Friday, July 12, 2013

Monsters University: A Triumphant Return to the Monster World

Yup, I've finally gotten around to writing my review of Pixar's latest animated effort, the highly anticipated prequel to their 2001 hit about monsters who scare children at bedtime for a living. I saw Monsters University one day prior to its official release date at an advance screening and planned to review it shortly afterward, but decided to leave it until I had seen the film a second time, just to be fair - I tend to still be in awe during the first few days after seeing a Pixar film for the first time, and I didn't want that to affect my review of the film. However, I'm happy to say that I am still fascinated with MU even after a second viewing.

Feel free to continue reading my rather lengthy, spoiler-free review.

I walked into the theater with monstrous expectations (pun maliciously intended), as I assume most people did. This was the prequel to a film that many people, including myself, grew up on and hold very dear, so naturally Monsters University had some pretty darn big shoes to fill. Nevertheless, I was confident that I would not be disappointed with what I witnessed that evening, and felt a pleasant little rush of adrenaline as the iconic lamp hopped across the screen and proceeded to traditionally squash the letter "I".

Monsters University tells the story of how monsters Michael Wazowski and James P. Sullivan first met (forget the "since the 4th grade" line from the original film, it's already been established that that's merely an expression used in the monster world) and eventually went from being college rivals to the best of friends. The beauty about this movie is that you don't have to be familiar with Monsters, Inc. to enjoy it, although fans of the original film will delight in subtle little nods to the 2001 hit here and there. While it ties in beautifully with its predecessor (or, chronologically, successor), Monsters University sets out to tell its own original tale as opposed to simply lead up to the original.

The film starts off and we meet the small, lovable green cyclops Mike, and learn how for the longest time, he has dreamed of becoming a scarer at the prestigious scream-collecting company, Monsters, Inc. He arrives with high hopes on his first day at Monsters University, full of determination and set on becoming the greatest scarer ever. Soon, however, Mike meets his polar opposite: Jimmy Sullivan, a gargantuan blue "mountain with fur", who comes from a long line of legendary scarers. As soon as the two monsters come face to face, sparks fly and a fierce rivalry is forged; Mike is hardworking, persistent, and has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, whereas Sulley is quite arrogant, lazy, and thinks his last name will pave his way in life. Ultimately, their rivalry lands them in an unlikely predicament that forces them to put aside their differences and work together (alongside a ragtag group reject scare students), which is where the movie really starts to get good.

Parts of the plot may seem a tad familiar at first, like the whole idea of a group of underdogs trying to work their way back up to the top, but the filmmakers at Pixar manage to really bring their own special twist to it and not make it seem cliché. Monsters U will additionally surprise you with some enthralling twists here and there.

One of the highlights of this film is the extraordinary cast of characters. Monsters University has one of the greatest animated ensembles of recent memory; the members of Mike and Sulley's fraternity Oozma Kappa are all endearingly quirky, and each stands out as an individual. Terri and Terry's bickering is quite amusing, Don, the mature one, is a delight, and Art of course is absolutely hilarious on multiple occasions. But the true scene-stealer in this flick is the adorable five-eyed Squishy - you just can't help but fall in love with him whenever he's on screen, and there's one particular scene where he had me laughing uncontrollably. His mom is also a knockout, and Helen Mirren delivers a chilling performance as the frightening Dean Hardscrabble. One of the things I was also very interested in seeing is what they did with Randall. I'll leave it at this: they gave the sneaky purple lizard a very satisfying if brief backstory.

And of course, Mike and Sulley are as charming and entertaining as you remember them. Seriously, it doesn't get much better than Billy Crystal and John Goodman constantly, hilariously playing off each other - the chemistry between their characters is unbelievable. Overall, all the other voice actors do a phenomenal job bringing each of their respective characters to life in a unique way, and you really connect with all the main characters, which is rare today in the world of mindless in-your-face action blockbusters.

Other standouts that had more minor roles in the film but were nonetheless delightful whenever they happened to be on screen include Brock Pearson and Claire Wheeler of the Greek Council, and Frank McCay, a professional scarer whom Mike meets at the start of the film.

In terms of humor, this has to be one of Pixar's funniest - in fact, I'd place it only after Toy Story 3. It's quite insane really, the amount of clever wit there is in this film. The jokes in MU range from anything as simple as an amusing remark from Mike (which there are plenty of, I can assure you) to one of Art's bizarre antics, all the way to hilarious college-themed gags. There is something in this movie to make anybody laugh. I guess the funniness of a movie really depends on a person's sense of humor but, if you don't laugh hard at least once throughout Monsters U then...forgive what I say but, you, my friend, are soulless.

Also, I walked into this movie thinking it would simply be a really funny entertaining romp (which it was), but I was surprised at the amount of genuine heart MU really had. Sure, it's nowhere near being as tear-jerkingly sentimental as the original film or Toy Story 3, but it's sure got enough heart-warming substance to make you feel fuzzy inside, and comes with a very nice moral too.

Visually, well, what can I say? Monsters University is Pixar's best-looking film yet. The characters all move fluidly and with incredible personality, the sets are masterfully crafted and remarkably detailed, and the film as a whole is quite colorful and vibrant. I saw the movie in 3D and, I'll be honest, I forgot I was watching it in 3D for the majority of the running time. That's not to say the 3D is bad, it's just not incredibly memorable or remarkable, so you're not missing out on much if you see the film in the standard 2D format.

Randy Newman's score is also phenomenal, often paying homage to the music of the original film. Additionally, the film's soundtrack includes "Roar" by Axwell and Sebastian Ingrosso, and "Gospel" by MarchFourth Marching Band, which are both fantastic tunes that add beautifully to the film.

Now, a lot of people have said that while MU is good, it doesn't quite reach the heights of the original Monsters. That makes me wonder, however, if this had been released before MI, would people still be saying that? Walt Disney once famously said, "You can't top pigs with pigs." Maybe the reason this prequel doesn't seem as fresh as the film that came before it is because much of the clever inventiveness seen in MU we were already introduced to over a decade ago. But, ok, let's say Monsters U  isn't quite the breath of fresh air that Monsters, Inc. was - it still comes awfully close. And besides, who really cares if a sequel/prequel isn't as good as the original? What matters is if it's a good movie, which, in the case of MU, it is. A great movie at that, worthy of both the original film and the Pixar name. Pixar is losing its touch, you say? Pfff...don't be ridiculous. Not even close.

Score: 9 / 10

No comments: