Some people say the college years are some of the best, most pivotal anyone can experience. For the first time, you’re on your own, learning to survive without the immediacy of a parent or guardian nearby. It’s during these 4 or more years that self-discovery is guaranteed, life lessons that cannot be taught in a classroom are applied to everyday situations. To some, college can be frightening, stepping out of a comfort zone to try new things, meet new people and some fail to live up to the expectations and pressure that’s thrust upon our shoulders during these crucial years. Monsters University takes this special time in a young person’s life and adds fur, multiple heads, scaly skin, horns, and fangs to the college experience.
Instead of pushing the story forward like previous Pixar sequels Toy Story 2 and Cars 2 have done, Monsters University rewinds the clock to the very beginning of best friends Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and James “Sully” Sullivan’s (John Goodman) relationship. From the moment both Mike and Sully arrive on the campus of Monsters U, their typical behaviors begin to take shape. Sully comes from a generation of scarer’s with the expectation that he will have an easy ride majoring in Scare studies. He walks in late on the first day, makes a scene like he owns the place and even comes unprepared, asking another monster for a pencil. The audacity of some monsters thinking they can coast through college without lifting a finger.
On the opposite side is Mike, the one-eyed spherical goblin who has everything to prove. If you look up underdog in the dictionary, Mike Wazowski is there, pictured. It’s what makes him a great protagonist – many of us are Mike’s, constantly undervalued and overlooked as someone to succeed. No one takes Mike seriously and in theory he isn’t scary. Even his teeth are dull. Mike is the kid who’s been invisible his entire life and only has one goal to accomplish – to prove everyone wrong who doubted him.
Mike and Sully didn’t just meet and become instant best buddies – they come from two different worlds of expectations and writing team Dan Gerson, Robert L. Baird and Dan Scanlon, who also directed steer into that direction of differences. Mike has the potential and applies himself soaking up book after book only to be in the shadow of Sully, who even takes credit for catching rival college Fear Tech’s mascot.
To say the two get off to a rocky start is an understatement. But like the duos that Pixar has given the world previously, Mike and Sully’s differences become the catalyst that eventually will make them a great pair. All it took was getting kicked out of the Scare program, join a less than favorable fraternity that features every stereotype in the book and learn to compliment one another’s strengths and weaknesses. The frat Mike and Sully reluctantly join to get back into the scarer program is called Oozma Kappa, “OK” for short.
If Old School were given a PG rating and placed in the Pixar universe, “OK” would be them. Consisting of Squishy Squibbles (Peter Sohn), Don Carlton (Joel Murray), Terri and Terry Perry (Sean P. Hayes and Dave Foley, respectively), and last but not least, Art (Charlie Day) to round out the group of misfits no one would bet money on to with the annual Scare Games. And just like Mike, none of these monsters should be counted out or bet against when the chips are down. It’s always the underdog that can astonish with remarkable feats to swing competition. And that’s exactly what “OK” does with a little bit of luck and a lot of training from Mike and his vast knowledge of scaring.
Both John Goodman and Billy Crystal step back into their roles comfortably despite a 12-year gap in films. Their comedic timing and playful back and forth banter are enough to grab a younger viewers attention along with the numbers of other monster designs while the older viewer will be sucked in to relive the glory days of either identifying with Mike or Sully during those pivotal college years. There is nothing wrong with being a Mike Wazowski, having something to prove, it makes the satisfaction that much sweeter. Doubt will continue to be a key factor in motivation that Mike carries with him to the end of the film and into his career at Monsters Inc.
Featuring an all-star ensemble of scarers including Nathan Fillion, Aubrey Plaza, Bobby Moynihan, Alfred Molina, and Helen Mirren, each monster is unique with different abilities and levels of scariness. The world of Monsters is just like ours; everyone wants the fame and fortune and to be a celebrity but the glamorous of being a scarer isn’t for everyone, some monsters are designated to making doors or learn the art of laugh canister making. The latter two may not be the more prestigious jobs they are still essential to the work that has to be done.
What more can be said about the pioneering animation style Pixar has created to tell their stories? Fur looks soft to the touch; slimy skin is slippery; horns are sharp; the number of legs can cause goosebumps to spontaneously pop up and the level of detail in differentiating between designs is given extra emphasis. The college atmosphere is present in every frame – all of the cliques transport the older viewer back in time to those days. There are the jocks, the theater kids, the stoners, the goths, the nerds, and the misfits who fit together like a puzzle. All given equal representation as the story progresses.
When dipping the toe back into the water of previous characters and universes, Pixar has hit the mark directly in the bullseye and missed the target entirely. Monsters University is a suitable follow up to one of its earliest successes while also surprising us all with a different direction in which the story is being told. For its themes, the writing team plays it safe where previous films have dug deeper into the characters development and psyche to create a better understanding of their motivations. Because of that, Monsters University winds up being mid-tier Pixar fare with just enough flavor to keep the interest piqued.
Screenplay By: Dan Gerson, Robert L. Baird & Dan Scanlon
Directed By: Dan Scanlon
Music By: Randy Newman
Cinematography: Matt Aspbury (Camera), Jean-Claude Kalache (Lighting)
Starring: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, Peter Sohn, Joel Murray, Sean P. Hayes, Dave Foley, Charlie Day, Nathan Fillion, Alfred Molina
Where to Watch: Disney Plus
Edited By: Greg Snyder
Release Date: June 21, 2013
Running Time: 1 Hour 44 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 80%