With last year's middling, but still solid, "Brave" and 2011's "Cars 2," the only movie ever to receive negative reviews from the otherwise untouchable Pixar, people began to question whether or not the animation studio had lost its edge.
Their warm, emotional and downright brilliant movies like "Up," "Wall-E" and the "Toy Story" franchise had devolved into kiddie fare (as opposed to the family friendly movies that had come before and were accessible to everyone) with simplistic themes and unimpressive stories. Well, it looks like they're back on track with "Monsters University," a wholeheartedly impressive movie that takes a subject from the wonders of a child's imagination and injects it with a truthful examination on failed dreams and the meaning of friendship.
The movie begins with Young Mike (Noah Johnston). He's a happy-go-lucky kid with a wonderfully positive attitude despite his classmates' negativity towards him. While on a field trip to Monsters Inc., the company responsible for scaring children and powering the monster world with their screams, he finds his calling. He's going to be the greatest scarer that ever lived. Now he's all grown up and Mike (Billy Crystal) is headed off to college at Monsters University.
His entire life has led up to this moment and nothing will stand in the way of him achieving his dream. However, when it's decided he's just simply not scary, he's taken out of Scare School along with the unfocused Sully (John Goodman). But his determination won't keep him down, so he partners with the dorkiest fraternity on campus, Oozma Kappa, and his newfound frenemy to compete in the school hosted Scare Games. If they win, they'll all be allowed back into Scare School and Mike will have a second chance at achieving his dreams.
And if you've seen "Monsters Inc.," you know he doesn't. While Sully goes onto break records while scaring children at night, Mike is relegated to sidekick, the unsung hero who lives vicariously through Sully. Yet as a child and a college student, Mike just knows that if he works hard, his aspirations will naturally fall into place. He has a naiveté that many in his position share, unaware of the fact that no matter how much you want something and no matter how hard you work for it, it may not pan out. Life throws curveballs and takes you down different roads than you originally imagined.
It's a brave stance to take in a kid friendly movie and is opposite of the "you can be whatever you want to be" message so many kids are exposed to these days. It may even seem like a negative stance, but the opposite turns out to be true. Although the movie takes an honest look at failed dreams and shows that life sometimes doesn't work out the way you had planned, it's ultimately a hopeful and encouraging movie because it shows that other skills can lead to happiness and success. It emphasizes the idea that one dream crushed is another dream created and even though Mike is initially disheartened by the sudden realization that his lifelong dream will never come to fruition, he discovers other opportunities in his strengths.
This is exactly the type of theme Pixar needed to tackle, one that is necessary for children, but also relatable to adults. Very few people have lived their lives and achieved their one lifelong dream, so many in the audience may be shocked to see such a truthful representation of themselves in a movie about monsters learning to scare children.
As far as storytelling goes, "Monsters University" is nearly flawless, if only one little inconsistency that fails to connect the two movies didn't rear its ugly head. In "Monsters Inc.," Mike specifically says to Sully, "You've been jealous of my good looks since the fourth grade," implying that they have known each other nearly all their lives. But in "Monsters University," they're meeting for the first time at college. Although relatively minor in the big scheme of things, the stories of the two movies don't connect as they should, which is a cardinal sin for any sequel or prequel.
Nevertheless, the most important aspect of "Monsters Inc." carries over without a hitch: its amiable charm. In terms of pure wit, this is perhaps the cleverest movie Pixar has done since, well, "Monsters Inc." As Mike walks down the main university strip on his first day, for instance, he passes by the debate team led by a monster with two heads that can't seem to agree with each other and the improv club that can't even improvise their pitch to get him to join. These small moments are delightful and really give the film a humorous appeal.
I'll admit, I was skeptical of Pixar after their last couple films, especially when those disappointments followed their three best and most mature efforts to date, "Wall-E," "Up" and "Toy Story 3," but they've renewed my faith in them after this. "Monsters University" is gorgeously animated, wonderfully voiced (with additional help from John Krasinski, Nathan Fillion, Charlie Day, Aubrey Plaza and Helen Mirren as the Dean of the school) and all around magical. It's that rare film that mixes childlike wonder with adult themes while never neglecting the details that are needed to bring the world to life. "Monsters University" is a joyous experience.