Judge Erich Asperschlager just isn't scary.
"The two of you did something together that no one has ever done before: you surprised me."
It's hard to stay on top in the entertainment world. When you're the best, it seems like there's no place to go but down. With the release of Toy Story in 1995, Pixar grabbed audiences and held on tight through a string of instant classics as impressive as stories as showcases for computer animation. It seemed they could do no wrong. The first cracks in that image came with the over-merchandised Cars, and the grumbling got louder it looked like Pixar was more interested in sequels than original stories. Somewhere between the widely panned Cars 2 and the largely misunderstood Brave, critical perception of the studio changed from "infallible" to "untenable." It was into this skeptical world that their latest sequel, Monsters University, came out.
Monsters, Inc. could be considered the first dip in Pixar's perfect record. The 2001 film was a hit with audiences, but it failed to land with some critics. Too bad, because Inc. is one of my personal Pixar favorites—a wildly inventive film that created an engaging world and had subversive things to say about energy independence and the use of fear in politics. It also had wonderful performances by Billy Crystal and John Goodman, an airtight script, and an ending that never fails to make me cry.
Despite the pedigree and my personal connection with the original, I didn't know what to expect from Monsters University. Prequels were problematic long before George Lucas got his hands on them. We already know Mike and Sulley are going to end up on the scare floor. Is the story of how they got there worth telling? Those who missed the movie in theaters can find out for themselves with the release of the Monster's University "Ultimate Collection" Blu-ray set.
Facts of the Case
Ever since he was a little monster, Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) has wanted to be a scarer, and to attend Monsters University. He finally gets the chance to do both, joining the college's prestigious Scare School. On his first day of class, he meets the naturally talented James "Sulley" Sullivan (John Goodman), whose lazy approach to scaring rubs the hardworking Mike the wrong way. When their petty rivalry gets them kicked out of the program by non-nonsense Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), their only way back in is to win the annual Scare Games, and the only way to enter is with the one fraternity that will take them: the misfits of Oozma Kappa.
Monsters University is a surprising film that does right by the world and characters established in the original. The problem with sequels is that many of them just repeat the plot of the first movie, and the problem with prequels is that we already know how the story will end. University sidesteps both problems by putting the characters in a rich new setting and playing with audience expectations to make the journey more satisfying than the destination. The basic story beats are nothing new. Plenty of sequels and prequels twist established relationships to manufacture drama. Mike and Sulley were best friends in Monsters, Inc. so of course they start off as enemies here. What director Dan Scanlon and his co-writers Daniel Gerson and Robert Baird do right is that they anchor the trope in the characters. Mike and Sulley were just as different from each other in the first film as they are here, but we believed them as friends because they made a great team. This prequel is the story of how they overcame their differences to work together.
That theme of hidden potential is key to Monsters University, at heart an underdog story. Of all the new characters introduced into the Monster world, the best are the outsiders of Oozma Kappa, a fraternity that lives in a member's mother's house and is resigned to being "OK." The hilarious Kappa crew includes multi-eyed marshmallow Squishy (Peter Sohn), the bickering two-headed Terri (Sean Hayes) and Terry (Dave Foley), paternal mature student Don Carlton (Joel Murray), and new age philosophy major Art (Charlie Day). On the other side of fraternity row are the popular, preppy Roar Omega Roars, led by rich jerk Johnny Worthington (Nathan Fillion). They are the Cobra Kai to the Oozma Kappa's Daniel-san, the Alpha Betas to the Kappa's Nerds. It's a conflict as old as the '80s, and a great setup for a college comedy.
Monsters, Inc. did some great world-building within the Monstropolis scare industry. University ups the ante with a huge campus packed with diverse monsters studying a variety of disciplines, in a setting recognizable to anyone who went to a four-year school. The college gags are well-observed, covering orientation, dining hall, hanging out on the quad, and meeting your first college roommate. For Mike, that roommate is Steve Buscemi's Randall before he became Sulley's rival—one of the few direct references to the first film.
Classes and frat hijinks are fun, but the real meat of the story is the Scare Games—a high stakes tournament that sets up a variety of flashy and tense events. If MU is Hogwarts for monsters, the Scare Games are its Goblet of Fire. These games are great fun to watch even if you know which two teams will end up in the finals. Monsters University plays with that inevitability, twisting Mike and Sulley's journey in ways that make for a more satisfying finale.
