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Review: ‘Monsters University’ Is a Sweet Story Set in the Wrong World

Credit: Disney/Pixar

If you’ve ever seen a college comedy — or heck, just about any underdog story — you can probably predict every beat of Monsters University: an earnest, hard-working newcomer pursues his unlikely passions in a new environment, quickly learning that he is in way over his head. There’s a quasi-antagonistic foil, one who might eventually become his ally (or heck, best pal!), and a majorly antagonistic authority figure, and probably a series of competitions that’ll prove the worth of our lovable heroes. They’ll lose the first round, but by some loophole be allowed back into the games, only to reign supreme in every subsequent feat of strength, ultimately achieving something in the vein of self-worth, or new friendships, or a car.

And it works. Sure, any genre-savvy adult might find Monsters U to deliver one of Pixar’s less impressive plots, but it hits every mark in terms of entertaining its younger demographic — it is bright and lively, kooky and funny (while teenage Mike and Sully aren’t half as witty as their adult counterparts, their goofy frat brothers offer enough good-natured quirk to make up for it), and illustrative of the all-important messages of acceptance of yourself, no matter what your limitations, and others, regardless of how much they veer from your ideals. While the rest of the campus sees Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) as a nobody, he’s sure from the get-go that he’s destined to be a great scarer, obsessing over every theory and formula behind the exhaustive study. Jimmy Sullivan (John Goodman), on the other hand, is universally beloved and admired, banking on his father’s legacy to help him coast through a field that he knows to “come naturally” for him.

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But both young “men” are thrown for a loop when it turns out that neither brains nor charisma alone can build an effective scare machine. You need the full package. Thus, the heartwarming banding together of this way-too-different-to-Ever-be-friends-oh-wait-this-is-Disney pair, resulting in the lifelong friendship that we stumbled into in Monsters, Inc. … with one exception.

These are Not the characters we met in Monsters, Inc. — not the Sully, and definitely not the Mike.

Credit: Disney/Pixar

Sure, the easy argument is that as teenagers, the fellas had different attitudes, different outlooks, different personalities. That the events of Monsters University helped Sully to learn a lesson about hubris, eventually becoming the upstanding hero that we first discovered back in 2001. But does that forgive the fact that we’re faced with a relative in the new release? And what about Mike? In the original, Crystal sighs and whines as a nebbishy 9-to-5er, a glory hound who seems less like a lifelong scaring aficianado and more so a cog in the all-encompassing machine of the monsters’ benignly Orwellian society. He’s a wiseass who fibs and smack-talks, who fails to file paperwork and aches to clocks out early. Not an evolution of the Monsters University hero, but a separate character entirely. And, in earnest, a much funnier one.

As such, we wonder if the story would have been better served with a focus on two different characters entirely — perhaps the son of Monsters, Inc.‘s James Sullivan, and a wide-eyed original character in place of the pseudo-Wazowski. Naturally, this is simply not good business. People signing onto a Monsters, Inc. follow-up want to see the characters they fell in love with, and would be far more likely to hitch wagons to at the very least a thin guise of said characters than to something altogether new. But with a much younger spirit than its predecessor, a younger mentality and as such a younger audience to please, it’s worth noting that the people this movie is really reaching were probably not even alive when Monsters, Inc. came out.

We’d be more inclined to judge the film as a standalone feature if it didn’t grab for off-references to Inc. every few scenes, peppering in jokes about Mike’s canon inability to take a good photo (or to recognize when he has taken a bad one), the eventual decay of the first’s villain Randal (Steve Buscemi), and about the mysterious existence of special agent Roz, among others. With constant reminders to the glory that was Monsters, Inc., a movie that painted a vivid world that University‘s hardly lives up to, longstanding Pixar fans are bound to face disappointment.

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However, those noble cinephiles able to take the new release as its own dish, feasting on the sweet and tender parable about friendship and tolerance, and chuckling at some of the crazier side characters’ likable antics, will find it to be just enough simple fun and feel-goodery. While Inc. and many of its Pixar brethren are stocked with entertainment for all audiences, this one’s really more for the kids … which is odd, because there’s a scene of monsters playing beer pong.


Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter | Follow hollywood.com on Twitter @hollywood_com

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