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Entries in Monsters University [2013] (1)

Saturday
Jun222013

Monsters University (2013)

Lessons from Summer School

I've read a lot of puzzling, heartbreaking support for Man of Steel this week. Some argue that Warner Brothers was somehow forced to make Superman into a brooding sour-puss because modern audiences would neither accept nor understand an earnest superhero in the post-Dark-Knight era. They say humility, selflessness, compassion, and wonder are outmoded concepts that no self-respecting Millennial would bother to show up for. I have a challenge for these cowards: Explain Monsters University.

The reflexive answer, of course, is that it's unfair to compare these two very different movies. After all, one is about a young boy who must temper his feelings of superiority in order to fit in with a society that doesn't understand the greatness within him. Shaped by trauma and eye-opening relationships, he learns that his gifts don't make him better than anyone else. In the world's darkest hour, he joins forces with his adoptive people to thwart an existential threat.

The other movie is about a sullen brat in a cape who people call "Superman" for some reason.

Admittedly, I was skeptical of Monsters University going in. Its 2002 predecessor is one of my all-time favorite films,* and with Disney/Pixar now diving into the licensed-tie-in-happy world of sequels and prequels, I wasn't sure if magic would be sacrificed for marketing. The trailers didn't offer much hope, depicting what looked to be a generic college comedy featuring beautifully rendered 3D creatures. From a purely structural standpoint, that's an accurate description, but the screenplay's enormous heart and brains build on the first film's rich universe. In many ways, this is the superior movie.

The world of monsters is powered by human screams, the most powerful of which come from children. Monsters, Inc. is a mega-corporation whose highly trained staff of "scarers" visit kids' bedrooms night after night to extract voluminous shrieks of terror in yellow cylinders. We begin several decades ago, when a young, green cyclops named Mike Wazowski (Noah Johnston) sneaks onto the Scare Floor during a field trip and becomes the envy of his classmates. A seasoned scarer gives Mike accolades for having successfully navigated the human world, even though he broke a few rules in doing so, and encourages the boy to enroll in Monsters University when he grows up.

Fast-forward a number of years, and Mike (Billy Crystal) lands on the wacky college campus with a head full of dreams and a mouth full of a dripping metal retainer. On his first day of class, he meets James P. Sullivan (John Goodman), a towering, furry jock whose legacy status imbues him with confidence and an aversion to studying. The two become fast rivals, and their squabbling draws the attention of Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren)--who boots them from the scaring program. Their only way back in is through winning the university's annual Scare Games, so they sign up with the last frat on campus with any vacancies: a mish-mash of losers called Oozma Kappa.

If you've seen Revenge of the Nerds, Old School, or any other college comedy, you know exactly where this is headed--up to a point. The only difference between the predictable contest eliminations, pranks, and humiliation parties is the rich tapestry of sight-gags and monster jokes lovingly woven into the story by director Dan Scanlon and his co-writers, Robert L. Baird and Daniel Gerson.

The MU campus is a cultural and architectural marvel, a place I'd love to walk around (thanks to Pixar's ever-evolving, trademark digital wizardry, it looks like a place I could walk around). The monsters are all uniquely goofy, and their challenges uniformly thrilling. The capture-the-flag game that takes place in the campus library is a triumph of comedy, drama, and animation, and evokes classic summer-movie magic in a way few films have in years. Best yet, the filmmakers make the most of the requisite Blockbuster Fourth Act, the tacked-on second climax that says, "Oops! We still have twenty minutes to go before the real ending. Sorry, anyone who has to pee." I won't spoil what happens, but suffice it to say you won't be groaning the way you may have upon seeing General Zod rise from the wreckage of Metropolis.

Aside from a majority of its plot skeleton, everything about Monsters University demonstrates unexpected effort and passion on the part of everyone involved. Crystal and Goodman, in no small part due to the script, give Mike and Sully a greater depth than I thought possible. Their characters plumb far below surface problems of cool-versus-not-cool to get at issues of pride, destiny, and what it means to be a good person (er, monster). The supporting cast, which includes the likes of Nathan Fillion, Joel Murray, and Aubrey Plaza, are equally committed, but don't be surprised if you see the headliners talking about how nice it is to be nominated this winter.

The same goes for the director and screenwriters. Theirs is a smart, hopeful, and uplifting movie about responsibility, the importance of hard work, and staying true to oneself--especially when the struggle to find an identity is so great. Its problems are relatable, its villain is multi-dimensional, and its adventure will likely stir even the most dormant inner-child (the audience with whom I saw MU applauded loudly on two separate occasions). In a summer marked by dumbness and dullness so profound that I feel tested every time I slink into the multiplex, Monsters University is a well-earned recess.

*Lower your eyebrow: I didn't say how high it is on the list.