ON THE SILVER SCREEN: BLAND EDUCATION (MONSTERS UNIVERSITY)

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By Brian Lafferty

June 21, 2013 (San Diego) – There’s always a first for everything.  Monsters University is the first Pixar film I disapprove of (I should note that I still haven’t seen Cars 2).  Has Pixar gotten complacent since Toy Story 3?  It sure seems so.  Since 1995 they could be counted on to turn out a high-quality product.  Now they’re dangerously close to being indistinguishable from DreamWorks, Blue Sky Studios, and Sony Pictures Animation.

Monsters University is the first Pixar prequel, set years before the events of Monsters, Inc.  Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) is a naïve, hyper-idealistic freshman who wants to be the best scarer of all time.  Academically, Mike is an outstanding student; his dedication to his studies nets him high grades.  Realistically, though, he doesn’t have the “stuff.”  After being kicked out of the heavily competitive scaring major, he sets out to prove himself in the Scaring Games by convincing a fraternity of hapless, pathetic monsters, and his new friend Sully (John Goodman), to compete against a few other fraternities and sororities for the coveted trophy by completing a series of mental and physical challenges. 

Monsters University is a lazy, lackluster, and pedestrian effort with too many unforgivable shortcomings.  The structure is inconsistent, as is the entertainment factor.  When it’s on, it’s on.  The Scaring Games competitions are exciting and fun to watch.  I found the “capture the flag” race in the library most entertaining.  But when it’s not on, the uncharacteristically (for Pixar) lame and obvious humor, overtakes it.  Even worse, the film is grossly dialogue-laden.  Every student of animation should know that the medium is one of pure visuals.  Nothing kills interest in an animated film faster than a talky script. 

The animation, always Pixar’s forte, lacks a unique style and imagination.  It is perfunctory not only for a Pixar film, but any 3D animated film.  I don’t know if the novelty established by Toy Story is now wearing off, or if other animation studios have acquired better technology, or if it’s complacency on Pixar’s part.  Whatever the case, no attempt is made to create an outstanding-looking film.  The colors don’t pop out.  They have as much creativity as a paint-by-numbers kit. 

Aside from Mike, Sully, Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), and the Librarian, the monsters might as well be background characters.  They look too much alike, and too generic for a studio known for designing uniquely interesting characters.  That spells trouble because the bad guys aren’t as easy to despise and root against…not that the script doesn’t give some incentive to, anyway.

Normally I loathe screenings of family movies because invariably there will be a bunch of kids.  Noise distracts me very easily and my fuse has gotten shorter by the year (if you talk during the movie, expect a loud shushing from me).  I even walked out of a film last year because there was too much noise from kids whose parents made little effort to quiet them. 

There is a flip side, as I discovered at the arrival of the third act.  It was telling; the kids in the theater were chatty, playing, and running around.  I couldn’t blame them.  Little kids will be bored because they will not relate to anything related to college life.  Monsters University’s humor and plot heavily depends on it, which doesn’t work for a family film; all four of my older sisters went to college, but it wasn’t until I transferred to Cal State, Fullerton in 2007 after three and a half years in community college that I understood what university life was all about.  Surely whatever those kids were playing and make believing during the last leg of the screening must have been more imaginative and fun than Monsters University

C

Monsters University is now playing in wide release.

A Walt Disney release.  Director:  Dan Scanlon.  Screenplay:  Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson, and Dan Scanlon.  Original Music:  Randy Newman.  Voice Cast:  Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, and Helen Mirren.  Running time:  110 minutes.  Rated G.

Brian Lafferty welcomes letters at brian@eastcountymagazine.org.  You can also follow him on Twitter:  @BrianLaff.