*The following review was posted several months ago on my site, but taken down at the request of the screening party. Now that the Disney’s review embargo has been lifted, I am now allowed to repost it.*
I got the chance to see an extra-advanced screening of Monsters University this evening, which will be released nationwide on June 21st. As a huge Pixar fan, I’ll admit that I was pretty nervous about seeing the film in the first place, let alone seeing it two months before its release. After all, there really is a huge amount riding on it in terms of what the future holds for the production company that was once thought to be incapable of disappointment. You can find my full ramblings on the issue in one of my earliest posts on this blog, but it’s important to realize what a big deal this is for Pixar. Bottom line, one of the biggest things that has always set Pixar apart from other animation studios is its seemingly infinite capacity for originality. It has taken stories which, on paper, sound completely ridiculous and uninviting to audiences. A rat that dreams to be a chef, a robot that falls in love in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, an old balloon salesman that harnesses his wares to travel to the far ends of the earth; all of these could have easily been shot down by any studio executive with half a brain, yet Pixar took all of them and made them into universally loved and extremely profitable films. The idea of making sequels runs inherently contrary to the sort of originality that makes the studio great, and after Cars 2 broke Pixar’s winning streak in 2011 it was hard not to look at upcoming sequels/prequels like Monsters University and Finding Dory without at least some amount of hesitation. While I will do my best not to spoil ANYTHING for you all, seeing as the movie is so far away from hitting theaters near you, I at least want to assure you that that hesitation is not necessary in this case. The lack of originality in the premise and plot prevent it from reaching the soaring heights of its predecessor, but an abundant supply of laughs and a visible level of respect for the characters involved make Monsters University a refreshingly worthy addition to the Pixar canon.
The Plot: 7/10
A look at the relationship between Mike and Sulley during their days at Monsters University — when they weren’t necessarily the best of friends.
Putting aside the fact the magic of the Monsters world is diminished this time around by the fact that we’ve already been introduced to it, I still would have liked to see a bit more originality in terms of the story here. The plot will feel very familiar to any of you who have seen a college-based movie in the past forty years or so, with a little bit of the first 10 minutes of 21 Jump Street tossed in for developmental purposes. That being said, the plot is simple and easy to follow and keeps things moving at a brisk pace, so the fact that it wasn’t anything revolutionary didn’t bother me that much.
The Writing: 9/10
While the movie as a whole may not have the same power as Pixar’s usual gold standard would require, the biggest things that make it stand out is the sheer amount of laughs that it pulls off. Maybe the renewed focus on comedy is thanks to the prequel setup (after all, we already understand the world we’re being introduced to so less time is required to explain it to us), but whatever the reason, the movie is simply a blast when it comes to laughs. The way it achieves those laughs are all pretty standard, but that doesn’t make them any less effective.
As a quick note here, it’s important to realize that I was at a jam-packed theater full of excited moviegoers, and as a result my experience with the film will be different from someone who sees it in a half-filled, half-interested theater. It’s much easier to laugh along with a movie when all of the people around you are, so I completely acknowledge the possibility that my appreciation of the movie’s humor is a bit inflated. My advice to you? If you’re going to see the movie, see it on the opening weekend when the theater is packed; odds are you’ll enjoy it more than you would if you had waited for a couple weeks when the rest of your friends are busy seeing Despicable Me 2 and The Lone Ranger.
The Acting: 8/10
When the movie was in its early production stages, there seemed to be some doubt on whether or not Billy Crystal and John Goodman would return for their respective roles. Seeing as their absence would have been a disaster, I think we can all agree that it’s a good thing that they stayed on. The acting category’s always a bit difficult to judge when it comes to animated movies. Voice acting is just as dependent on an actor’s performance as it is with the matching of that performance to an appropriate character, so it’s hard to pinpoint one or the other as the creditable party.
What I can say is that the wide spectrum of characters are all well matched with a pretty impressive lineup of actors and actresses, ranging from the very recognizable (Aubrey Plaza, Nathan Fillion) to the not-so-recognizable (Alfred Molina, Hellen Mirren, Frank Oz). The only person I would have replaced was John Krasinski, who I love on The Office but whose voice I will never be able to dissociate with the myriad of commercial voice-overs he has done in recent years. As a final note, I know what you’re asking yourself and yes, John Ratzenberger upholds his perfect Pixar record with a brief cameo (this isn’t even IMDb official yet, but I can’t imagine that it’s much of a spoiler).
The Legacy: 8/10
Monsters University could have made me laugh continuously for the entire run time, but without presenting a clear, substantial reason for its existence as a prequel to Monsters Inc. I would have still found myself hard-pressed to give it a pass. It you’re going to step back into a world we all know and love, you better have a damn good reason for doing so, otherwise it’s hard to justify the ordeal as anything else than coattail-riding. Thankfully, Monsters University does a lot of things to justify its own existence when it comes to expanding upon the universe the original film created. The background we get into Mike and Sully’s relationship isn’t exactly anything we wouldn’t have guessed from seeing the two’s interactions in the first film, but it’s still nice to see it actually happen. To sweeten the pot, there are also quite a lot of nods to even the most peripheral of characters in Monsters Inc., so keep an eye out for younger versions of familiar faces.
The Verdict: 8.0/10 – Pretty Damn Great
+ It feels like an organic addition to the first film (Unlike Cars 2)
+ Mike and Sully’s relationship feels more solid than ever
+ The laughs are in heavy supply
- The lack of originality is disappointing if not wholly unexpected
Rotten Tomatoes: 74%
Fast Film Reviews: 4/5
The Code is Zeek: 3.5/5
KCG Movie Reviews: 3.5/5
Average: 7.8/10 – Pretty Damn Great