Monsters University Blu-ray Review
Scanlon's prequel bypasses a quip from Monsters Inc. that originally placed the foundation of James P. "Sulley" Sullivan (John Goodman) and Mike Wazowski's (Billy Crystal) friendship in the fourth grade, pushing back the future Scare partners' first encounter to college, when the two meet on the Monsters University campus for the first time. Far from a functional relationship, the two freshman initially become rivals; Sulley, a popular jock courted by Roar Omega and its smarmy president Johnny J. Worthington III (Nathan Fillion), and Mike, a pint-sized upstart with big dreams no one believes will ever amount to the professional scarer he longs to become. But when Sulley's pride gets the best of him and he's booted from Roar Omega Roar, he's forced to join the laughing stock of the annual Scare Games: Oozma Kappa, an oft-ridiculed frat that just so happens to count Mike among its members. If the bickering duo can figure out a way to combine Mike's brain with Sulley's brawn, Oozma Kappa has a shot at winning the competition. If they can't, though, no-nonsense dean Abigail Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) might just kick them out of the Scare program for good.
Prequels are notoriously tough to crack, and Scanlon and co-writers Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird never quite justify University's big screen existence. Monsters Inc. is The Right Stuff of the Pixar classics canon, and it has it all. Adventure, adversity, heart, an endless array of clever ideas, great villains, betrayal, grand set pieces, unforgettable chases, a fully realized world and instantly memorable Scare Floor record setters. Monsters University is too much like Wazowski; a feisty, wisecracking, over-reaching pipsqueak that isn't built to fulfill its aspirations. Clichés mount, the story feels much too conventional, and the jokes and references aren't as smart or sharply penned as those of the first film. Then there's Mike and Sulley's friendship; the primary cog in the machine that makes Monsters Inc. tick. Here, the two erratically hop between unpleasant frenemies and uneasy allies almost until the bitter end. Worse, cushy teddy bear Sulley can be a real jerk and snarky cyclops Mike can be downright obnoxious. There isn't enough groundwork to sell their inevitable meeting of minds, enough meat to make a filling meal, or enough of an overarching reason to completely care what will happen, much less endure a gotcha ending that leads to even more strife between the two. It doesn't help that their fate has already been written -- or animated as it were -- in stone. We know the two will become the best of friends. We know they'll one day land jobs at Monsters Inc. We know it will all work out. Tension drains. The law of diminishing prequel returns is unforgiving. And there isn't enough riding on the Scare Games, Mike and Sulley's education, their run-ins with Dean Hardscrabble, or college life in the Monster world to elevate the film above its second tier story.
Not that all is for naught. Not by a long shot. The animation is gorgeous, of course -- light years beyond that of Monsters Inc., now twelve years past its prime -- and the lush, suitably spiky university and the colorful characters that call its campus home are teeming with personality, masterfully executed subtleties, expressive flourishes and fun touches. Like most every Pixar production, even those that have been dismissed by the more critical adults in the audience, Scanlon's prequel delights in its imaginative visuals; flights of fancy that go a long way toward making what is essentially a rather uneventful tale seem like a bustling underdog story. It's good to see Mike and Sulley scaring up trouble again, and great to hear Crystal and Goodman giving their all to bring their unlikely odd couple to life. Yes, their verbal sparring never feels as spontaneous as it does in the first film, and yes, the long, long, long road to friendship they take grows tiring well before the two finally bond. (Even at a short 104-minutes, the prequel occasionally drags.) But with so many new monsters in play, so many games to be won, so much training to pull off in so short a window, such shortcomings hardly register... at least the first time through. Subsequent viewings don't hold up as well.
Lest this review reads more harshly than intended, it's important to stress there's still plenty of joy to be had in Scanlon's G-rated university comedy (just none that compares to the heart-bursting, tear-jerking relationship that developed between cute lil' boo and her monstrous caretakers in 2001). There's also plenty of laughs to share, plenty of playful sequences to enjoy, and plenty of memories ripe for a young fan's picking. Children old enough to bear with the film's (admittedly minor) pacing mishaps will have a blast; more so than their parents, who won't be quite so enamored with the prequel's stutter-stop payoff. The flipside being that many of those same kids won't get half of the gags in the film (spot the Carrie nod for extra credit), most of which are aimed squarely at mom and dad.
