This Smack takes us far from the terror-tory of evil Godzilla, doing his best to annihilate Tokyo, or the mayhem wrought by the homicidal dinosaurs of the various Jurassic Parks. While monsters have been intimidating heavies in many of movieland’s most horrific films, that’s not the case with the lead characters in this pair of contestants, which feature bizarre, animated creatures as heroes and saviors in the twin Pixar offerings Monsters, Inc. and its new prequel, Monsters University.
Our two Monsters are cute, family-friendly comedies about the world inhabited by such beasts, who in their workaday lives are much more sympathetic and engaging than their terrifying guest appearances in childhood nightmares would suggest. This helps us root for them as they surmount a series of challenges to improve their station in life and, eventually, even save their beastly little world.
The screams you hear in the audience for these films will most likely be of laughter or delight. But only one contestant scares up a victory in this Smackdown. Read ahead at your own risk.
Short kid Mike Wazowski (voiced as a boy by Noah Johnston, and as a college student by Billy Crystal), like any halfway ambitious little creature in Monstropolis, dreams of being a great scarer when he grows up. That’s because the monster world depicted in Monsters University is powered by the bottled screams of frightened youth, so there’s an inexhaustible need for creatures with terrifying looks and the acting ability to back them up.
For all his ambition, though, Mike is a pipsqueak, a little one-eyed green guy, who wouldn’t scare a fly. But he’s intensely determined, which several years later carries him into a spot at the prestigious facility of the title. This is where his struggles really begin, as he’s in the most demanding course of study at the university (the scaring program, naturally), and hasn’t grown any taller or more outwardly intimidating across his teenage years.
The same can’t be said of James Sullivan (John Goodman), a hulking, hairy beast, who happens to be the product of a famous and celebrated family of scarers. Sulley figures he’ll ace college on genes alone and, as a result, doesn’t try too hard at his studies.
The two monsters meet, and their wide differences do little to endear each to the other. But a tough academic program and adverse circumstances force them to become allies. If they can somehow figure out a way to work as a team, they might just pull through and get a chance to fulfill their destinies.
In hindsight, that Monsters U tuition was obviously well spent, because years later, both Mike and Sulley are gainfully employed as scarers at (and in) Monsters Inc. It’s a demanding job, and not only because the creature world relies on those kid screams for survival. The human environment is considered to be highly toxic for the delicate monsters, and every precaution is taken to ensure that no physical contact is made between elements of the two domains.
Of course, the doomsday scenario happens one day when a careless coworker leaves one of the many doors to the human world open. As bad luck would have it, a tiny human girl lopes through the portal. As worse luck would have it, this occurs when Sulley is alone on the factory floor. His fumbling attempts to return her to the realm of the humans come to nothing, and suddenly he’s an aider and abettor of an extremely dangerous fugitive.
Meaning that longtime buddy and coworker Mike effectively – although very reluctantly – becomes his partner in crime. The two pals not only risk losing their hard-won careers, they also have to contain the looming catastrophe represented by the child. It doesn’t help that the soft-hearted Sulley – who nicknames her “Boo” – and ultimately, even the cranky and skeptical Mike, both come to befriend their little security risk.
Pixar is the only big-name movie studio that has never produced a bad film. It can be argued that the best of its efforts – Up, for instance, or the original Toy Story – are classics, not only of their genre but in the wider scope of Hollywood films. Their stories are trailblazingly original, the characters distinctive and richly depicted, and the proceedings very smart and funny.
The finest Pixar offerings reach elite status largely because of that originality. A motley crew of thinking, moving toys banding together to save one of their own? An old man realizing his life’s dream of being an explorer by tying balloons to his house and floating away? The concepts are simple while at the same time wacky and stuffed with great story potential, well realized in the telling.
Monsters Inc. doesn’t quite reach that exalted status, but it’s still fresh and immensely entertaining. The central gimmick is, true to form, simple, elegant and irresistible – monsters earning a living by scaring little kids. On top of this, a bunch of great subplots, characters and gags are stuffed into the movie, but expertly, so it doesn’t feel cluttered. For instance, there’s Randall, Sulley and Mike’s deceitful rival at the company, who naturally is a constantly-shifting chameleon and voiced by sleaze-character specialist Steve Buscemi. Another fun subplot explores the presence of a secret, high-level Child Detection Agency operative working undercover at the factory (no, you probably won’t guess who it is).
Monsters University has a lot of good stuff too. The Scream Games our heroes compete in are imaginatively realized, as is the underdog crew the boys recruit as a team. It’s all thoroughly done and well presented, however many new elements are just hops of imagination compared to the leaps of the first movie. Some characters unique to the prequel, like Dean Hardscrabble (voiced by Helen Mirren), the stuffy Brit who runs the scaring program, are either borderline stock or just not all that interesting. And outside of a twist introducing a cheating element to the games, none of the subplots is particularly engaging or memorable. On the whole, MU makes safe, conservative choices, and goes only so far out on a creative limb. Put another way, in spite of the high degree of imagination powering it, the movie feels like nothing more than a follow-up to an earlier, successful effort.
You can never really go wrong with a Pixar film. The justifiably celebrated studio knows how to entertain and amuse anyone who walks into a cinema. But it’s also a business (particularly now that it’s been part of the Disney empire for years), and as such needs to keep filling its coffers. Monsters University is a fine piece of entertainment, but it leaves the ultimate impression that it’s powered more by commerce than creativity. As such, it gets schooled by Monsters Inc., which makes bolder and more original choices, and as a result provides a better payoff and a more satisfying movie experience. The post-graduate beasts, then, make the louder roar of the two films – Monsters Inc. claims this creature-feature diploma