I reviewed Monsters, Inc. on Blu-ray earlier this year and was impressed by how well its visuals stand up to modern high-def. Monsters University makes the first film look like a student project. It's astounding how far computer animation has come in twelve years, and this 1.78:1 1080p digital-to-digital presentation isn't just one of the best-looking animated movies out there, it's one of the best Blu-rays I've ever seen. There's no hint of artifacting or edge enhancement. Colors are deep and rich, with a saturated palette and sharp-as-claws detail. Pixar's storytelling reputation may have taken a hit in recent years, but Monsters University proves they're still on the bleeding edge of CGI. The four-disc "Ultimate Collector's Edition" also comes with a separate 3D Blu-ray disc, giving the already gorgeous image the kind of nuanced depth possible with an all-digital workflow.
Audio comes in a powerful Dolby TrueHD 7.1 mix that immerses the viewer in bustling classrooms, roaring crowds, and G-rated partying, with clear dialogue and a boisterous score courtesy of Randy Newman, who moves away from the expected goofy Newman singalongs in favor of marching band-inspired instrumentation.
In addition to four ways to watch the film—with 3D and standard Blu-rays, DVD, and digital copy—the Monster's University Collector's Edition comes with a long list of extras that spill off the main discs onto a third Blu-ray:
• "Blue Umbrella" (6:46): This animated short, directed by Saschka Unseld, ran before the film in theaters and is available here on all three feature discs. "Umbrella" is the wordless tale of two umbrellas, one red and one blue, who find and lose each other in the rhythmic chaos of a city rainstorm. It's not one of Pixar's best shorts, but its unique photorealistic style goes a long way.
• Audio commentary with director Dan Scanlon, producer Kori Rae, and story supervisor Kelsey Mann: The trio discuss how the story came together, point out the intentional use of light and dark, the difficulty of not having Boo, the iconic college beats, and the problem of keeping things fresh during the multi-year movie process.
• "Campus Life" (15:14): A day in the life at Pixar during the film's production, with Dan Scanlon, including breakfast, dailies, and seeing the animators at work.
• "Story School" (8:38): How story artists worked with writers to craft a better script and sidestep the predictability of a prequel.
• "Scare Games" (4:30): A team-building campus-wide competition at Pixar, inspired by the games in the movie.
• "Monthropology" (5:47): Animators discuss the difficulty of coming up with and developing animation routines for hundreds of different monsters.
• "Welcome to Monsters University" (6:09): A look at the virtual location, highlighting architectural motifs inspired by horns, scales, and teeth.
• "Music Appreciation" (7:29): Composer Randy Newman talks about the process of writing and recording the film's score.
• "Scare Tactics" (5:16): How animators worked together to create a variety of monster expressions and scares.
• "Color and Light" (5:16): In the early storyboarding stage, art director Daisuke Tsutsumi created pastel-style drawings to block out the film in color and tone—using light and dark to reinforce characters' emotions.
• "Paths to Pixar: Monsters University Edition" (7:40): Several staff members share their backstories.
• "Furry Monsters: A Technical Retrospective" (5:02): A look back on the technical achievement of animating Sulley's fur in the original movie.
• "Deleted Scenes" (22:04): Four sequences, with intros by Dan Scanlon, shown as storyboard animatics: "Rivalry" is a nod to a throwaway line from the original film, showing Mike and Sulley meeting in the fourth grade; "Recon" answers the unnecessary question of how monsters learn about their child victims; "Movie Night" is an alternate version of the Oozma Kappa humiliation from the movie; and "Drama Class" is made up of several scenes from an excised subplot where Mike and Sulley were in a theater class together, culminating in a big school play.
• "Promo Picks": A selection of promo films, TV ads, and theatrical trailers, including fake MU admissions videos and the subtitled Japanese trailer.
• "Set Flythroughs" (6:25): A detailed virtual tour of the Campus, Scare School, Frat Row, and Oozma Kappa House sets.
• "Art Gallery": More than 300 images viewable via remote control with optional music, divided into "Characters," "Color Keys," "Development Art," "Environments," and "Graphics."
Monsters University doesn't quite hold up to the near-flawless original, but there's plenty of room for this follow-up to be a great movie in its own right. University avoids the problems of many prequels and sequels, expanding the monster universe beyond the factory floor to a fully realized college setting, with a cast of hilarious new characters and the brilliance of the Scare Games. Monsters University may have its detractors in people who prefer old Pixar to new, or just hate sequels on principle, but viewers who give the film a chance will be richly rewarded with a worthy addition to Pixar's filmography and a pristine Blu-ray that stands among the format's best.
Aaaaaaah-Plus! Not guilty!
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• 2D Version
Review content copyright © 2013 Erich Asperschlager; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.