Is Monsters University fun? Sure. It'll make for a great family movie night this holiday season. Is it all that it could be? Does it live up to its potential? Was a prequel even the right way to go? No, no and... maybe. If the film followed Mike and Sulley in their early days at Monsters Inc., perhaps after opening with a montage of the duo's school days, it might have been something more. (The all-too-brief montage that runs prior to the end credits plays like a storyboard pitch of the prequel I wanted to see.) Instead, it starts small and stays small, rarely living up to the hilarious, larger than life adventure-comedy that is Monsters Inc. The irony being Cars 2 was criticized by some (myself included) for going bigger; so big it abandoned the smalltown heart of its predecessor. The lesson? If the Toy Story series has taught us anything, it's that the animated sequels that work are those that expand their worlds, embrace ambition, deliver poignancy and enhance core character relationships, to infinity and beyond. Tall order, I know.
Monsters University makes the Dean's List with a top tier AV presentation, and its 1080p/AVC-encoded 2D stunner is easily one of the best of its kind this year. The film's lush, lovely palette is warm, vibrant and oozes color. Primaries are striking, saturation is dead on, contrast is dialed in perfectly, black levels are bottomless, and there isn't the least little bit of noise. This is as straight-from-the-digital-tap flawless as it gets. And if you think the Monsters University video presentation is the big man on campus, wait'll you get a load of Disney's bristling beast of a Dolby TrueHD 7.1 surround track. LFE output digs in and lets out mighty roar after mighty roar, granting Sulley's most frightening displays of power the low-end oomph the film's weightiest sounds deploy.
- Blue Umbrella: Pixar's latest gorgeously animated short film, Blue Umbrella, is a sweet but somewhat familiar story of anthropomorphic love, this time between blue and red umbrellas on a crowded, rainy street.
- Audio Commentary: Director/co-writer Dan Scanlon, producer Kori Rae and story supervisor Kelsey Mann discuss Pixar's first prequel, touching on the development of the story, creating younger versions of the first film's beloved characters, the difficult choice to ignore a line in the original that suggested Mike and Sulley met in the fourth grade, voice casting and animation, the challenges of delivering a prequel, and more.
- Campus Life: Scanlon and company host this day in the life video journal detailing the team's day to day routines, from arrival to breakfast, creative meetings, animation dailies, voice recording sessions and beyond.
- Story School: A look at the craftsmanship and storytelling of the writers and story artists, featuring concept art, pre-visualizations, storyboards and other steps in the development of key scenes.
- Scare Games: "Pixar takes its fun very seriously!" Collaboration, unity and teamwork, courtesy of competition and gamemanship thrown in for good measure, all inspired by the Scare Games.
- Monthropology: Designing, diversifying, puppeting, animating and breathing life into the Monsters University students and faculty, using every trick, tool and technique at the Pixar team's disposal.
- Welcome to MU: Scanlon provides an overview of the prequel and its production, focusing on the university campus itself, from its front gate to its statues, architecture, grounds and history.
- Music Appreciation: Scoring Monsters University at Sony Studios with Scanlon, music editor Bruno Coon and longtime Pixar collaborator and composer Randy Newman.
- Scare Tactics: The art of the perfect MU scare, as learned, performed and utilized by the various animators tackling each expressive shot and scene.
- Color and Light: A before-and-after look at the film at its every stage of production, each step incorporating increasingly dramatic color, light, shadow and depth.
- Paths to Pixar: MU Edition: Scanlon introduces several team members, who share personal stories about the paths that brought them to Pixar and led to their current careers in animation.
- Furry Monsters: A Technical Retrospective: Comparing the animation of 2001's Monsters Inc. (using early computer-based hair simulation) and 2013's furrier, hairier, scalier prequel.
- Deleted Scenes: Four unfinished deleted scenes -- "Rivalry" (an alternate version of Mike and Sulley's meeting), "Recon," "Movie Night" and "Drama Class" -- with director's intros.
- Promo Picks: "Monsters Mashup," "College Campaign" and "Theatrical Campaign" commercials, promos, teasers, trailers and tie-ins for Monsters University.
- Set Flythroughs: Tour the Monsters University campus, the Scare School, Frat Row and the OK House in four gorgeous high definition fly-throughs.
- Art Galleries: View a large collection of artwork divided into five categories: "Characters," "Color Keys," "Development Art," "Environments" and "Graphics."
Monsters University is yet another entry in Pixar's lesser canon, following Cars 2 and Brave. Will Pixar ever regain its footing? MU is a step in the right direction I suppose, but it still doesn't live up to its potential or surpass its predecessor, the indispensable Monsters Inc. Disney's 3-disc Blu-ray release is another matter entirely. This is how it's done, folks. Perfect video. Perfect Dolby TrueHD 7.1 surround. And a generous supplemental package (presented entirely in HD) to top it all off. It doesn't get much better than this. Too bad the same can't be said for Pixar's first prequel.
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MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 102 minutes
Distributed By: Walt Disney Pictures
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