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Ever since college-bound Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) was a little monster, he has dreamed of becoming a Scarer – and he knows better than anyone that the best Scarers come from Monsters University (MU). But during his first semester at MU, Mike's plans are derailed when he crosses paths with hotshot James P. Sullivan, ‘Sulley’ (John Goodman), a natural-born Scarer. The pair's out-of-control competitive spirit gets them both kicked out of the University's elite Scare Program. To make matters worse, they realize they will have to work together, along with an odd bunch of misfit monsters, if they ever hope to make things right. (From Disney’s official synopsis)

 Monsters University
The general consensus among ‘movie people,’ myself included, is that, following more than a decade of unbridled success, Pixar was finally on the downswing. The harbinger of this supposed doom was an increase in sequels/prequels, very public behind-the-scenes troubles on four of their last six films, and the (comparatively) disappointing release of their most recent original production, Brave. Toy Story 3 overcame the adversity of a rocky production to become the studio’s biggest moneymaker to date and garnered them their first Best Picture nomination, but that was soon forgotten when Cars 2 disappointed at the box office and received generally terrible reviews. The jury was still out on this whole unnecessary sequel experiment known as Monsters University, a prequel to Pixar’s third non-sequel, Monsters Inc.. In Pixar’s defense, Disney originally had the rights to make sequels to the Pixar films and already had their own Monsters Inc. sequel in early development. It seems like that sequel died out before Monsters University was pushed into production, but it’s still likely that the ‘threat’ from Disney stoked Pixar’s creative fires.

A prequel treatment is clearly the better option for the property, since the original film ends on a sublimely open-ended note. I, for one, was much happier imagining a continued happy ending for our characters in the same way I’m happy to simply imagine the further adventures all of the other Pixar favourites. But prequels are always a difficult proposition all their own. Most of them are characterized entirely by audience expectations, even more so than sequels, because they fill in the blanks on a story with a defined ending. It takes a deft hand to find suspense in that without entirely subverting the audience’s assumptions. The problem with prequelizing Monsters Inc. in particular is that it ended with the monsters learning that laughter is a far more efficient energy source than screams, effectively turning the entire infrastructure of the monster society into something of a utopia. Any prequel would have to take place in a world where the monsters hadn’t already arrived at this revelation, depriving it of the essential mystery usually expected from such an exercise (i.e. ‘How did the Galactic Republic become the Galactic Empire?’ or ‘How did Earth become the Planet of the Apes?’). Monsters University takes the only viable option left – clarifying the much less eventful meeting of Monsters Inc’s primary characters.

 Monsters University
The good thing about Pixar making sequels to their biggest hits is that their box office success is certain enough they’re willing to take chances on new directing and screenwriting talents -– people outside of the already proven core group of John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Pete Docter. For Monsters University, Pixar went to Dan Scanlon, a first-time feature animation director/screenwriter, who had worked for Disney and DreamWorks’ STV departments as a storyboard artist and animator. I have some issues with the film on conceptual and script levels, but, as a visual achievement, it excels alongside the studio’s finest. Scanlon has a firm grasp on (virtual) camera movement, pacing, general structure, and, with the help of an army of animators/designers/artists, he ‘hips up’ the Monsters Inc. brand without being obnoxiously modern about it. The film’s look is more cinematic than its predecessor, thanks in large part to advancements in the technology, but also due to Scanlon and crew’s understanding of dynamic camera work and animation.

Scanlon is joined on the screenplay in an official capacity (Pixar’s screenplays are usually written in conjunction with more than just the credited screenwriters) with Robert L. Baird, who added ‘additional story material’ to Monsters Inc., and Daniel Gerson, who worked in a similar capacity alongside Baird on Cars and Meet the Robinsons. Structurally speaking, the script efficiently lines up the events without the process feeling like a chore, but, Monsters University can’t match the original film’s fresh concept. It’s left feeling like more of the same for long stretches, with only its considerably smaller stakes to set it apart. The comedy is mostly divided between jokes that reference the original movie, jokes that reference ‘70s/’80s college movies ( Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds), and jokes that compare the monster world to the human one. The best jokes build on these references in new ways, like the bit where an Animal House-styled frat initiation is interrupted by the housemother doing laundry very loudly (Mom also happens to listen to death metal while relaxing in the car). The worst of these jokes are still charming enough to elicit a chuckle or two.

 Monsters University
However light-hearted and by-the-numbers the first three-fourths of Monsters University seems, knowing where this story will end also adds a layer of melancholy over the entire film. It is here that the writers find that patented brand of Pixar emotional truth. From the first scene the writers hammer home the fact that Mike wants nothing more in life but to be a professional Scarer – something that will clearly never happen. After efficiently following through on the promised underdog frat house storyline the film takes an unexpected turn for a surprise fourth act that deals with the adult concept of adjusted expectations. This ending doesn’t entirely transcend the repetitive nature of the film in the same way the parts of the similarly melancholy Toy Story 3 did, but it bumps a ‘good’ movie firmly into ‘very good’ territory, inspiring faith that further unnecessary sequels/prequels won’t forget the storytelling lessons learned during the studio’s golden era. It also instills hope for Scanlon, Gerson, and Baird’s future work, assuming they get to work on something original next time around.

