Monsters University: Didn’t know we needed this

Monsters University – 2013

Director Dan Scanlon
Starring Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Sean Hayes, Joel Murray, Dave Foley, Peter Sohn, Charlie Day, Helen Mirren, Alfred Molina, Nathon Fillon, Aubrey Plaza, Tyler Labine, Bonnie Hunt, Bill Hader, John Ratzenberger
Screenplay Daniel Gerson, Robert L. Baird, Dan Scanlon

It took 29 films for Disney to come up with its first sequel (Rescuers Down Under).  It wasn’t until Return of Jafar in 1994 that one was considered unworthy of being released in theaters.  For Pixar, the first sequel was only 3 movies in (Toy Story 2).  Cars 2 should have been its first direct to video, given the weakness of its material.  In Monsters University, there is a first Disney and Pixar prequel.  Thank goodness it’s not as poor and uninspired as its premise seemed to be.  

Do you like Mike Wazowski (Crystal)?  Do you love Sulley (Goodman)?  Did you have a wish to see Randall (Buscemi) again?  Yes, yes, and not all that much for me.  Monsters, Inc. is my wife’s favorite Pixar film, and she wasn’t busting down doors to see it.  My mother has a stuffed Sully doll in her bed and she fell asleep when she took my nephew to see it.  Indeed, only my youngest, Elyse seems to love this movie.  She sat down for almost the entire film, twice.  She never does that.  

Why did they make this film a prequel?  The first attempt at developing a sequel was tantamount to a threat from Disney to Pixar when they were squabbling over the next contract.  The stupidly titled Monsters, Inc. 2: Lost in Scaradise, it was going to be a rehash of the second half of the film, but in the human world.  Thank goodness a contact was signed before they put it in motion.  

Instead we get the prequel no one was asking for.  It would have been something if there had been some sort of scare war referenced in the original.  We hear that Scully’s family name has some prestige, and Waternoose got to be CEO for some reason.  But really, who cares?  Somebody did at Pixar, and somehow they pulled it off.  Monsters University manages to expound on the characters of the two protagonists, even making Randall seem somewhat decent.  They even throw in a few lessons that actually resonate with kids, while not being cheap, in the “very special Blossom” kind of way.  

The story centers around Mike and his desire for a career in Scaring.  Anyone who’s seen or even heard Mike knows that will be a challenge.  In a relevant reference to the original, we also find that Mike has all of the initiative.  Scully  has the skill, but no desire to work.  Add to this all of the traditional trappings of your typical college movie, subtract the gratuitous sex, and you have the premise.  

Crystal does a good job ramping down from his usual histrionic self.  Incredibly, Goodman’s Scully is the boorish one for much of the film.  It works within the framework of the story, especially once the two find themselves in a fraternity of oddballs, eloquently played by Murray, Foley and Hayes, among others.  The gentleness with which the script exhibits the outcasts is stirring.  In a start contrast, Helen Mirren is the picture of wicked grace in her presentation of Dean Hardscrabble, who has seen it all and is not afraid to prejudge without impunity.  

 The best treatment of character is the one least expected.  Buscemi’s Randall is reset as Randy, a rather shy and somewhat similar student to Mike.  The first half of the film is a readjustment to expectations.  Even if he is not used as much in the second half, his progression is amusing and believable.

Two major points resonate in the script.  First of all, we find that even if individuals might not have what it takes, there is no “one way” to do things and teamwork has a better chance to prevail.  Secondly and more importantly, my youngest held onto the lesson about cheating, and admitting when you are wrong.  

The result is very good, even if it’s not necessary.  It certainly is not the embarrassment that the Cars franchise has become.  Extra points for the development of characters, the responsible messages portrayed eloquently and the fact that it was smart enough to appeal to kids that normally have a hard time sitting.  They hit this one almost directly on the nail, even if it’s on an extension of the house we did not realize we needed.  

(****1/2 out of *****)

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