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Review: Monsters University

MonstersUniversity-1

Prior to June 21st, only the Cars and Toy Story franchises have had sequels thus far in the Pixar universe.  Monsters University (MU) marks the third time the magicians of Emeryville decide to follow-up on a pre-established franchise.  While Cars 2 was met with mixed criticism, MU is a return to excellence for Pixar since the release of Toy Story 3 to box office success and an eventual nod for Best Picture. This time around, rather than a sequel to a beloved animated classic, they decide on an origins story focused on the monstrously epic relationship between Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan. The result is a surprisingly balanced story that’s pleasantly unpredictable and well-executed.

The comedic talents of Billy Crystal and John Goodman are re-enlisted as Pixar takes their talents to dorm rooms and lecture halls of American academia. In a word, Pixar nailed it.  Everything from university architecture, landscaping, lecture halls, classrooms, and fraternity culture with a monster spin has been right on the money. Pixar has done such an excellent job crafting MU that it feels like an entirely fresh film and not just a cookie-cutter sequel.  Of course, they tie everything back to the original film perfectly, and subtly…and dropping a few Easter eggs for a little Pixar fan service.

Writing: A-

It’s a simpler challenge to write a script about human teenagers entering college. Comparatively, it’s a much tougher beast to craft an on-screen experience with a diversity of monsters of varying physical attributes in a stereotypical American college campus. The writers did a great job of imposing limitations of the competing characters to allow for balance, especially when the film consists of contests  amongst various monsters inside and outside the classroom. The dialogue, while a child can enjoy the over-the-top voice work, is well-written enough for the adult audience to enjoy. For audience members who’ve had the college experience, MU is a great character study that will bring back empathetic memories of college years. Animal House, Dead Poets Society, Rudy, School Ties, and Revenge of the Nerds all seem to be incorporated nicely into MU.  The biggest accomplishment, attributed mainly to the scribes of the film,  is that sometimes you forget that the characters are monsters.

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Pacing: A

Monsters University is well-paced.  The film is meant to cover one academic year from the beginning of the fall semester to the end of spring.  MU does a good job of taking the audience through these transitions, especially with the seasonal environmental changes, with enough time to fully develop the characters. Often times with prequels, films will try to squeeze in a little too much fan service with Easter eggs. With MU, Pixar does just the right amount of material from the original film and allows for this new story to pace well. Comedic elements were also well-placed throughout and kept the pacing of the film fresh.

Collective Performances: B+

While Billy Crystal and John Goodman pick up their performances where they left off, there is a challenge presented to them as they must convey an adolescent version of themselves as college freshmen. Steve Buscemi returns as a younger Randall Boggs before he turns heel in the original film.  He does a great job projecting a more youthful and innocent Randall before his Anakin-to-Vader-esque transformation. Cameos by Bob Petersen, John Ratzenberg, and Bonnie Hunt round out the voice talents from the original.  Nathan Fillon and Alfred Molina are enlisted in this go-round to add to an already-impressive voice cast.  The result is you forget who’s voicing the characters and you’re more immersed in the story.

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Presentation: A+

The art direction, although following the original film closely, allows for much more vegetation and architecture for Pixar to showcase their technical wizardry.  At times, you find yourself looking at worn floorboards and wonder just how much time is spent creating these worlds. On a more geeky level, I often think about what mathematical algorithms dictate the randomness of aging surfaces and textures…and how they’re implemented.  A good example is the aging of the MU cap, worn by Mike Wazowski, at different times in the film. Pixar uses this cap to show off their ability to show that something’s aged, which has come a long way since the original Toy Story. With even more monsters to keep track of this time, Pixar pulls out all the stops with fur, water effects, seasonal vegetation, Ivy League collegiate architecture, and lighting.

Overall: A

MU is not just the best animated film in 2013 so far, it’s one of the best films overall. It represents the perfect marriage of technology, animation, story, and presentation.  Pixar’s greatest achievement in this film is that it doesn’t feel like your run-of-the-mill prequel, but a fresh new story altogether.  MU is yet another reason why Pixar is still class of animation studios in film today and why it’s worth every dollar spent at the box office.

 

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Images Source: Monsters University Official Facebook Page

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