“Monsters University” makes complete sense as a prequel—the first time, by the way, that Pixar has attempted such a thing. That’s because in the original “Monsters, Inc.” the two main monsters are already introduced as fast friends: the one-eyed Mike (Billy Crystal), who’s shaped like a little green bowling ball with arms and legs, and Sulley (John Goodman), an imposingly tall blue furry creature with horns. In “Monsters University” we get the backstory of how they met, how they became best friends, and how they came to work for Monsters, Inc. But while it really adds to our appreciation of the characters, “Monsters University” isn’t as successful of a film.
The characters are as endearing as always, and the animation is just as strong. Yet, it’s not nearly as ambitious or imaginative as the 2001 film, which advanced a pretty original plot involving a parallel monster universe powered by screams generated by “scarers” who go through doors that open into children’s bedrooms. It was ingenious, capitalizing on the clichéd childhood fear that something evil was lurking in the closet or under the bed. Meanwhile, the emotional core of the movie revolved around Boo, the human child who proved to Sulley and Mike that the monster world’s fear of humans was irrational. Then there were nice side plots involving a scare competition and a possible conspiracy.
There’s no such invention in the screenplay for “Monsters University.” Anyone who’s been to college where there’s a Greek presence has heard of the Greek Games, by whatever name they’re called—when fraternities and sororities compete against each other, usually during Homecoming, for the title of something-or-other. And if you’re not familiar with that scene, you might have seen it played out on celluloid on such films as “Revenge of the Nerds.” Like that 1984 comedy, the deck is stacked in favor of the misfits, so you pretty much know that somehow (odds be damned) they’re going to be triumphant. The only question is, how?
Once Disney-Pixar settled on a contest format in which oddballs and fringe characters try to compete against brainier and burlier mainstreamers, the screenplay must have practically written itself. So there’s nothing new here in terms of plotting. That means the burden of entertainment falls on the artists and animators.
But hey, it’s Disney-Pixar. Creating worlds and populating them with fun details is what they do best. From little Mikey, who’s as cute wearing braces as one of those balls you pop on your car antenna, to facets of college life that get the animated treatment, there’s plenty here to hold your attention. At first the characters from Oozma Kappa struck me as being lackluster, but they grow on you—especially Don Carlton (Joel Murray), a non-traditional older student who keeps handing out business cards, and Terri/Terry Perry (Sean Hayes, Dave Foley), a two-headed monster with two different mindsets.
This outing, you see how the slithering Randy Boggs (Steve Buscemi) becomes the guys’ sworn enemy, and a few big names jump onboard—like Helen Mirren, who gives voice to the scary Dean Abigail Hardscrabble; Alfred Molina, who plays Professor Knight; and Nathan Fillion, who turns up as the boisterous president of rival Roar Omega Roar fraternity. Pixar’s good-luck charm, John Ratzenberger, has a walk-across as The Abominable Snowman.
“Monsters University” is rated G and has a runtime of 104 minutes.
Too often I find myself preferring the standard Blu-ray to 3D, but with “Monsters University” 3D is the clear favorite. The depth of field is stronger, and there are plenty of break-the-plane moments that seem part of the art design instead of just a gimmick to visually grab you. The whole movie really pops, with bright colors and shots of things like buildings and buses that make you shake your head, they’re so realistic-looking. The level of detail is astounding, and the skin tones? Uh, the purples have presence, the greens grab . . . . Presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, it’s one of the most enjoyable 3D experiences of the home entertainment year so far.
If you’re buying the 3D combo pack with a big ol’ Mikey eye on the future and don’t have the capability of playing 3D just yet, you won’t be disappointed by the standard Blu-ray presentation. Until you watch in 3D, you think THIS is the version with the “wow” factor.
The featured audio is an ear-pleasing, fully immersive Dolby TrueHD 7.1 Surround, with additional options in French Dolby Digital Plus 7.1 and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1. Subtitles are in English, English SDH, French, and Spanish. Whether it’s a mighty ROAR or music vibrating the walls of a fraternity party you get solid, thumping bass, clear midtones, and a treble that has plenty of reach and bite. There’s a nice sense of sound traveling logically across the sound field as well, and for me that’s what really makes the experience seem immersive—not just the involvement of all the speakers. As with the video, I can’t imagine the audio presentation being any stronger than it is.
This four-disc combo pack features a 3D Blu-ray, a 2D Blu-ray, a DVD, and a second Blu-ray disc with bonus features—all contained in a slightly oversized Blu-ray case and tucked inside a cardboard sleeve. There’s also a code to retrieve a Digital Copy of the film.
You can watch Pixar’s new short film “Blue Umbrella” on either Blu-ray or 3D Blu-ray—it’s on both discs—to see their latest little love story. And if you’re into commentaries, director and co-writer Dan Scanlon is joined by story supervisor Kelsey Mann and producer Kori Rae as the trio discusses all aspects of pre-viz, pre-production, production, and post-production. I found it interesting that, like detectives, they scoured the first film for clues that would help them uncover the “real” back story.
The second Blu-ray disc features 111 minutes of short extras which, frankly, I wish were rolled into one big feature on Campus Life, Story School, Scare Games, Monthropology, Welcome to MU, Music Appreciation, Scare Tactics, Color and Light, Paths to Pixar: MU Edition, Furry Monsters: A Technical Retrospective, Deleted scenes (four rough ones), Promo Picks, and Set Flythroughs. Practically every short feature underscores what a cool place Pixar is to work, and how they combine a serious approach with enough fun to let the creativity come out. There’s some overlapping with the commentary, but for the most part these are a nice group of bonus features.
Most sequels or prequels seem contrived, but “Monsters University” makes sense and makes for solid entertainment. It may not be as inventive as the original, but there’s still plenty here to coax a smile, and it’s still great family entertainment.