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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Monsters University

U.S.: Don Scanlon, 2013

muMonsters University is not the worst Pixar feature cartoon I’ve seen, and it’s definitely not the best, But it is a Pixar, which weighs considerably in its favor.

That’s no joke. (Or is it?) Sometimes, your most relentless competition can be  your own past achievements  or non-achievements—which is a life-lesson that can apply both to this movie and its co-star college kid team of one-eyed green ball-being Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) and purple-pink-blue scary bear James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman)—and also to Pixar itself.

The movie is a prequel to one of the jewels in Pixar’s cartoon crown: director Pete Docter’s 2001 hit Monsters  Inc, (2001). In that generally well-loved movie. Crystal and Goodman played a grown-up Mike and Sulley, past their college years, now working together at the aforementioned company Monsters Inc.—and, in it,  the two frightmeisters went on an adventure with a three year old charmer, Boo (Mary Gibbs) in their unusual workplace. a factory where children’s nightmares are assembled.

In Monsters University, we see those monstrous but lovable guys ten years or so  earlier, in their teens, as college kids who meet at Monster U.’s school of scares. They’re a typical college movie comedy pair: Mike is a workaholic brainiac nerd, who‘s; unfortunately too little to seem scary. (Really? Imagine waking up and seeing one of those things bouncing up and down on your bed.) Sulley is a fun-loving jock from a really well-off, scary family, a golden boy (or a pink and blue boy) who , unfortunately is always getting into trouble.

The two underclassmen are paired together, as outcasts, by the fearsome Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), who has wings and bug-legs and an attitude and who sends them both, to the dopiest weirdo outcast fraternity around: Oozma Oozma Kappa, where the misfits  population already makes Animal House’s Delta guys, look like a collection of sports stars and mensas. The Oozes include Art the arc creature (Charlie Day), Don Carton, an oldish, baldish Donny-Come-Lately (Joel Murray), Terri/Terry the argumentative tw0-headed guy (Sean Hayes &, Dave Foley) and Squishy Squiggles (Peter Sohn), the multi-eyed mama’s boy, whose mom (Julia Sweeney) is Oozma Kappa‘s overbearing house mother.

Yoked to these obvious if likable losers—in a plot twist that reminded me uncomfortably, of Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson‘s big Google ad, The Internship—Mike and Sulley direct their brain and jock talents to winning the all-Greek Fraternity-Sorority yearly contest, The Scare Games—in which the scariest House wins. Yon can write most of the rest yourself, especially if you’ve just seen The Internship.

That’s the problem: You can write most of  it yourself, whereas you’d be hard-pressed to come up with half the humor and emotion, the twists and turns of Pixar’s Toy Story Trilogy, Wall-E, Finding Nemo, Up, and this movie‘s dazzling post-prequel Monsters Inc.

Is that fair though? Sitting in the screening room afterwards, in a fairly pleasant if not overwhelmed mood, I was surprised at the dissatisfaction erupting from some of my comrades—several of whom were arguing learnedly about whether Monsters University was or wasn’t the worst Pixar film ever. Other reviewers have suggested the same. Is it? Maybe. You could say. But, even if that ranking were true, it isn’t particularly shameful, not when you consider how good those other pictures were—how much pleasure Pixar‘s company, in its  delightful animated history, has given us.

Ranking Monsters U. at the bottom of the Pixar list—and I‘m not sure that’s where I’d put it—seems a bit like picking Beethoven’s worst symphony (The First), or Shakespeare’s worst play (“Titus Andronicus”). Even if  the former works are lesser items than, say, the Sixth or Seventh Symphony and “Othello” or “Hamlet,” so what? Monsters U. may be second (or even third) tier Pixar. But it has wondrous visuals, funny actors, and a brassy, sassy marvelously collegiate-sounding Randy Newman score. The should be enough for most audiences, young or old.

Besides, even though John Lasseter, along with Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich, fill this movie’s stellar roster of executive producers, it’s really a film by a new generation: director-writer Don Scanlon and fellow writers Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird. And though Gerson was a writer on the original Monsters Inc., and Baird contributed material to it, they could hardly be called old guard.

What’s wrong with Monsters University? Well, for one thing, I think Manohla Dargis was right when she argued that this movie needs more female characters. It needs some college girl crushes for Mike and Sulley say, or more funny sororities, or maybe even a scary teacher or two. And it needs them not in order to try to right the wrongs of movie bromnce sexism (well, not only that), but because that’s the way new collegiate guys like Mike and Sulley (especially Sulley) experience college life. Boy-girl stuff (or the variants) are a big part of the way we all experience college: as a youthful wonderland of love play and daydreams.(Littler kids in the audience would tolerantly dismiss this ass “mush stuff.“ Or they used to.) The movie could also use another little-human girl-to-be-frightened, perhaps a part of Boo’s family.

The movie would also be lots better with more  complete songs by Randy Newman, (He wrote the Monster University Alma Mater, and the Swedish rockers Axwell and Sebastian Ingrosso contributed the party song “Roar”; otherwise it’s mostly all music, without Newman lyrics.) I’m not sure why most cartoons have dumped complete original song scores, because it was a splendid tradition that produced a lot of classics. But why hire one of the great popular song lyricists of our time and other times, and then not use his words most of the time, when Randy Newman’s words are so fantastic? (“Roll down the window. Pull down the top. Crank up the Beach Boys, baby. Don’t let the music stop!”  “Human kindness is overflowing. And I think it‘s gonna rain today…”)  Would you want Cole Porter or Bob Dylan  mostly without their words? Listen, it’s not like the guy’s going to be writing forever.

Then there are the negatives: the college movie clichés, all the stuff that we like Pixar movies for not including. Like the games and the meanies that remind you of The Internship and innumerable others.

What does it have that’s good? Billy Crystal. John Goodman. Helen Mirren. Those incredible meticulous and slap-happy Pixar visuals. Newman’s music even mostly without Newman’s words. And at least some of the flavorful, character-filled dialogue we mostly don’t get in the so-called adult movies. And that Pixar specialty: heart mixed with wit and playfulness. Crystal and Goodman, playing teenagers, or teenage voices, get the rhythm and energy right; they suggest youngsters who will grow into the later Mike and Sulley. And, once again, they have lots of chemistry—or  as much chemistry as a little talking green ball can have with a gruff, multi-colored bear dude with a dinosaur tail .

By the way, they should have called the movie Monsters U., because leaving the “University” in sounds a little  pretentious, and anyway, that’s what kids will probably call it later,

A last word: There’s a splendidly rainy  and buoyant little short cartoon running with Monsters U. called The Blue Umbrella. Directed by Saschka Unseld, it’s obviously modeled on that great French short by Albert Lamorisse and his little son Pascal — The Red Balloon. And it’s not as good. Does it matter?

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One Response to “Wilmington on Movies: Monsters University”

  1. Yancy says:

    No, it doesn’t matter. Mr Wilmington, I have suspected for awhile now that you are the most sane critic working, and this review has cemented it. Beautiful. Even if I might have gone ***1/2 for Monsters U based on its worth relative to the average movie… But as you say, does it matter? Why have there been so relatively many down-hearted reviews on this movie? Why does the critical establishment in the RT world seem to be attuned to sniffing out only flaws?


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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