Movie review by Greg Carlson
“Monsters University” is a pleasant if unremarkable prequel to Pixar’s inventive buddy movie “Monsters, Inc.” Revisiting some of the in-universe mythology that fueled the 2001 film, including the concept that monsters depend on the screams of children to power their hidden-from-human-view municipalities, “Monsters University” adds very little of substance to our understanding of Mike Wazowski, Billy Crystal’s green cyclops, and James P. “Sulley” Sullivan, John Goodman’s furry beastie. Ignoring the first movie’s indication that Mike and Sulley have known one another at least since the fourth grade, “Monsters University” brings the future scarers together as college freshmen.
Whether or not Pixar’s decision to skip elementary school in favor of higher education was sound, the film’s physical interpretation of college meets the expectations audiences bring to the release of any of the studio’s features. Boasting the inaugural application of sophisticated software advancements in global illumination, “Monsters University” takes full advantage of the plenitude of shapes and kaleidoscopic colors in its mutant menagerie. The film lacks an unforgettable, dazzling set-piece like the “Monsters, Inc.” door chase sequence, but the visual quality reaffirms Pixar’s position as the preeminent producer of big-budget computer animation.
Considering Pixar’s reputation for relentless story development and editing, “Monsters University” traces a disappointingly predictable and familiar pathway more akin to the work of the studio’s lesser rivals. By comparison, “Monsters, Inc.” is light years more poignant and emotionally involving. Unlike “Toy Story 2,” in which the yodeling cowgirl Jessie deepened, enriched, and built upon the strong characterizations established in the series debut, “Monsters University” lacks either the bravery or the farsightedness (or both) to introduce a new friend as crucial to the narrative as Mike and Sulley.
Nearly a year has passed since the first comparisons between “Monsters University” and “Revenge of the Nerds” emerged. Even Billy Crystal, during promotional interviews for “Parental Guidance,” noted the connection between the cult comedy and the second “Monsters” installment. “Monsters University” does in fact borrow from “Revenge of the Nerds,” particularly in the establishment of loser/underdog status for Mike’s misfit Oozma Kappa fraternity and the David vs. Goliath competition of the Scare Games. Weirdly, “Monsters University” could have appropriated even more from “Nerds,” a film with a superior understanding of diversity, social persecution, and class discrimination – not to mention a more inventive set of Greek Games challenges.
“Monsters University” earns demerits in several categories, and the conspicuous absence of significant and important female coeds enrolled at MU is at the top of the list. Women do appear in the movie as authority figures: Helen Mirren’s stern headmistress Dean Hardscrabble channels Minerva McGonagall, and Julia Sweeney steals a handful of laughs (especially when listening to Mastodon’s “Island”) as Sherri Squibbles, the stereotypical sweet-natured mother of one of the Oozma Kappa members. Even with a trio of sororities – fully relegated to the background – and Aubrey Plaza’s barely there commentary as a Greek Council president, female monsters are second-class and all but silent, and there is nobody in sight to take the place of Boo. Needless to say, “Monsters University” fails the Bechdel Test.