Monsters University: The Parental Guidance of Pixar Movies
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- 2013 20 Jun
DVD Release Date: October 29, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: June 21, 2013
Run Time: 102 min.
Director: Dan Scanlon
Cast: Voices of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Helen Mirren, Steve Buscemi, Sean Hayes, Nathan Fillion, John Ratzenberger, Julia Sweeney
Late in 2012, Billy Crystal and Bette Midler starred in the middling but not unpleasant family-oriented comedy Parental Guidance. While not great cinema or particularly funny, it also didn’t notably offend in its content or language (it received a PG rating for "some rude humor"). The result was one of the season’s genuine box-office surprises. While no blockbuster, Parental Guidance pulled in a worldwide gross of nearly $120 million.
However, box office expectations for films from Pixar Animation Studios carry much higher expectations. Monsters University, the prequel to the studio’s Monsters Inc. ($289 million worldwide), is no exception. But the studio’s recent efforts to build franchises around some of its most successful films have yet to prove viable. Yes, the studio's three Toy Story films have been huge commercial and critical successes, but Cars 2, a sequel to what is perhaps Pixar's least admired original film, underperformed. Although it grossed $191 million, the total dropped more than $50 million from the performance of Cars five years earlier.
Monsters University, directed and co-written by Dan Scanlon (the original was directed by Pete Docter and David Silverman), is not on par with the Toy Story sequels. Not even close. Yet the film's genial nature and thoroughgoing inoffensiveness (it’s rated, refreshingly, G) make it palatable if nothing more. Like Parental Guidance—which starred Billy Crystal, the actor who gives the voice to the main character in Monsters University—this film is bland but rather enjoyable. It's the Parental Guidance of Pixar movies, and that means adult fans of the studio's brilliant earlier family entertainment will probably be at least a little disappointed by the new film.
Mike Wazowski (voice of Crystal) has always wanted to be a Scarer, extracting the screams of frightened, "toxic" children because screams are a power source for his city, Monstropolis. Mike knows that the best place to train is the School of Scaring—the "crown jewel" of Monsters University. There’s just one problem: he's not scary, and everyone at the school except Mike—including his roommate, Sullivan (John Goodman, The Artist) and Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren, Red)—knows it. Mike's just a big green eyeball with legs, more adorable and odd than frightening.
Mike strives to make a great initial impression at the school by boning up on book learning, but things don't go as he hoped. He soon finds himself on the outs with the dean, but, determined to prove his scare bona fides, he makes a wager with her: He’ll enter the school’s Greek Scare Games with a team of other school castoffs. They include the arrogant, born-to-be-a-scarer Sullivan, who, until reality smacked him in the face, had taken for granted that scaring is his destiny.
The previously-established chemistry between Sully and Mike comes across in Monsters University, but part of the movie's problem is that the other sidekicks are forgettable. Rather than expanding on the relationship between Mike and Sullivan by adding well-defined supporting players to the Monsters universe, University treats the new side characters as padding. They play more like afterthoughts (Mike and Sullivan need a "team" to compete in the games, so let's invent a few supporting players) than characters we might long to see in a possible Monsters Inc. 3.
Genuine concerns haven't been raised about Pixar movies until recently. Now that the studio is developing sequels to its beloved original films (including a Finding Nemo follow-up called Finding Dory), it's showing signs of creative stagnation. Monsters University certainly could have been worse, but given Pixar's earlier output, this prequel is substandard, with a thoughtful message about accepting one's limitations coming only after a lot of water-treading in the story department.
Monsters University may be better (barely) than most animated films from competing studios, but it's another sign of a once great studio that's now in decline. The turnaround can't come soon enough.
- Language/Profanity: None; characters substitute nonsense phrases, such as "son of a mustache!" for better known coarse alternatives
- Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: None
- Sex/Nudity: None
- Violence/Crime: Some exaggerated but mild cartoon-style violence; a characters says, "You could totally die" during the Scare Games
- Religion/Morals: A wager between Mike and Dean Hardscrabble; fraternity brothers take a "sacred oath"; description of competitive victory as a "miracle"; cheating during a competition
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Publication date: June 20, 2013