Honest truth as of this evening: Midlife Crisis Crossover calls Monsters University “the Best Film of the Year”! So far. Yes, the year is young. Proclamation subject to change without notice, possibly during Oscar preseason.
Seriously, though: looking back at my last several summer action blockbuster spectacular experiences, this Disney/Pixar reboot of Revenge of the Nerds requires less forgiveness of plot holes; boasts characterization truer to the original cast; doesn’t overwrite wide-scale urban destruction with perfunctory offscreen-slapdash-reconstruction happy ending; refuses to play bait-and-switch with its antagonists; and, like Toy Story 3, is a surprisingly top-notch sequel with its own topic to explore rather than acting as a hollow, superfluous extension of the original.
Deep, dark secret: for a long time, Monsters Inc. was my least favorite Pixar film, largely because — in that illustrious, competitive category in which I didn’t dislike any of their efforts at the time — I thought some of Billy Crystal’s lines felt flat and outdated. Here, he seems to stick to script playing a younger, more vulnerable Mike Wazowski who’s not yet prone to constant wisecracking because he’s still finding his way in the world — a put-upon, lifelong outcast who arrives at the prestigious titular campus with a bold dream of becoming a career Scarer despite his resemblance to a cute tennis ball skewered on toothpicks. When his conceptual approach to scariness ends up at cross-purposes with the brutish, mindless technique of smug legacy student James Sullivan (John Goodman once again), their brain-vs.-brawn debates flow and zing as we watch the inevitable progression from prequel odd-couple into the buddy-monster duo that sold millions in merchandise the first time around.
When the petty squabbling between Mike and Sully bars them from all the haughtier fraternities, Our Future Heroes are forced to ally with the lamest house on campus, Oozma Kappa (abbreviated “OK”, a blatant symbol of The Moral of the Story). Building on the Nerds framework with the tournament play of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Monsters U shines most brightly when it focuses on the other OK players: insecure Squishy (Pixar staffer Peter Sohn); two-headed Terry and Terri (Sean Hayes and Dave Foley, quite a snappy tag-team); quasi-stoner philosophy monster Art (Horrible Bosses‘ Charlie Day); fortysomething salesman-turned-student Don Carlton (Joel Murray, accustomed to soaking in failure as Mad Men‘s Freddy Rumsen); and long-lost SNL alum Julia Sweeney as Squishy’s cloying mom. And it wouldn’t be a college movie without an angry dean, embodied here as a winged demon voiced by Dame Helen Mirren in her most intimidating role in ages, visually as well as sonically.
For parents wondering what’s to be learned from this assortment, the alien university setting hardly detracts from the lessons for younger viewers:
* Teamwork pays off. Sometimes it’s mandatory.
* Even the dorkiest among us have our talents.
* Setting aside differences to achieve a common goal is an important life skill.
* Cheating is bad, even under the kindest of intentions.
What won me over, however, were more complicated dilemmas aimed at the older demos:
* Not every dreamer sees their dream come true as-is. Occasional course corrections may be necessary and can sometimes be heartbreaking.
* A college degree isn’t everything.
* Humility, patience, and truckloads of diligence can go a long way toward reaching your goals when all the traditional routes fail.
I can’t imagine certain portions of this film sitting well with hardcore college enthusiasts. Based on my own life experiences, I can only add without major spoilers that the film spoke to me at an alarming number of points. For what it’s worth, the depiction of fraternity and sorority life is tamer than the average college-set film, so there’s that. Also on the brightest part of the dark side, horror fans who tag along with their offspring will get a kick out of the trope-laden finale. Though Monsters U doesn’t push technical animation boundaries as overtly as its predecessor did, the combination of character-driven moments and unorthodox thematic resolution (which technically negates much of the movie in retrospect, but that’s not my problem) place this film as a worthy addition to the Pixar roster.
And to answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a scene after the end credits. For those who fled the theater prematurely and really want to know without seeing it a second time…
[insert space for courtesy mild spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
…the frustrated slug finally arrives for his first day of classes, just in time for summer vacation to begin.