Movie Reviews

'Monsters University': Taking animated films back to school

By Kevin HoMovies - 19 June 2013 4:57 PM | Updated 21 June 2013

'Monsters University': Taking animated films back to school

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

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Everyone likes good chemistry. And we’re not talking about convoluted formulas and textbook experiments. We’re talking about the addictive and pleasing charisma that flows from a close-knit pairing of characters. The endearing friendship of Michael “Mike” Wazowski and James P “Sulley” Sullivan is one such pairing.

For almost 20 years, Pixar has perfected its craft of forming memorable partnerships that are as engaging as they are conflicted.

They include a determined clownfish and an amnesiac regal blue tang ('Finding Nemo'), a rat who loves to cook and a butter-fingered chef ('Ratatouille'), an old cranky widower with an over-enthusiastic boy scout ('Up').

These all owe thanks to one of Pixar’s earliest feature films and unforgettable classics ‘Monsters, Inc’ (2001) that featured a duo who are perhaps as entertaining as its Pixar predecessors Woody and Buzz from 'Toy Story'.

But just when we thought we knew everything about Mike and Sulley, it is revealed that there’s an underlying story to their relationship. Yes, this is a prequel to 'Monsters Inc', Pixar’s first prequel in its 14-film filmography.

'Monsters University' also marks the lead directorial debut of Dan Scanlon, who has the monstrous pressure of filling the successful shoes of director Pete Doctor ('Monsters, Inc', 'Up'). But Scanlon is armed and ready with his 12-year career as a Pixar animator and storyboard artist.

The audience is taken back to a time before Mike and Sulley became the top "scarers" and employees of Monsters, Inc, where the company harnesses power to generate electricity in their cities with the "help" of humans.

After a few meaningful introductory scenes consisting of flashbacks of a flashback, the plot eventually progresses to the primary set piece and venue, Monsters University.

It is just like any American high school, and the film doesn’t compromise on the stereotypes. There are elitist cool students, goth gloomies, mean girls, and the outcasts. There are the familiar orientation fairs and frat parties, as well as faculties offering courses just for monsters. It’s not quite the imaginative eye-opener that Hogwarts was.

MAGIC IS IN THE CHARACTERS

But what 'Monsters University' lacks in novel setting, it strongly compensates with the magic of its characters.

Remember how the animation studio gave tremendous life to a mere inanimate object such as a desk lamp in the short ‘Luxo Jr’ (1986)? Multiply that magic touch to a whole campus of characters and you have an ensemble cast that’s delightfully colourful and vibrantly diverse.

Dame Helen Mirren lends voice to Dean Hardscrabble, the headmistress whose terrifying demeanour and intimidating presence match up to her wing span. Then there’s Nathan Fillion, who voices the irritating Johnny Worthington, president of Monster University’s alpha fraternity.

Monsters, Inc antagonist Randall “Randy” Boggs returns (voiced by Steve Buscemi), but the role would make even hardened criminals chuckle.

And what of Mike and Sulley? Without giving too much away, let's just say they had to work really hard before they became best friends, going through test after test. In their journey there, their lives cross paths with a string of engaging characters to whom all viewers young and old will relate warmly.

The development of their friendship is authentic and well-paced, with film veterans Billy Crystal and John Goodman doing an outstanding job once again to breathe life into these contrasting characters.

Pixar stories don't centre too much on world-saving quests but more on adventures that take place in people's backyards or kitchens, or someone chasing a personal dream. That probably makes them all the more endearing. 

'Monsters University' continues in that tradition. Beneath the dazzling visuals, hysterical hijinks, and eccentric characters lies one idealistic monster’s desire to achieve his lifelong goal. It is a simple story, blown out of whacky proportion, but the result is yet another classic that all Pixar fans will love.

‘Monsters University’ opens in cinemas 20 June 2013