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Going back to the future of scaring
Loves: Animation, Pixar, Monsters, Inc.
Likes: John Goodman, college movies
Dislikes: Billy Crystal
Hates: Unnecessary sequels, Disney's influence on Pixar
There are few things sadder to someone with a love for art than to watch commerce destroy it. When it was reported that Pixar would move from making one film a year to two, introducing a sequel every two years, along with talk of a third Cars film, it couldn't have been more obvious that business was driving the studio rather than artistry (even if some schedule shuffling leaves us without a Pixar film until 2015.) So when a prequel (Pixar's first) to Monsters, Inc. arrived, following some less-than-warmly received output from the studio (namely the vilified Cars 2 and the lightly-regarded Brave) observers could be excused for approaching the film with caution.
Since the first film ended with a pretty neat bow around the story of pro-scaring monsters Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman), if Pixar was going to revisit them, a prequel was the only option that made sense (other than don't make a sequel.) So we head back to when the teammates first clicked, which is apparently in college (rather than the fourth grade, as was mentioned in the first movie.) College is the setting for plenty of fine films, and there's no reason why long-time friends like Mike and Sulley couldn't have had other fun adventures, but this movie suffers from guilt by association, thanks to its recent stablemates. It was going to have to overachieve to win over a skeptical fan base. Telling the story of Monsters, Inc.'s best when they were first starting out, and placing that story in the midst of a fraternity competition, with the starring duo as members of the Disney version of the Tri-Lambs, was not a bad idea at all.
For as meager as the plot may be, there are a lot of fun moments throughout, with the competition, known as the "Scare Games," delivering the majority of the more memorable scenes, but there's not that level of heart and emotion you expect from Pixar, as they are replaced by silly gags, monsterized bits of college life and exciting action. The studio truly is a victim of its own success though, as it is held to a higher standard than just about any other, and this movie doesn't reach the lofty heights assigned by that production credit. That said, Monsters University certainly isn't boring, and when it works, normally during the monster-style college hijinks, it's highly amusing.
While Mike and Sulley are just differently animated versions of the characters we already know quite well, the movie lets Steve Buscemi have fun with the younger Randall, the guys' rival from the first film, and manages to introduce and firmly establish an array of entertaining characters quickly, from Mike and Sulley's frat brothers, including monsters played by Sean Hayes, Dave Foley and Charlie Day, to their classmates, voiced by Nathan Fillion, Aubrey Plaza, Tyler Labine and Bobby Moynihan, with appearances by Helen Mirren, Bill Hader, Alfred Molina, Bonnie Hunt, Julia Sweeney and John Krasinski as well.
And while the acting is top-notch, the animation is even better, with hundreds of unique and interesting monster designs populating the film, and the campus of Monsters University is as visually stunning as any place the Pixar crew has created to date, capturing that feel of sprawling academia to perfection. Whether it's a cavernous library, a lush quad, a frat dance party or a gothic classroom, there's so much detail and beauty to behold. That's definitely to the film's benefit, since it can distract you from one of Pixar's leanest stories to date.
The Ultimate Collector's Edition of monsters University arrives on four discs, two Blu-Rays, one 3D Blu-ray and one DVD, which are packed in a standard-width Blu-Ray keepcase with two dual-hubbed trays, inside a slipcover with a foil-embossed cover. The discs have mostly static menus, offering options to watch the film, select scenes, adjust the set-up and check out the extras. Audio options include English 7.1 Dolby TrueHD, 5.1, 2.0 and 2.0 DVS, French 7.1 Dolby Digital Plus and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, while subtitles are available in English SDH, English, French and Spanish (though the extras disc also features Korean and Portuguese.)
Are we really questioning whether a Pixar film has a quality presentation? The day Pixar puts out a release that features less than stellar audio and video, we may as well pack up and go home, because the game is over. On this set, the 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer is simply gorgeous, hitting high marks across the board, with beautiful color, deep black levels and an impeccable level of fine detail, while digital distractions are nowhere to be found. If 4K can offer something better than this, it would be by only the finest of Sulley's blue hairs. When you flip over to the MVC-encoded 3D version, the visuals are just as impressive, avoiding the traditional problems with the format, allowing you to enjoy the animators' judicious and purposeful use of the third dimension with a clear image that's appropriately bright and wonderfully sharp.
The excellence continues with the Dolby TrueHD 7.1 track that creates an immersive soundscape through a mix of crystal-clear dialogue, heavy low-frequency work (Sulley's roar is room-rattling) and a highly-dynamic mix that utilizes the surrounds to full effect. The world of Monsters University is heavily populated and full of activity, and this track reproduces that feeling, whether it's the ever-present atmospheric effects, deftly layered and positioned sound effects or the film's engaging, drumline-inspired score. You couldn't ask for a better home-theater experience than this one.
