during rush and I wish I would have given them a chance. They had beer, some girls (just not as many) and a respect and good nature around each other that really is what a frat is all about. I fucked up, and Monsters University somehow brought all of those feelings back.

With that being said, give Monsters University a shot and if you’re about to go to college and want to go Greek. Learn from me and join up with the nice guys and not the cool guys. You’ll be happier in the long run.

Maybe I will remember this movie by summer’s end.


  1. Couldn't agree with your review more Adam, this one while not as good as past Pixar definitely is a step up from their last couple films. Also where the third act goes was a little surprising and a nice change of pace from the standard happy ending we get a lot with family films these days.

    Also love the fact that there were no obvious pop culture references and the fact that the monster named Squishy is clearly Flounder from Animal House and they don't consider us too stupid to figure it out. Cant wait for Pixar's movie next year The Good Dinosaur its an original (then in 2015 as you might say Adam back to the park yo!)

    1. Yeah, that third act seems better and better to me in the days after seeing the movie. It's a really mature outlook.

      I'm not so sure about The Good Dinosaur. Not Pixar, but remember 2000's Dinosaur? When I saw the trailer for that before Toy Story 2, I was convinced that movie was going to be incredible and it turned out to be very forgettable.

      I'm cautiously optimistic about JP4. I've got a season pass to Park yo!

    2. I agree with Dinosaur comment (I swear I saw that trailer 30 times before the movie came out) and Dinosaur would have worked a hell of a lot better if they had stuck with their original plan for the movie instead of chickening out at the last minute, no talking dinosaurs at all and limited voice over narration, kind of what they did for Spirit Stallion of the Cinnamon (can't think of actual title of that movie right now) the moment in Dinosaur when those lemur monkeys started talking you could just feel the whole audience in the theater scream Will Smith style "Aw Hell No!" I am confident enough that Pixar has enough sense not to do that.

  2. Good Movie....A perfect Prequel to Monster's INC. I loved the movie however the first movie was much cuter than this.

  3. The Frat House experience has always seemed like an "American Thing" for me. They exist here - I know there was at least a couple at the university I went to, but they have no real campus presence, so unfortunately I can't really relate to that (though my residence was broken up into 5 "houses" and the experience might be somewhat similar), but thanks for sharing!

    Two questions:

    1) Having not seen Monsters, Inc., should I just watch this one first? I'm guessing not, but you never know with a prequel...

    2) You speak of a land where an intoxicated young man could walk out of his door in search of pizza and fall into random pussy. Tell me sir, where is this Shangri-La located - I'm making notes for my next life.

    1. I think you're good either way seeing/not seeing Monsters University before Monsters Inc.

      McNutt dormatory Indiana University.

    2. Like Adam said in the review, the question of popularity is raised in the film and that is something a lot of young people go through, whether or not there are fraternity houses involved. Unfortunately I still see people within university life wanting to hang out with the people that don't "care" about their grades but luckily for me I decided to be a full out nerd and always sit at the front. No one makes fun of you, you just find other nerds to sit with and group together. I became the girl that raised my hand a lot much to the entertainment of a few of my friends, and the lecturers actually. I liked the way in which some other things were explored in the film, such as loving something but not being good at it. As you guys said on a podcast, I thought that was brave for a children's film. I liked the way in which he found his place in that world despite not being a good scarer. I think the journey there is done with subtly that is lacking in Cars 2. I also love and completely agree with the comment about the influence of Harry Potter's Tri Wizard tournament on the Scare Games. Maybe that is why Helen Mirren was there, to make up for the fact she wasn't a professor at Hogwarts?