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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, June 21, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 25
Graduation with horrors - Jovial Monsters prequel is a breezy bit of family-friendly fluff
Arts & Entertainment
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Graduation with horrors - Jovial Monsters prequel is a breezy bit of family-friendly fluff

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY Opens June 21

As much as I adore 2001's Monsters, Inc., and that's a massive understatement - it's a Pixar classic - I cannot say I was jonesing for a new adventure featuring wisecracking Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) and his colossal blue teddy bear of a best friend, James P. Sullivan (John Goodman). Where would the story go? What could possibly come next? Would we even care if there were a next? The reality was that the story being told was magnificent, revealing a warmth, intimacy, and understanding that was sublime. Bringing back Boo or trying to piece together a new scenario would potentially cheapen the original's perfection.

I give Disney and Pixar a tiny bit of credit for realizing a sequel wasn't the best idea. Rather than follow up the events of the first film, they instead made the conscious decision to go backward and show what Mike and Sulley were like in college. But prequels are always an iffy proposition regardless of the talent level involved - the reality that audiences know what the outcome has to be (otherwise, the original wouldn't exist) is a sticking point very few such attempts have ever overcome.

Yet here's Monsters University giving it a shot, showing how this inseparable pair of expert Scarers got their start and the travails that they encounter on their path to brotherly friendship. And, it must be said, by and large Pixar and company pull it off. While the movie isn't much more than a computer-animated, kid-friendly remake of Revenge of the Nerds, that doesn't make it any less entertaining. As prequels go this is a heck of a lot of fun, filled with inventive sight gags and witty verbal twists of the tongue, and built on a sturdy foundation of interesting multifaceted characters easy to root for - and as such it ends up being worthy of respect.

This does not mean the film is anywhere near as sensational as its predecessor. It's far less complex, isn't interested in resonating on multiple levels and, as already mentioned, features a plot that is as tired as it is rudimentarily familiar. As underdog stories go, there's little new about this at all, and other than a few quirky little touches, as well as a bracingly authentic - some might say educationally dubious - bit of honesty at the end there's almost nothing about this prequel that comes close to being a surprise.

WELCOME NEWCOMERS
Still, there's much to enjoy. While it's a foregone conclusion that Mike and Sulley's initial animosity and jealousy toward one another will slowly morph into friendship, that doesn't mean seeing them get there isn't a freewheeling, energetic ride I was happy to experience. Crystal and Goodman play off one another as rapturously as ever, while new vocal performers like Helen Mirren (the stern, unforgiving Dean Hardscrabble) and Nathan Fillion (the cocky head of Monster U's leading fraternity, Roar Omega Roar) make an immediate imprint, getting in on all the silliness the second they appear.

Best of all, though, are the actors portraying Mike and Sulley's gaggle of Oozma Kappa (OK for short) fraternity misfits who find themselves in a Greek Row smackdown for Scarer supremacy. Peter Sohn, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, and Charlie Day are all superb, forming a wonderful group of irregular regulars who fit the mantle of underdogs nicely. Will they be able to use their unique (some might say worthless) talents to good use? Can this forlorn, unappreciated assortment come together as a team? Will they prevail? Are these questions even worthy of being asked?

Actually, in some respects they are, the screenplay by Daniel Gerson, Robert L. Baird, and director Dan Scanlon not always following the expected path. While the outcome is inevitable - this is a prequel, after all - how Mike and Sulley get to where we know they have to be isn't always predictable. In fact, a third-act event culminating in the human world comes remarkably close to achieving the same levels of magic and emotional brilliance as Monsters, Inc. manufactured, the level of maturity and understanding on display somewhat staggering.

All of which is terrific, and one can't help but wonder how much better the film itself might have been had the filmmakers chosen to take as many risks during the initial two-thirds as they do during the finale sequences. Be that as it may, and as slight as the majority of this turns out to be, Monsters University is undeniably entertaining, making me laugh and keeping me smiling with breezy ease one moment to the next. While its themes and morals are obvious, and while the outcome is never in doubt, as prequels go it's admittedly pretty darn good, a gift horse from Pixar I'm not inclined to look too critically in the mouth of.

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Graduation with horrors - Jovial Monsters prequel is a breezy bit of family-friendly fluff
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