Monsters University (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
If the back half of “Monsters University,” directed by Dan Scanlon, where Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) and James P. Sullivan (John Goodman) take a detour from their world and into a foreign universe, had been expanded and explored, it might have turned out to be more than just a superficially enjoyable, family-friendly movie and delivered something truly memorable. Some of these later scenes are so strong, I wondered how it would be like if Pixar made a genuinely creepy or scary film for kids, channeling the same aura as Gil Kenan’s underrated “Monster House.”
Gone is the warm hug of jazz that gave Pete Docter’s “Monsters, Inc.” a special life force. Instead, and perhaps more appropriately, marching band tunes are employed to get us stoked for one-eyed Mike’s first year in the university where he plans to major in Scaring. These tunes also conjure up excitement for the Scare Games, founded by Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), which will determine the best sorority or fraternity on campus. According to her, a monster is defined only by his or her ability to scare. A monster that is incapable of it is an embarrassment. It is a shame that the screenplay does not do much with Hardscrabble because she has such a presence, an air of dour authority. She dares her students to surprise her, but not once she is able to surprise me.
There is more to the picture than a series of challenges. While they are highly amusing to sit through, especially the first challenge involving poisonous urchins, it also has easily digestible messages about teamwork, friendship, and acceptance that children should learn (and adults should know by now). And because this is a comedy, it is expected that the fraternity that Mike and Sulley join is composed of outcasts who are anything but scary: a middle-aged salesman (Joel Murray), two heads sharing the same body (Sean Hayes, Dave Foley), a long-legged purple philosopher (Charlie Day), and a multi-eyed plump youngster who lives with his mom (Peter Sohn). Each member of the group is given time to shine in and outside the games.
But the real gem is the lesson about knowing one’s limitations. Ever since he was a child, Mike has wanted to become a scarer. However, he simply does not have the physicality for it, not like Sully or the meatheads in Roar Omega Roar, but he is determined to prove everybody wrong. So, he turns to books and hopes that by knowing a lot, somehow it will make up for what he lacks.
This should have been at the forefront more often so that there is a constant build-up of the dramatic core. And yet since the lesson might be difficult to swallow, especially for its target audience, at times the screenplay uses cuteness and easy jokes as crutches when the mood gets too heavy. This frustrated me. It is like being a handed the lollipop when I really want is the steak. With so many children who have and are being led to believe that they are “special” and that they can become “anything” they want to be as long they “put their minds” into it, a point about being aware of one’s limitations is, I think, pretty daring.
The animation is first-class. Every square inch of space seems to glisten, the creatures command a defined set of characteristics (as well as physical gags to go along with them), and scenes that require howling energy to make high velocity movements stand out are mesmerizing. But “Monsters University,” based on the screenplay by Dan Scanlon, Daniel Gerson, and Robert L. Baird, lacks a moving story and the willingness to go all the way with whatever is needed to be communicated. It has the character for it–idealistic, strong-willed Mike Wazowski–but not a clever enough screenplay to camouflage the pill among the candy and trust that the ruse will work.