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Pixar seems to be floundering. After winning the hearts of almost everyone with their sophomoric effort Up and wowing with Toy Story 3 (which countless believe to be one of the greatest sequels of all time) they hit a wall in a big way. The maligned Cars 2 cash grab soured many a palate and the bland and slapstick laden trifle that was Brave didn’t do much to make everyone believe the studio’s soul had returned in full. Needless to say following up those hiccups with a prequel did not look like a strategy that would stymie the bleed. But looks can be deceiving. Yes, while Monsters University doesn’t erase all past wrongs with its safe spin on the oft seen college comedy I am happy to report that this prologue to Monsters, Inc. has enough nostalgic charm and warm laughs to be worth a look.
At its core, Monsters University is nothing more than your average college flick, with juniors struggling to fit in and eventually becoming entangled in the tumultuous world of the fraternity. There are the cocky, primo-scare jocks of ROR (Roar Omega Roar) house and the weeney losers of OK (Oozma Kappa) house, a hard-nosed dean and plenty of antics straight out of Animal House and every other film to follow in its footsteps. Monsters University seems to think it can organically put a spin on the tired genre simply by having a collection of monsters present instead of pimple faced freshman, but it would be wrong. The tropes are too well worn to hide behind colourful animation and no effort is made to poke fun at those conventions and instead it openly embraces them to vanilla effect.
That being said its not that these early sequences are devoid of merit as things still clip along nicely with typically reliable voice work from Billy Crystal and John Goodman who reprise their roles as future best buds Mike and Sully. However it is safe to say in the early stages of this film their bond is more of the antagonistic variety. Thankfully a series of unfortunate events put their graduation from the scaring program in jeopardy so it’s up to the two and a rag-tag gang of nerds to win a scaring competition against some far more frightening would-be graduates.
In addition to the slimy Randal Boggs (Steve Buscemi) returning in a limited role (as well as some cameos fans of the original will lap up) there is a bevy of strong voice work to be found, something despite how I currently feel about Pixar, has remained unblemished from a creative standpoint. Charlie Day is pure, untethered comic relief as a big legged, small armed flake who serves Monsters University the way Brick does Anchorman. Nathan Fillion is perfectly cast as the overconfident leader of ROR house and Helen Mirren is outstanding as the callous Dean Hardscrabble. All plot clichés aside, it’s a treat to hear these performers work.
The true saving grace of Monsters University comes in the final 25 minutes where a series of happenstance lead Mike and Sully into the human world – it’s simply a masterstroke of comic timing, genre satire, catharsis and general melancholy epiphany for these two characters. It’s so strong it fact it begs the question as to how the prior hour turned out so ho hum and even more so with its demonstration of pitch perfect parody (horror movie prodding in particular) why it couldn’t have accomplished the same thing with the college comedy subgenre. Regardless, it caps off things in such a satisfying way most of the qualms I had with the prior acts was immediately forgiven.
As far as prequels are concerned Monsters University ranks well in the canon and thanks to the level headed treatment of the Mike-Sully kinship (again, in particular during the climax) this animated flick is simply a charmer. While it will no doubt be a rampant hit among families, this lark should provide enough substance for those that found the original such a masterpiece back in 2001 (and have grown old with that affinity). It doesn’t rank among the best this animation house has produced, but for what superficially appears to be a simple bait and switch (and a copout for Pixar) blossoms into something more substantial and perhaps more importantly one of the more pleasant experiences you’ll have at the movies this year.