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"MONSTERS UNIVERSITY"
(2013) (voices of Billy Crystal, John Goodman) (G)

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QUICK TAKE:
Computer-Animated Comedy: Two adversarial monsters enroll at a university with hopes of becoming professional Scarers in this prequel to "Monsters, Inc."
PLOT:
Having visited there as a young student on a field trip, Mike Wazowski (voice of BILLY CRYSTAL) has always dreamed of working at the Monsters, Inc. factory, where "Scarers" enter children's bedrooms via closet door portals, scare them and collect their screams, which are used as an energy source in Monstropolis.

Accordingly, he enrolls at Monsters University where he hopes to learn how to be a Scarer, but is informed -- along with the rest of the students -- by Dean Hardscrabble (voice of HELEN MIRREN) that if they fail their scream exam at the end of the year, they're out of the program and must major in something else. Mike's chief rival is James P. "Sulley" Sullivan (voice of JOHN GOODMAN), a legacy at the University who's being courted by Johnny (voice of NATHAN FILLION), the president of Roar Omega Roar, to join their fraternity.

Unfortunately for both Mike and Sulley, Dean Hardscrabble deems neither of them as viable Scarer prospects. Yet, they have one shot at redemption and that's through the university's Scare Games. Unable to sign up with any other desirable fraternity in order to compete, Mike ends up joining Oozma Kappa, a small frat filled with students no one else wants and no one believes are scary.

Its members include middle-aged former salesman Don (voice of JOEL MURRAY); Terri (voice of SEAN HAYES) and Terry (voice of DAVE FOLEY) who make up both sides of a two-headed monster; the quite bendable and purpled-furred Art (voice of CHARLIE DAY); and finally the multi-eyed Squishy (voice of PETER SOHN) whose mom owns the house they use as their frat headquarters.

With them needing one more member to compete, Sulley joins them, much to Mike's dismay. But they end up forming a team and a friendship between the two as they enter the games. If they win, they're back in the Scarer program, but if they lose, they'll be out of the university altogether.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
There's a big problem with success that most coaches, advisors, friends and/or family don't often address. And that is that despite many people rooting for individual newcomers, new ventures and such to succeed, they (and others who obliviously sat on the sideline during the ascension) often then change their minds once such success has been met and thus root (secretly but sometimes actively) for them to fail the next time around.

Some of that stems from the belief that the succeeder somehow cheated, bent the rules or just got plain lucky. The rest comes from envy and the desire for those at lofty heights to be brought back down to a common playing field with others who didn't put their necks on the line to win. A related but slightly different angle to that is that with success -- especially when it's repeated -- come high expectations. And if said winner doesn't at least match the output they previously created, their latest attempt is viewed as a failure, or at least a letdown.

That's why flying high stocks usually end up grounded and why sports fans suddenly aren't as enthusiastic about certain athletes or teams when they don't bat over .300 or win the Super Bowl. It certainly also applies to the world of film, be that from a box office financial figure (which is why studio heads and other green-lighters vacate their seats so often) or, to a lesser extent as long as that first condition doesn't go below a certain threshold, from an artistic standpoint.

Case in point is Pixar, the legendary computer animated film studio that once could nearly do no wrong. Sure, there might have been the occasional hiccup (that being 2006's "Cars") after a stellar run that included the likes of the first two "Toy Story" films, "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles." But then they came right back with the terrific line of offerings "Ratatouille," "WALL-E," "Up" and the universally beloved and massive box office hit, "Toy Story 3."

But then came the ill-advised "Cars 2" and the okay but not magical "Brave" and some -- including yours truly -- wondered what happened to the Pixar of old. That continues with "Monsters University," the prequel to 2001's inventive, clever and highly entertaining "Monsters, Inc." While it's competent enough, it's akin to a person you knew in the past who had that special "it" factor that made them highly appealing, but somehow lost that in the intervening years since you last saw them.

Simply put, the Pixar aura -- that still exists, as evidenced by the terrific, dialogue free computer-animated short, "The Blue Umbrella," that precedes the main attraction here -- is once again missing in action in full length mode. Perhaps the studio is going through a dry spell like any number of athletes do from time to time before getting it all back together again. Whatever the case, if this flick didn't arrive with the studio stamp already attached from its 12-year-old predecessor and its accompanying characters and plot line, you'd be hard pressed to walk out saying, "Wow, Pixar did it again!"

To be fair, it's not awful. It's just unremarkable, and that's simply not acceptable if you're a studio that cranked out all of the aforementioned critical hits. Some of that fault stems from the script by writer/director Dan Scanlon and co-scribes Robert L. Baird and Daniel Gerson. Beyond the fact that it obviously lacks any sort of overall novelty (the 2001 flick dispensed with that), it doesn't do much of anything interesting or special with the source material.

Sure, rather than going the sequel route, the flick steps back into prequel mode, showing us how eventual coworkers and buddies Mike Wazowski (voiced by a returning Billy Crystal) and James "Sulley" Sullivan (ditto for John Goodman) first met and -- shock of all shocks -- didn't initially get along while attending the titular institution.

When both don't impress Dean Hardscrabble (voiced by Helen Mirren) enough for her to let them continue their studies to become professional Scarers, they join the frat nobody wants to be part of in order to compete in the Scare Games. If they win, Hardscrabble will let them back in. If they don't, they're out of the U for good. The problem -- from an artistic standpoint -- is that we've seen that story before, where the outsiders come in and help whip the "loser" frat and its ungainly and unpopular members into shape so that they can compete with the more popular and confident fraternity.

Young kids who've never seen such a story before might think it's fun (whether or not they've seen "Monsters, Inc." at home since most of the target audience wasn't even born yet when it was first released). Older kids and especially adults, on the other hand, will probably have a "This is the best they could come up with?" response to the storyline.

While I have to give the flick some kudos for showing that dreams don't always come true and things don't always work out as planned (which is unusual for most any mainstream flick, let alone one aimed at kids), that's somewhat faint praise as we know how things will ultimately -- and successfully -- play out for the main characters in the "upcoming" (chronologically speaking) original film.

As with all of the Pixar films, the visuals are terrific and the vocal work is spot on. I just wish as much imagination and fun went into crafting the story and dialogue as it did in creating all of the various monsters that populate the flick. Coming off as Pixar only in name and not in its usual execution, "Monsters University" continues a recent trend of mediocrity and recycling that's not only disappointing but also worrisome. Here's hoping the studio rights itself and goes back to wowing viewers of all ages. This one doesn't, and thus rates as just a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed June 13, 2013 / Posted June 21, 2013


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