Naturally, the first extra is the traditional Pixar short that showed in theaters with Monsters University, The Blue Umbrella (6:46). The artificiality of the CGI is more obvious thanks to the clarity of home video, but this story of anthropomorphic items in the big city features some of the most realistic animation Pixar's ever crafted (and a cute love story to boot.) Disappointingly, there are no extras related to the short, but it is available in 2D and 3D.
Getting into the film, the bonus features start off with an audio commentary by director Dan Scanlon, producer Kori Rae and story supervisor Kelsey Mann. Though the trio has a good rapport (with Rae taking a slight backseat to the more hands-on Scanlon and Mann), the track is focused on sharing info on the film's development and the inspiration for much of the work done, so it's really for animation/film fans who are interested in how decisions are made, techniques used and the concepts that were left behind. If they didn't cover a topic here, it probably wasn't worth the time.
"Campus Life" (15:!4) or, "The Quickest Way to Learn to Hate Your Job," lets you get to see a day of work on the Pixar campus, from their awesome cafeteria to the countless meetings and the ridiculous team exercises, as centered around Scanlon's schedule. Though it looks like a a lot of fun and a lot of food (as well as dance lessons) but the long days and somewhat monotonous computer work negate some of the perks. Either way, I want in, especially after watching "Scare Games" (4:30), which offers a look at the real-life competition between the various departments during the film's production (which would probably be known as team-building in the corporate world.)
"Story School" (8:38) brings Scanlon back to talk about the basics of story, along with other members of the story department. The challenge of the film's status as a prequel is discussed, along with some alternate plot points, thoughts about the characters' development and peeks into story and gag sessions (with John Lasseter sitting in.) It's great insight into how an animated film is written. "Monthropology" (5:47) takes another angle on the creation effort, this time focusing on the creation of all the various monsters in the movie, including an early, and very different, take on one of the film's main characters. That element goes under the microscope in "Furry Monsters: A Technical Retrospective" (5:02), showing the thought and science that was required to create the original Sulley hair, and how it evolved to meet the challenge of the many hairy monsters in this movie.
Moving beyond the featurettes, there are four deleted scenes (in animatic form) with introductions by Scanlon (22:04). Included here is the intended original meeting between Mike and Sulley in the fourth grade, some logistics of the art of scaring, a classroom scene
"Welcome to Minsters University" (6:09) is the story of the campus itself, from the research done on campuses and the elements that make it college-y, as well as the little details you might not notice consciously and the thought that went into crafting them. You can get a good feel for the level of thought Pixar animators put into their work. The score gets a similar treatment in "Music Appreciation" (7:29), which observes a scoring session under the leadership of Randy Newman, who shares a few thoughts, and pays some attention to the importance of the drum sounds, which drive a lot of the best parts of the music Then it's on to the animation with "Scare Tactics" (5:15) and "Color and Light" (5:16), focusing on the technical animation and the rough color illustrations that serve as a visual script for the film.
"Paths to Pixar: MU Edition" (7:40) is one of the more interesting extras I've seen on a Pixar DVD, which explores the unique paths that several of the members of the Pixar staff took on their way to working on Monsters University.
"Promo Picks" are broken up into Monsters Mash Up (4:01), College Campaign (2:32) and Theatrical Campaign (7:08). Mash-Up is a series of unrelated scenes set against rough backgrounds, while College Campaign features a traditional commercial for Mike and Sulley's school, a March Madness-themed clip and an admission video. Either college recruiting materials are wholly homogeneous or the filmmakers were paying a lot of attention. The last entry is a set of four trailers, including a teaser, the full theatrical preview, a party-themed trailer and a Japanese trailer that's a neat little curiosity.
"Set Flythroughs" features a set of four clips (6:25) doing exactly what the title says, showing off the incredibly detailed sets created for the film, allowing you to see small bits you wouldn't have caught before, especially on the campus tour.
Art Gallery is yet another of Pixar's great interactive offerings which lets you navigate (either manually or via slideshow) through five albums (characters, color keys, development art, environments and graphics) while setting favorites and rating the images. In all, there are 335 pieces of art to look at, and you'll want to go through it all, especially the comparison images that show how the characters were de-aged from film to film, to appreciate the work that went into things as small as the flyers that were hung up on campus and to check out concepts that were discarded before the final film.
Wrapping things up, in addition to some trailers, there's also a code for a Digital Copy, as well as the Pixar maximizer, for calibrating your set-up.
The Bottom Line
Monsters University is not one of Pixar's finest films, and when combined with Cars 2 and reports of a ramped-up, sequel-studded production schedule, it doesn't bode well for the studio's future as a bulletproof hit-maker. However, if any other studio put this film out, people would be praising it up and down for being the fun, incredibly well-crafted piece of animation it is. Wrap that up in a superb presentation and a healthy dose of bonus content and you have a set that belongs on any animation fan's shelf.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.