‘Monsters University’ gives it the old college try
BY RICHARD ROEPER SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST June 20, 2013 12:28AM
In the prequel “Monsters University,” Sulley (center left) and Mike(center right) head back to school, where they’re not pals but members of sparring campus factions.
‘MONSTERS UNIVERSITY’ ★★½
With the voices of:
Mike Billy Crystal
Sulley John Goodman
Randy Steve Buscemi
Dean Hardscrabble Helen Mirren
Don Joel Murray
Young Mike Noah Johnson
Disney/Pixar Animation presents an animated film directed by Dan Scanlon. Written by Robert L. Baird. Running time: 110 minutes. Rated G. Opening Friday at local theaters.
Updated: July 22, 2013 4:45PM
In the Pixar prequel “Monsters University,” set mostly on the college campus where the lime-green, walking-talking eyeball Mike Wazowski and the hulking furball known as Sulley meet and eventually become BFFs, we are presented with a plight not commonly associated with the animated genre:
Can an actor be too old for a part?
It’s not exactly Robert Redford and Glenn Close meeting on a hillside in an extreme long shot to disguise the fact they’re the world’s oldest teenagers in “The Natural,” but even with an animated film, it’s a little strange when two show-biz vets in their 60s go back to school. The 65-year-old Billy Crystal (voice of Mike) and the 61-year-old John Goodman (Sulley) would never play college freshmen in a live-action film — unless it was yet another generational body-swapping comedy (and I pray to God nobody runs with that idea). But in “Monsters University,” they give voice to young Mike and young Sullivan, respectively, and it’s a bit of a distraction. Crystal has a naturally higher-pitched voice, and he doesn’t sound all that old, but Goodman sounds like, well, John Goodman.
That I had time to ponder this question during “Monsters University” perhaps speaks to the slight and underwhelming nature of this film, which isn’t nearly as inventive, funny or involving as the original, “Monsters Inc.” (2001). Though colorful and sweet-natured and occasionally capable of producing the mild chuckle, this is a safe, predictable, edge-free, nearly bland effort from a studio that rarely hedges its bets. A dozen years between “Monsters” movies, and all they could come up with is another origins story? (Relax, “Man of Steel” fans. It’s a JOKE.)
After a prelude showing an even pipsqueak-ier version of a very young Mike (Noah Johnson) as a class outcast who sneaks into an actual human kid’s bedroom on a field trip to the fabled Monsters Inc. factory, we fast forward and arrive at Monsters University for Mike’s first day on campus as a freshman pledge determined to major in Scaring, so he’ll one day become a Scarer — you know, the professional monsters who sneak into kid’s bedrooms in the middle of the night and elicit screams that provide the energy for the city of Monstrosity.
Sulley arrives as a pre-ordained BMOC (Big Monster on Campus); he’s the son of a legendary scarer, cocky and dismissive, convinced all he needs to do is belt out a mighty roar and he’ll sail through Monsters U. with honors.
Mike is all about studying and taking an academic approach to mastering the art of the fright. Sulley couldn’t be bothered to open a book. They have no use for each other until each is cast aside for different reasons, and they begin to forge a bond.
For about a half hour, “Monsters University” is, weirdly enough, pretty much the same movie as “The Internship.” In both films, we have the lovable collection of ragamuffins competing with more established teams in a competition overseen by a judgmental authority figure who seems to have nothing but disdain for the underdogs.
As was the case with “Monsters Inc.,” the creatures here are cute-ugly, with anywhere from one to a half-dozen eyeballs, one to two heads and two to a hundred legs. They’re gross, but they come in the bright colors of Skittles, and they speak in very kid-friendly tones. It’s a great-looking film. (I’m not sure Team Pixar could make a bad-looking film if it tried.)
Director Don Scanlon has contributed to several Pixar films, including “Brave” and “Cars,” but this is his first full-length feature, and he acquits himself just fine, given the relatively minor key of the writing. (Scanlon himself is one of three writers credited with the film’s story.) There’s stellar supporting voice work from Steve Buscemi as Mike’s roommate, Helen Mirren as the intimidating Dean Hardscrabble and Alfred Molina as a professor. Crystal and Goodman are just terrific together, my quibble about the tenor of their voices notwithstanding.
It’s all so ... solid. Never anything more.
The most intriguing scenes take place in the human world, with some human/monster interaction that gives hint of a more complex and harrowing — and more entertaining — path that this story could have taken. (Yes, my job is to critique this movie and not say, “What if they had done this or that?,” but when the writers open that door, so to speak, I think it’s legit to ask what might have been.)
In the library of Pixar follow-up films, “Monsters University” is better than “Cars 2” but not in the same league as the “Toy Story” sequels. In a summer short so far on children’s fare, parents won’t regret taking the young kids to “Monsters University,” with almost no chance that any of the efforts to scare onscreen will actually keep the little ones awake at night.