The prequel comedy Monsters University is funny, digestible, and ultimately forgettable.
How is it that a comedy which first arrived in 2001 took 12 more years to make a prequel-followup? It's not uncommon, but such time distance usually wrecks havoc on audiences' memories and appreciation of the current material. In other words, absence makes the heart forget. In almost an after-thought, Monsters University arrives ready to establish a franchise that should have started years ago. The result is an enjoyable but unremarkable film that takes too long to remind us why we liked Monsters Inc in the first place.
Set up as an origin story, our tale follows the rise of the one-eyed monster Mike (Billy Crystal, When Harry Met Sally) and the furry Sully (John Goodman, Flight) as they attend Monsters University, hoping to embark upon a professional career of scaring young sleepers. Mike is the bookworm and not a good test taker, while Sully is the lazy jock who won't elevate his game to become a great scarer. At first, the two do not get along, as they realize each other's potential on the first day of the program. When the two are kicked out of the Scare Program by the beetle-legged Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren, Red), they decide to join the loser fraternity Oozma Kappa with hopes of getting back in. Kappa is filled with rejects and are the butt of jokes from Roar Omega Roar. Their leader, the bully Johnny (Nathan Fillion, Justice League: Doom) recruits Mike's former roommate Randy (Steve Buschemi, Hotel Transylvania) into his team, infuriating Sully and forcing Mike to teach teamwork to Oozma Kappa at the yearly Scare Games.
First-time Director Don Scanlon paints a pretty picture with life-like movements by the characters and realistic animated sets; but several characters - including the Oozma Kappa monsters - are unremarkable and more like the interchangeable Mr. Potato Head figures. Some of that blame comes by way of the script by Writer Robert L. Baird (Chicken Little), who fails to deliver any real or likeable characters beyond Sully and Mike. Potentially new memorable ones, like Dean Hardscrabble, are delivered flatly by Mirren, only furthering the problem of University's disposable characters. Ditto for Buschemi and Fillion, whose characters simply needed more air time. Granted, this is The Sully and Mike Show, but that doesn't mean others should have their development sacrificed at the expense of our leads. Goodman and Crystal still appreciate their characters, and their portrayals are the best things about University - Sully and Mike are genuinely funny to watch, from their various hijinks to their sleeping arrangements and the competition that ultimately binds them together.
It's this idea of monsters behaving like humans which probably made Monsters Inc. so appealing. And it's also this lack of human interaction which is probably at the root of University's failure. There's no Boo or a replacement for her, which I suppose is a unique aspect to University, but the lack of monsters doing human-like things removes a robust layer that produced one of Pixar's most beloved films. This is an origin story that's missing its heart, settling for situational comedy instead, and ultimately trickling down to the stolid performances of our secondary cast.
I suppose one day we'll apply The Lucas Phenomenon when watching Monsters University, that is to watch it first before the better Monsters Inc. But I hope the historical narrative will rightly criticize the previous for being 12 years too late and only half as good. Kids will be entertained, parents will lightly chuckle at the dorm room drinking games, but it's a production that won't stay with you when the lights come up. In that way, count University as a failure.
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