Sunday, June 23, 2013


Our favorite Monstropolis Scare-team, James "Sulley" Sullivan and Mike Wazowski, returns to the big screen in their origin story as told in the prequel to the highly successful "Monsters Inc.", this year's Pixar outing, "Monsters University," and - good news! - it's just as good as the first go-round!

Pixar is an animation studio who's secret weapon has, traditionally, been 'story'.  For example, 1995's 'Toy Story' would probably have been a decent kids movie with just the great animation, the talented voice actors and amazing character design, but it would not have been the phenomenon it was (nor would it have become a trilogy beloved by young and old alike as it has) if not for the deeply funny, heart-wrenchingly emotional and truly touching storyline, as written by the likes of John Lassetter, Pete Doctor, Andrew Stanton, Joss Whedon and several more script doctors who really understood what moves an audience.  This tradition continued successfully until about the time of 2011's "Cars 2" feature, which felt much more like an old-school Hollywood money-grab (Thanks, parent company Disney!) than the usual high-quality gem of a story we'd grown used to over the previous 15 years.

But it was a mere hiccup, it seems, as the next two films - 2012's "Brave," and now, "Monsters University" - have again put 'story' back on the throne where it belongs.

The voice actors of all the main characters have returned, including Billy Chrystal and John Goodman as Mike Wazowski and his best friend, Sulley, respectively.  Steve Buscemi returns to reprise the role of the previously-villainous "Randall", the squirmy, shifty-eyed salamander-type monster with a unique ability to disappear, who starts out with a much more friendly demeanor as his youthful "Randy" persona, but we will here bare witness to his inevitable fall from grace and discover why, in the original film, he already has quite a distaste for both Sulley and Mike.  We also are introduced to the instantly classic (and classicly creepy) character of the school's headmistress, Dean Hardscrabble, voiced effortlessly by America's current most-beloved British actress, Dame Helen Mirren. She kills it.

And then there's a whole plethora of very cool voice actors filling out the cast, including Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Charlie Day, Alfred Molina, Tyler Labine, Nathon Fillion, Aubrey Plaza, Bobby Moynihan, (just to name a few celebs), and one very impressive young voice talent, Noah Johnston, (who, in this video, looks to be all of about 9 years old) as the young Mike Wazowski in an incredibly heartfelt and humorous prologue to the film.

The premise of the film is simple: if you've seen "Monsters, Inc." you know that Mike Wazowski and James P. "Sulley" Sullivan are one of many teams of scarers on the "Scare Floor" at a large industrial company, "Monsters, Incorporated", and their job is to sneak into the bedrooms of young children (via magical doors that act as portals to the children's' bedroom closet doors), scare the hell out of them, then collect the resulting screams in special canisters in order to power their alternate "monster world" and the city of Monstropolis in particular.  But the main questions that seem to have inspired this new film prequel are: "How did these guys learn to become such talented 'scarers' and how did they become friends in the first place?"  The answers to both lay in the hallowed halls of the School of Scaring at the prestigious Monsters University!

Mike Wazowski, a small, young, cycloptic, green beach-ball of a monster, has a real fire in the belly.  As a youth, his fascination with the art and business of "scaring" was inspired by a school field trip to the budding new company, Monsters Inc., when he sneaks onto the "Scare Floor" and into the bedroom of a real child to witness, first-hand, a real pro at work.  From that moment, Mike's destiny was written in his own mind and nothing was going to stop him from becoming the monster world's greatest scarer of all time!  Years later, his dreams begin to come true when he is accepted into Monsters University and starts taking classes at the school of scaring.  This is where he first spots a cocky, young Sulley who strides into class late, never takes his studies seriously and intends to ride through school on his father's prestigious name.  Mike and Sulley do not get along.

But after an accident that gets them both kicked out of the school of scaring, Mike decides he won't let his destiny be derailed so easily and joins a fraternity of losers in order to gain entry to the "Scare Games," a campus-run, unofficial talent competition for would-be scarers, and he wagers with Dean Hardscrabble that if his team can win the scare games, she has to re-admit him into the scaring school.  She reluctantly agrees, but informs young Mike that his team is one member short.  Of course, this means Sulley wants in.  And now the two adversaries have to work together.

A great set-up to a great story about friendship forged in a trial by fire, Monsters University also has a very particular lesson to impart in the character of young Mike Wazowski; he is a wonderful role model for the audience (kids and adults alike) as an example of a guy who refuses to give up on his dreams; his love; his passion.  "Never let anyone tell you different!" he instructs his teammates when he tells them they're the scariest bunch of monsters he's ever seen, and this instruction might as well be the theme of the entire story.  It's really a story about how life has a way of kicking you in the ass, beating you into submission and wearing you down along the way, to the point that most people feel silly about ever having a dream for their lives at all.  But Mike is the kind of guy who fearlessly pushes on, who refuses to let society, peers or authority figures define who he is or determine what he will become.  Mike's journey throughout Monsters University is inspirational not because he simply pushes hard enough and wins the day, but because he struggles; he gets his heart broken; he even gives up on himself at one low point.  But, if ever a one-eyed cartoon blob could bring a tear to your eye with his commitment and determination to fulfill his destiny while taking a few friends along with him to the top, Mike Wazowski is that blob. And "Monsters University" is the hilarious, action-packed, fluidly-paced, imaginative and touching animated buddy flick that will make you rethink your office sales job.

If there's anything to complain about, it's that the best part of "Monsters Inc." simply can't pop up in a prequel due to the fact that she wouldn't have been born yet.  That's right... no "Boo".  (Frowny face!)
I'll also say that, as emotional as this flick can be at moments, it's certainly not on the emotional level of, say, "Up" (2009) or "Toy Story 3" (2010) - two Pixar films notorious for bringing tears to the eyes of the adult audiences as well as the children.  But it almost gets to that realm.  It really is a kids movie at its core, so the heavy moments aren't THAT heavy.

Also, Pixar staple, composer Randy Newman, gives us a decently good score, but I loved the great, up-beat jazzy music that seemed to be a nod to the original film.  It's infectious!  (I'm still trying to find out what those songs were - they're not on the Randy Newman score.)

Overall, I give it a B+.  Take the kids!

P.S. The short animated film preceding the feature, entitled "The Blue Umbrella", (the story of a blue umbrella who meets a beautiful red umbrella in the mass of gray umbrellas that line a busy city street on a rainy day,) is well-done stylistically, of course, (sometimes the animation and cinematography are difficult to recognize as anything but absolutely real,) but ultimately lacks the tangible, adorable romance of last year's "Paperman" or the light-hearted comedy of many of the other previous Pixar shorts, and therefore comes across as a wannabe "Paperman".

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