When 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came out, I wonder if Walt Disney knew that he would be starting a new industry. Of course by that point the film industry was more than solidified as a bona fide trade, but with the release of the first feature-length animated film, the animated film industry was born. While there had been animated shorts for years, they were merely openers to the main attraction — simply there to get the crowd warmed up. With this new field of filmmaking came artistic breakthroughs and timeless stories, as well as lazy commercialism and movies made for the bottom line rather than for the sake of reaching the top. So after watching preview trailers of rehashed stories seemingly born out of potential profit, the sheer quality of Monsters University was able to shine even brighter.
Nearly twenty years since the release of Toy Story, their first feature film, Pixar has rightfully developed a reputation as a shining beacon of storytelling and imagination in the modern film landscape. While their films rarely even feature human main characters, they are able to develop worlds in which we can firmly plant our emotions and feel like a part of their imagined community. With the exception of the Toy Story films, the people at Pixar seemed to prefer to create a new world, rather than revisiting an old one with a sequel, or in this case, a prequel. So with the release of Monsters University, as well as the sequel to Finding Nemo announced earlier this year, I must admit I found myself worried that the well of creation may be running dry at the Pixar offices. Thankfully it was quite the opposite — they had simply created such an incredible world that it required a second visit to explore everything that it had to offer.
Monsters University takes Billy Crystal and John Goodman’s characters, Mike Wazowski and James P. “Sully” Sullivan respectively, back to their days at the titular Monsters University, a school for monsters to learn the trades necessary to a monster society. A sort-of G-rated version of Revenge of the Nerds, we see the common prequel story of two future friends and their origin as enemies. And though this may sound like a story that we’ve heard before, the amount of imagination and creativity infused into the film is truly incredible. Sure there’s the big bad fraternity and the menacing dean, but the relationships and heart of the characters takes the film so far beyond the common framework — a true mark of brilliant story telling.
What really makes Monsters University special is that it is not simply a kids movie, but a true animated film. The college setting creates a perfect environment to be just as relatable to kids as it is to adults. While it may be their job to learn to scare kids by jumping out of their closets, the fears dealt with by the monsters themselves are fears that we deal with for our whole lives. It’s amazing to hear from a big, blue monster and a green cyclops the same insecurities that we have all felt, as well as see them build a true friendship of which anyone would strive to be a part, young or old.
While I could go on and on about the imagination and heart of Monsters University, it would be a crime to fail to mention the incredible humor of the film. It may be a G-rated animated movie, but I was howling with laughter far harder than I have all year at any “adult” picture. The short before the film, another treat that we have come to expect from Pixar, was excellent as well, creating in a few minutes a beautiful love story that extended beyond two characters and showed us how the world can be an instinctively loving place. The impressive part is that this story was built in only a few short minutes; and the two characters also happened to be umbrellas.
Monsters University was truly a breath of fresh air, with its wonderful mix of heart and humor, in this season of big budgets and broad spectacle. Just as Walt Disney sought to bring the world an creative new way to look at films, we are still able to see this spirit alive today from filmmakers who seek to bring this imagination to life.
My Rating: 3 Stars
Planes – Remember how I talked about lazy, rehashed stories? Planes looks to take the formula of 2006’s Cars by taking a generally disliked comedian (Dane Cook) and having him voice an anthropomorphic vehicle, in this case, a plane. Cars is generally considered the weakest of Pixar’s films, but it was also one of the most profitable, particularly considering how easy it is to sell toy cars, so it’s no surprise that Disney would try to duplicate this success. I just wish they’d put a little more creativity into it.
Turbo – This looks essentially like Planes, except with snails instead of airplanes. Dreamworks always seems to try to fit as many celebrity voices into their movies as possible, so Turbo does look like it will at least have a healthy dose of character, in spite of what looks like a lackluster story. When given the choice of snails versus airplanes, it seems unlikely that a racing snail would be the more appealing choice, but hey, who doesn’t love an underdog?