Once upon a time, when Pixar was still a relatively young studio as opposed to the family entertainment monolith it is today, it was decided by the powers that be at Disney and Pixar that Toy Story 2 -- the sequel to the 1995 smash hit that eventually made computer animation the industry standard -- would be a direct-to-video feature in the vein of such lesser Mouse House productions as Pocahontas II and Aladdin and the King of Thieves. But unhappy with the movie's creative direction, Pixar head honcho John Lasseter took back the reins of the sequel and once again steered it into theaters. I bring this piece of history up because Monsters University, the prequel to the company's 2001 romp Monsters Inc., feels like it too originated as a DTV production before being transferred to the theatrical pipeline.
But where Lasseter reworked Toy Story 2 into a film that fit the big screen, Monsters University arrives in multiplexes still feeling more suited to television. Certainly, the scale of the movie -- both in terms of its story as well as its visual style -- is considerably smaller than most Pixar productions in general. Granted, Monsters Inc. wasn't exactly Wall-E or Up either in terms of size, but it did have the kind of propulsively paced "And then this happened, and then that happened" narrative that plays so well in a crowded theater. And the original also built to a doozy of a climax: a literal roller coaster chase sequence through the eponymous factory, where monsters of all shapes and sizes work to power the metropolis of Monstropolis with the energy generated by the nighttime screams of little boys and girls. Monsters University, in contrast, is a gentler, more meandering tale that doesn't build to an especially big finish. Instead, the new creative team -- which includes writer/director Dan Scalon and his co-writers Robert L. Baird and Daniel Gerson taking over from Pixar lifer Pete Docter who directed the original (another factor lending it that DTV feel, as those productions are typically handed off to B-teams of up and comers rather than A-list established talent) -- takes the established characters and plugs them into a sitcom-ready scenario that could serve as a backdoor pilot to a Disney Channel series.
In essence, Monsters University is Revenge of the Nerds (or, to put it in TV terms, Saved by the Bell: The College Years) remade for the 8-and-under crowd, taking that time-honored dorks vs. jocks match-up and bringing it into the monster world. As in the first movie, our heroes are once again small green cyclops Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and big furry, fanged teddy bear Sulley (John Goodman), the duo who will go on to become Monsters Inc.'s top scare team. But that destiny is still quite a ways off when University begins and, in fact, for much of the runtime Mike and Sulley aren't even pals -- estranged by a several personality clash as well as an intense rivalry over which of them will earn a spot in the titular institution's world-renowned Scare Program. Where Mike is a driven, determined worker, Sulley half-asses his way through the curriculum, confident that his status as the offspring of a famous Scarer will be enough to secure him a place in the prestigious program. (Though we don't learn much about the specific class divide that afflicts Monstropolis, it's more or less clear that Mike represents the South Side to Sulley's North Side.) Ultimately, both monsters wind up failing to qualify, which leads Mike to strike a bargain with the University's stern headmistress Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren): if he's able to lead the campus's least frightening fraternity, Oozma Kappa, to victory in the annual Scare Games, then he and his reluctant ally Sulley are back on the Scare track. Lose, however, and his brief stint in higher education is over for good.
If you've seen Revenge of the Nerds or any of its latter-day descendants (i.e. Old School, The House Bunny etc. etc.) I don't need to tell you that Oozma Kappa is populated by a crew of outcast oddballs, including a middle-aged pencil-pusher (Joel Murray), a one-body, two-headed set of siblings (Sean Hayes and Dave Foley), a young, multi-eyed blob (Peter Sohn) and a Muppet reject (Charlie Day). I probably also don't need to tell you that while the early rounds of the Scare Games go poorly -- very poorly -- with the jocks over at Roar Omega Roar, led by big jerk on campus Johnny Worthington (Nathan Fillion, doing his best Ted McGinley impression), easily dominating the field and going out of their way to humiliate the competition. At a certain point, though, the Oozma Kappa crew realizes that victory will only be achieved if they embrace what makes them unique instead of trying to be some monster they're not. Slowly, but surely they move up the leader board until it's just them and Roar Omega Roar squaring off in the championship round. And again, if you've seen Nerds, I don't need to tell you the final standings.
And I definitely don't want to tell you what comes next, because the filmmakers sneak a surprise twist into the final act that shakes up the formula they've otherwise been slavishly following to the (Greek) letter. It's not the kind of twist that sets the stage for another, even bigger climax, either. No, this particular revelation carries emotional, rather than narrative, complications and is dealt with in a quieter way as a result. It's this section of the film that has the most in common with traditional Pixar movies in that it sensitively navigates mature subject matter in a manner that informs its young audience without playing out like some kind of after school special. And while I do miss the larger-scale set-pieces that Pixar generally excels at, I give the Monsters University filmmakers credit for trying to craft an ending that's rooted so strongly in character and that ultimately functions as a convincing bridge to the original film. It's the one bit of innovation in an inoffensive, but mostly unmemorable computer simulation of a Pixar hit.
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