Friday, June 21, 2013

Monsters University: Endearing school daze

Monsters University (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang

Delving into the origins of popular characters can be quite a lark — consider the fun that’s been had with younger versions of Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and the Star Trek crew — and Pixar has uncorked a collegiate charmer with Monsters University.

When an extra-curricular field trip goes awry, the members of Oozma Kappa — from
left, Art, Don, Squishy, Terri/Terry, Mike and Sulley — find themselves being pursued
by Folks In Charge. With few options for escape, our misfits are about to learn an
important lesson: Salvation comes when friends work together.
Spending more time in the imaginatively conceived “monster universe” is delectable enough, and director/co-scripter Dan Scanlon has sweetened the pot by supplying the inside scoop on how monocular-eyed Mike Wazowski (once again voiced by Billy Crystal) first met bodaciously blue-furred James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman).

Naturally, it’s competitive loathing at first sight. Isn’t that the way all grand friendships are born?

Although this prequel lacks freshness and originality — try as they might, Scanlon and co-scripters Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird can’t replicate the giggly, first-time awe generated by 2001’s Monsters, Inc. — it compensates with a warm-hearted story that extols both the virtues of friendship and integrity, and the all-important notion that diversity is valuable for its own sake.

Yep, even a world littered with crazy-quilt critters isn’t immune to social pecking orders that ostracize misfits and timid outcasts. Scanlon & Co. pull off an impressive trick here: Even though we know the future of this realm’s scare industry — thanks to the first film — this sparkling new adventure of Mike and Sulley sets up innovative adversaries and challenges, while keeping a steady (single) eye on the core message of camaraderie and integrity.

Resourceful as we might be on our own, we’re always stronger when good buddies have our back ... and we have theirs.

We first meet Mike during childhood (voiced with high-pitched, little-kid sincerity, in these early scenes, by Noah Johnston), as a teacher’s pet and correspondingly shunned know-it-all, who nonetheless blossoms during a school field trip to the Monsters Inc. “Scream Floor.” Little Mike is spellbound, as he watches veteran Scarers travel through the magical doors that lead into the bedrooms of unsuspecting Earth children, there to elicit the youthful shrieks and screams that supply the essential power to the Monster Universe.

This, young Mike decides, is what he wants to do in life.

Flash-forward to Mike’s first day on the storied, Ivy League-flavored campus of Monsters University, as he eagerly embraces life as a freshman at the School of Scaring. Alas, his book smarts and willingness to study fail to impress the imperious Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), a scuttling, genuinely frightful creature modeled after an Amazonian giant centipede ... with devil’s wings. In the dean’s eyes, a one-eyed green beach ball couldn’t possibly be scary, and she can’t wait to bounce Mike from this particular field of study.

But the dean is equally unimpressed by Sulley, a slacker who shows up late for class, fully expecting to coast on the value of his family name; the Sullivans have fielded impressive Scarers up until now. As it happens, that reputation is good enough for top Scare student Johnny Worthington (Nathan Fillion), the condescending president of the campus’ top fraternity, Roar Omega Roar.

Mike isn’t fazed; he’s got enough optimism for himself and his dorm mate, the chameleon-like Randy Boggs (Steve Buscemi). Pixar fans will remember this character from the first film, and his introduction here is something of a surprise: He’s insecure, uncertain and — like Mike — just wants to fit in. And become a Scarer.

After an unfortunate classroom incident, Mike and Sulley find their university careers hanging by the slimmest of threads. Worse yet, they’re forced to join ranks with the campus’ most embarrassing fraternity, Oozma Kappa, which boasts but four members:

• Scott “Squishy” Squibbles (Pete Sohn), a sweet, naïve, gelatinous blob forever humiliated by the fact that their “frat house” actually is the family home run by his single mother (Julia Sweeney);

• Art (Charlie Day), a purple-furred whatzis who resembles a discarded Muppet, and whose weird anatomical abilities are matched by an equally off-kilter, New Age-y manner;

• Terri and Terry Perry (Sean Hayes and Dave Foley), a two-headed preppy forever bickering with himself; and

• Don Carlton (Joel Murray), a tentacled, downsized Midwestern salesmonster who has returned to college in an effort to re-invent himself and find a new career as a Scarer. (Yes, this is one of several nods toward real-world relevance: a welcome touch that grants this script additional pathos.)

