June 19, 2013



MONSTERS UNIVERSITY:  Watch It At Home – No Dean’s List For Pixar’s Latest

There’s a wonderfully charming, imaginative Pixar movie opening on Friday, one that will restore your faith in the studio’s near-miraculous ability to give life and personality to the most unlikely objects (here including a parking meter and a Walk/Don’t Walk light, among others).  Sadly, that marvelous film is The Blue Umbrella, the 5-minute short that precedes MONSTERS UNIVERSITY in theatres.  The feature attraction is altogether more earthbound.

There’s a key moment in Monsters University where a character says ruefully that it’s OK to just be OK, and while he’s instantly assured that he’s much better than OK, the statement says a lot about where Pixar’s head is these days.  The studio that once celebrated idiosyncratic, original protagonists in movies like Ratatouille and WALL-E and The Incredibles is now content to pay the bills.  After Cars 2 and (to a lesser extent) last year’s Brave, it’s unfortunately no longer a shock to be underwhelmed by a Pixar production, and Monsters University is expertly made but no more than medium quality.  We’re in franchise territory, of course, a place where multi-billion dollar corporate assets like Pixar have to dwell (after only one sequel in its first decade of existence, 3 of Pixar’s last 4 movies have been installments of existing franchises).  Specifically, University is a prequel to 2001’s Monsters Inc, set during the college years of eye-with-legs Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) and fuzzy giant James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman).  However, directors Pete Doctor, David Silverman and Lee Unkrich are gone, replaced by writer/director Dan Scanlon, and only Daniel Gerson has returned of the original screenwriters.

Although we see glimpses of the Monsters Inc factory and there are certain repeated motifs (like the doors that provide access from the monster world to that of human children), the story and milieu this time are very different.  It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Monsters University tracks every cliche of the college-comedy genre–with its G rating, there’s a whole range of campus tropes University can’t get near–but the basics here are wearily familiar.  Mike is the over-eager book-smart student who needs help translating his academic learning to practical effect; Sulley is the lazy natural talent, trying to live up to an illustrious family name.  The two rub each other the wrong way at once, but after an initial disaster that gets both of them in trouble, they’re forced to work together.  Not only that, but the only fraternity they can join is campus joke Oozma Kappa, a group of campus outcasts that includes mama’s boy Scott (Peter Sohn), two-headed Terry (Dave Foley) and Terri (Sean Hayes), and middle-aged Don (Joel Murray).  The only way to regain their dignity and stay in school is for Mike and Sulley to put aside their differences and guide Oozma Kappa to victory in a series of impossible competitions called the Scary Games.

Naturally, everything that happens in Monsters University is given a monstrous spin from its real-world movie equivalent, but the basic outlines are obvious from influences that start with Revenge of the Nerds and go through Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  The aspirational and self-actualization messages that feel genuinely inspirational in the great Pixar films are blatant and predictable here, with hardly any subtlety or surprise, and there’s nothing more to the characters than what we learn about them in the first 30 seconds after they’re introduced.  Despite a hugely gifted vocal cast–aside from those already named, Steve Buscemi, Charlie Day, Alfred Molina, John Krasinski, Bonnie Hunt, Bobby Moynihan, Nathan Fillion and Aubrey Plaza are among those making appearances–only Helen Mirren’s marvelously imperious Dean (a flying insect with huge wings) makes any impression; you’d barely know the rest of them are there if you didn’t stay for the credits.  Crysal and Goodman, both working hard to sound like teens at ages 65 and 61, don’t get to do anything they didn’t do in the first movie, and without any engaging storyline for them to react to like the baby in Monsters Inc, they have nothing to fall back on but repetition.

Pixar is Pixar, so Monsters University looks wonderful, with the kind of detail in lighting and production design that we expect from the studio.  It will no doubt please young children, and it moves along at a fair pace during its 100 minutes, so no one should be bored.  On its own limited terms, it’s a perfectly reasonable piece of family entertainment.  It’s sad, though, when a Pixar production is less ambitious and distinctive than the recent Epic or Disney’s non-Pixar Wreck-It Ralph.  Monsters University feels like a movie made to fill a slot on the studio’s summer schedule.

That Blue Umbrella short, though, is the real thing, in its own tiny, lovely way a reminder of what Pixar used to be and perhaps may be again.  Sometimes college students realize it’s their minors that will be more important to their future lives than their majors; Pixar may want to reconsider its courses for next term.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."