June 21--Animated comedy. Starring the voices of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Charlie Day and Steve Buscemi. Directed by Dan Scanlon. (G. 110 minutes.)
It says something about the summer movie season when the film starring the giant eyeball and blue-and-pink yeti offers a more complex character study than any of the buddy comedies or superhero dramas.
"Monsters University" is Pixar's first attempt at a prequel, and it delivers plenty of laughs, plus a few thoughtful moments. "Monsters, Inc." loyalists won't feel betrayed, even with a new director. This isn't the Emeryville studio's most thematically ambitious effort, but they can't all be post-apocalyptic critiques of consumerism and fascism allegories like "WALL-E" and "Toy Story 3."
It's a credit to Pixar films that most could work as stage plays. "Madagascar 3" and "Epic" aren't bad movies, but they operate at an overly caffeinated pace, transfixing small children while numbing more discriminating minds. "Monsters University," even in its silliest scenes, is filmed by live-action rules. You can appreciate the work of the cinematographer and film editor. Comedic moments are given time to build. There are unexpected story turns.
"Monsters, Inc." was arguably Pixar's most underrated film, with a beating heart underneath all the fur and tentacles and sight jokes. Original "Monsters" director Pete Docter is working on another project, so longtime Pixar story artist Dan Scanlon takes over -- presumably after watching "Animal House" and "Revenge of the Nerds" a few hundred times each.
Parents whose children watch "Monsters, Inc." three times per week will remember that walking eye socket Mike (Billy Crystal) and furry beast Sully (John Goodman) became best friends in fourth grade. Forget that -- they actually met in college. Our setting is idyllic Monsters University, where the competitive School of Scaring houses the elite students, whose ability to elicit screams from children will one day power the monster world.
Yes, "Monster's University" has Greek games and underdogs competing with an alpha fraternity, but this movie owes just as much to "The Paper Chase." Animation, monsters and the Socratic method? Scanlon and the crew make it work.
Mike has overachieved with work ethic, and Sully is a legacy who coasts on natural talent. They begin as rivals, but fate is cruel and they must help each other. Mike and Sully join a motley fraternity of misfit creatures, most pleasingly a furry "Muppet Show" tribute named Art, whose New Age platitudes are voiced by Charlie Day.
What looks to be a paint-by-numbers endeavor is actually a pretty big juggling act. Scanlon and the writers must retain the spirit of the original movie, successfully lampoon two genres and somehow insert the expected emotional climax that viewers have come to expect from Pixar movies.
That climax includes an abrupt detour that seems misguided, despite one great payoff scene. It's a noble effort -- cheers to Pixar for offering young viewers some hard truths among the movie's lessons. But the side trip, which includes introspective soliloquies for both leads, swells the movie to 110 minutes and nearly derails the third act.
The ending is satisfying, like everything else boosted by the most photorealistic animation we've seen in a feature film. "Brave" was the movie that introduced Pixar's new animation software, but "Monsters University" seems like an even bigger visual leap.
Note for local college students: The "Monsters U" filmmakers clearly made the most of their field trips to Bay Area universities. While the look of the film borrows the most from UC Berkeley's landmarks, the academic mind-set of the students is definitely Stanford. (An intelligent group, but lots of name-dropping from those MU grads ...)
Peter Hartlaub is The San Francisco Chronicle's pop culture critic. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @PeterHartlaub
(c)2013 the San Francisco Chronicle
Visit the San Francisco Chronicle at www.sfgate.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services
A service of YellowBrix, Inc.
Most Popular Stories
- Chobani Counters Competition With Expanded Lineup
- Reid: Bundy Backers Are 'Domestic Terrorists'
- Ex-BP Employee Settles Insider Trading Charges
- Venture Investments in U.S. Highest Since 2001
- Colo. Cleantech Program Calls for Entrepreneurs
- Unemployment Rates Down, Job Gains Up in March
- Hiring Fair for Veterans, Job Seekers
- VW Beetle Marks 65th Year in U.S.
- The Biebs Crashes Drake's Release Party
- 8 Million Signups Put Obamacare Ahead of Predictions