This, then, is the rag-tag bunch that Mike and Sulley hope to mold into champions of the annual multi-round Scare Games ... a challenge made more formidable by the fact that Mike and Sulley don’t even like each other. Cooperate? Not likely.

The best Pixar films always blend their core narrative with plenty of hilarious sidebar events and characters, ranging from short verbal encounters to eyeblink sight gags and other whimsical bits of business at the edges of a given scene. By its very nature, the monster universe is ripe with such material, and you’ll likely go cross-eyed trying to take in all the fun stuff.

Goodness, an establishing overview of the MU quad is impressive enough, with literally hundreds of monster students — no two alike — studying, kicking back, playing games or making their way to class ... some faster than others. Point being, this film invites — nay, demands — repeat viewing, in order to better appreciate details large and small.

Scanlon and his fellow scribes also replicate the nervous, all-essential college vibe, with its confidence-shattering agitation, while granting it a monstrous spin: everything from the hilariously cramped dorm rooms to the caste system that establishes a gulf between Oozma Kappa and the “cooler” Greeks such as Roar Omega Roar and the deceptively sweet, pink-garbed sisters of Python Nu Kappa.

The characters may be inhuman, but the unsettling atmosphere will be familiar to anybody who spent time on a high school or college campus ... and worried about fitting in. That would be most of us, which is precisely the point.

Crystal once again romps his way through Mike’s motor-mouthed efforts to compensate for his raging case of Little Monster Insecurity. Mike is blind to the possibility that confidence might not be enough to overcome physical, ah, deficiencies, when it comes to being genuinely scary. And because Pixar’s talented animators grant this green gum drop just as much emotional complexity as Crystal’s expressive voice — an impressive trick, when dealing with a character who has only one eye, no nose and no body — we easily accept the notion that he’s no different than any other young adult trying to find his place in the world.

Goodman, in turn, is appropriately brash and blustery as the big, handsome guy — everybody’s notion of the ideal monster — who can’t be bothered to better develop his natural abilities. Why bother, when he has the best roar in school? Goodman lends an undertone of menace to his performance, particularly when Sulley (quite unfairly) perceives Mike to be the source of all his troubles.

The fun here comes with anticipation: our knowledge that, at some point, Sulley must start to become the humble, sweet and mature hero of the 2001 film. This thawing occurs in several phases, although I particularly enjoyed the moment when the worshipful Squishy “ropes” Sulley into joining him during a fraternity dance. It’s a sweet little scene, and one of many.

Mirren is suitably chilling as Dean Hardscrabble, who somehow manages to be both terrifying and graceful. Buscemi’s obsequious tones initially make Randy something of a shallow toady, but we know that an edge eventually will appear in his tone.

Aubrey Plaza’s fans will recognize her distinctive voice behind Greek Council President Claire Wheeler, the rah-rah who emcees the Scare Games. Tyler Labine and John Krasinski play the Greek Council VP and “Frightening” Frank McCay, respectively. And of course Pixar regular John Ratzenberger pops up, albeit very briefly, as a Yeti-esque blue-collar worker.

As also is custom, this film is preceded by a truly charming short subject, The Blue Umbrella, animated in a style quite unlike all other Pixar shorts.

Randy Newman contributes a delightful orchestral score: triumphant as necessary, bittersweet during the story’s frequent emotional setbacks.

One quibble: Although this film was designed to be made in 3-D, those effects add nothing to the finished product. Save your money and go for the standard version.

After the considerable disappointment of last summer’s Brave, it’s nice to see that Pixar hasn’t lost its magic touch. As company founder John Lasseter always says, nothing is more important than story ... except perhaps credible characters who work their way into our hearts.

That’s certainly the case here.

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