“Monsters University” fits into a few ongoing trends.
It’s Pixar’s 14th feature film, and the 14th to debut at No. 1. That is a remarkable feat for any production company. The studio’s run of box-office success is genuinely historic at this point.
It’s also Pixar’s fourth sequel, or prequel in this case. The studio once known for consistently producing original, innovative work has now released three sequels in as many years and has another in the pipeline (“Finding Dory,” a follow-up to “Finding Nemo”).
“Monsters University” is also yet another summer 2013 release that fails to reach beyond the dizzying heights of mediocrity. Other than possibly a couple of independent releases — I’m thinking of “Mud” in particular — this season has yet to give us a defining success story.
This follow-up to “Monsters Inc.” definitely does not fill that void. It provides 104 minutes of solid entertainment, but it will be neither a movie that helps define the year in cinema nor a high point in the Pixar canon.
This movie is more about Mike (Billy Crystal) than Sully (John Goodman). Whereas “Monsters Inc.” focuses mostly on Sully’s relationship with Boo, “Monsters University” tells the tale of Mike coming of age and finding his true calling.
Mike develops the dream of being a professional scarer when he is just a lonely, misfit elementary school student. The movie begins with a very nice scene showing Mike going to the factory on a class field trip and getting to see a scarer at work, up close and personal.
He believes his destiny is cemented. He is going to go to Monsters University and become the greatest scarer of all time.
The problem is, Mike has ample brains but not enough body to be a genuinely frightening monster. With help from some new friends, Mike will discover sometimes destinies change and everyone must make the most of their limitations.
The middle half of the movie is a fairly obvious riff on “Revenge of the Nerds.” Mike, Sully and a handful of outcasts who comprise the nerdy fraternity battle more popular fraternities and sororities in an annual competition among Greek organizations.
There’s no burping contest, but the similarities are impossible to ignore. No matter, though, because the writers find plenty of humor in the contests and use them to develop the story.
We know Mike and Sully are going to bond sooner or later, but Mike also learns an important lesson about dreams and self-acceptance.
Pixar continues to show a short film before each of their features; they deserve credit and huge amounts of gratitude for reviving that tradition.
But this is also yet another instance of the short being much more daring than the feature.
“The Blue Umbrella” is a typical Pixar short in some ways, in that it’s a simple love story in which somewhat supernatural forces conspire to bring two characters together. In the process, it reveals the unexpected beauty of the real world. We’ve seen the studio play around with these ideas in “Paperman,” — that was a Disney short, but Pixar chief John Lasseter produced it and a lot of Pixar talent worked on it — “La Luna,” and “Partly Cloudy.”
However, “The Blue Umbrella” sets itself apart thanks to the most beautiful computer-generated animation I’ve seen in quite some time. The entire short plays out at night, in the rain, in a busy city street. The animation is so perfectly executed at first you’ll swear it’s a live-action view of a real street.
Then a mailbox, street light, down spout and other objects morph and take on human qualities. Animators apparently used an innovative lighting program for the first time, and it’s a huge leap forward.
“Monsters University” benefits from Pixar’s new approach to lighting, too. Regardless of any weaknesses in story, the movie reminds us Pixar’s animators are still the best in the business.
It may not be the best Pixar movie, but it’s one of their most mature, both in story and style.
Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.