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Review of Monsters University, a Pixar Animated Film Directed By Dan Scanlon
A shy clownfish who travels hundreds of miles in search of his son and a royal blue tang with amnesia to guide him. A rat who can cook pamphlets to the illegitimate son of a luxury chef who can’t. A trash compactor robot on Earth who falls in love with an advanced robot visiting from outer space to check for signs of life. A grumpy old pensioner widower who flew with his whole family to Paradise Falls and a modest little girl scout who accidentally carried along. These are some of the unique duos that amazingly led the Pixar animation studios to Oscar glory. Now think about it: a little green monster who knows how to scare but can’t really scare anyone, and his formidable college companion who can scare someone to death but is a one-trick pony. Does this Pixar pairing seem unique enough to hold its own? Not really…
That’s the number one problem that Pixar’s latest venture Monsters University has to overcome. Problem number two: the movie is a prequel. Pixar is hardly known for making prequels or sequels; Its only super-successful franchise is the Toy Story series, which began in 1995 and continued with two critically acclaimed sequels, the third of which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. The other well-known franchise is Cars, whose sequel Cars 2 barely did well with critics (although I adored both films).
This seems to be the decade of the Pixar sequels; On the one hand, Monsters University comes ten years after the brilliant Monsters Inc, and on the other hand, the Pixar classic Finding Nemo continues its legacy with Finding Dory, which will be released in two years. Sequels or prequels are worth getting to know, and we always expect Pixar to give us something new and original. No one minds when rival studio Dreamworks clings to its green monster just to make money, but we’ve come to expect much bigger things from Pixar, so the thought of seeing its memorable characters do one more thing bothers us because we’ve already seen the best.
Problem number three: This movie takes place in college. You would ask what’s wrong with that? American Pie was set in college and it worked. But remember why American Pie worked: It was an R-rated comedy about the three-letter word with a lot of four-letter words used in the context of three-letter words. Monsters University is rated G, and its comedy involves watching the lunch lady serve junk to the students while the freshmen get a totally positive image during a Monsters University orientation conducted by a perky girl. There are jock monsters, geek monsters, blonde monsters, prep monsters and other monsters of various shapes, sizes and colors in this university led by Dean Dragon Ethan. Oh so familiar you’d think if these were actors instead of monsters, this movie would be instantly forgotten.
Some of the names are also appropriate – the hero of the film Mike goes to the primary school ‘Fryton’ as a child. This is a reference to the word ‘fear’, understand? Um… not so bright. Also, you will be surprised during this movie to find parts that remind you of other movies. There’s an ‘initiation rite’ that will take you straight to the ring of fire sequence from Finding Nemo. The first part itself with the introduction of the monsters feels similar to an animated film after Hotel Transylvania, which admittedly spent too much time introducing one monster after another. Five problems or rather challenges already, and does Pixar manage to overcome all of them? Yes, to a large extent yes.
I would probably use the word ‘redeemed’ rather than overcome here; Monsters University redeems itself by getting Pixar’s post-Magic franchise back. Until then, your eyes don’t open with the usual sense of wonder while watching Pixar movies. You want to be googly-eyed like the hero Mike when he enters Monster University for the first time, but unfortunately you’re squinting instead. When you see his initial rivalry with Sullivan, you feel like you’ve seen it all before. Even as actress Helen Mirren unseats Miranda Priestly in Sister Aloysius as Dean Hardscrabble, you’re still longing for Pixar’s cues again, feeling like you’re watching a Dreamworks film mistakenly marketed as a Pixar film.
Until the interval, I coined the term ‘Pixar stain’ for this film, because I found nothing to pleasantly surprise me in this work. However, that term won’t apply to this film at all, as the second half surprised me – big time.
The film wakes up and becomes completely special once the Pixar magic slowly fills up like the scare meter used by Monsters University students to record children’s fear levels. Once Mike makes a hardscrabble bet with Dean to keep him in the Intimidation Program (he’s suspended from that program for causing chaos during their exam) if he emerges the winner of a college event called the Intimidation Games, he teams up with four other non-intimidating frat boys in a small and his rival Sullivan, who is also suspended and joins their group Oozma Kappa only to return to the show; As the team pleads to understand each other’s strengths and abilities, you begin to see the flickering light of Pixar you’ve been waiting for so long. There’s an unexpected surprise that I won’t divulge here, and ultimately the film’s broader themes seem to contain the depth of Pixar’s previous efforts. The only problem in the end is the first half itself, which, while it seems necessary after watching the entire film, lacks a moment of Pixar sparkle. That little bouncy lamp you see whenever a logo appears (it’s Luxor Jr., from an earlier short) was probably low voltage until the interval. Thank God everything became clear immediately afterwards and it burned brightly. But I was constantly worried that the little bulb would explode, and I don’t want to get that feeling again, not from Pixar.
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