 Monsters University

Video


Ugh. Describing the perfection of a digitally-created animated feature on Blu-ray is never a fun proposition. As per the ‘new normal,’ Monsters University was made with digital 3D presentations in mind, but I am reviewing the 2D, 1080p Blu-ray, framed at 1.78:1 widescreen. It is, as expected, perfect. Pixar discs do tend to have the bulk of their extras moved to a second Blu-ray, which may be the thing that pushes their image quality that impossible smidgen sharper. The transfer’s key components are the various monster facilities, the complex patterns of the digital sets (they’ve even included hairline scratches in the hardwood floors), and the vibrant, candied colours. Technological advances have given the crew the chance to upgrade their monster designs outrageously in the past 12 years, including incredibly realistic hair, skin, and scale (not to mention clothing) textures. What’s less expected are the changes to the world around the monsters, which has been altered to look more like the real world, just with minor stylistic tweaks. The sweeping wide shots are teaming with crisp lines and perfectly contrasting elements, all without a hint of compression noise or edge enhancement. The palette is so eclectic and vivid that it doesn’t really have a specific theme, though daytime sequences use more white highlights (even in shadows) and nighttime sequences use warmer highlights. The complexity of the hues is the most immediately impressive thing about the transfer, but viewers on the look-out for a new demo disc shouldn’t overlook how tightly differentiated the colours are during the darker scenes or how they subtly glow during the brighter ones.

 Monsters University

Audio


Monsters University is presented in the usual Pixar lossless audio format, Dolby TrueHD. The 7.1 soundtrack is constantly humming with noise, from heavy, aggressive scare/party sequences to subtle, warm atmospheric effects (there is almost always some kind of outside chatter leaking through the speakers, even during the indoor scenes). Among the early highlights is a sequence where a full ‘scare jar’ is accidentally released, like an oxygen tank, and flies around the stone-walled lecture hall, clanging around the channels and echoing throughout the coinciding speakers. Later, there is a sewer-bound foot race through a sea of buzzing, monster versions of sea urchins that inflate the body parts they touch like a balloon, complete with the related bouncing baloon sound effect. The climax is a particularly diverse moment, beginning with a dynamic, real-world scare and ending with a massive, LFE shattering electrical explosion. Randy Newman’s score is very Randy Newman-esque, meaning it’s pleasant, but often banally sappy. The specifically symphonic bits really don’t work, but I forgot that the original Monsters Inc. score was swing-inspired, so there are some fantastically diverse reprieves, especially the marching band pieces and the drumline-meets-jazz bits. At its best, the score becomes the track’s strongest element, creating a wide-spread, deep, and warm aural achievement.

 Monsters University

Extras


DreamWorks, Sony, and Fox animation have been expending a lot less energy on special features for their animation releases, but Pixar apparently still sees value in the format. The extras begin with an audio commentary from director Dan Scanlon, producer Kori Rae, and story supervisor Kelsey Mann. This is a mellow track without being a low energy or particularly repetitive one. Like most Pixar commentaries, the major subject is the process of storytelling. The first and last acts went through the most changes. At one point Mike and Sulley were going to meet in elementary school and Mike was going to visit the Scare Floor as it was first being constructed. Technical jargon is mostly avoided in favour of talking about creative creature, prop, and set design, along with thematic visual motifs that most of us likely overlooked. The usual commentary follies apply, like long, pregnant pauses, reduced energy at the center of the film, and ‘I love this shot’-type speak, but, overall, this is an informative and entertaining track. The only other disc one extra is The Blue Umbrella (6:50, HD), an endearing animated short that tells the uncannily touching tale of mostly inanimate objects that help a happy-faced blue umbrella connect with a seemingly beautiful red umbrella. It is directed by Saschka Unseld.

 Monsters University
Disc two features:
  • Campus Life (15:10, HD) – A day in the life look at Pixar staff members Scanlon, Rae, and their production crews (layout, editing, animation, etc). It’s a nice impression of the group effort that goes into these movies.
  • Story School (8:40, HD) – A brief look at the malleable story writing process with Scanlon, Rae, story supervisor Kelsey Mann, storyboard artists Adrian Molina and Steve Robinson, editor Greg Snyder, and writers Robert L. Baird & Dan Scanlon.
  • Scare Games (4:30, HD) – A featurette about the studio’s ‘scare games’ competitions that took place over the film’s production. The teams were divided by department for the sake of bonding.
  • Monthopology (5:50, HD) – On the process of designing a diverse set of creatures for the film with the director, and designers/animators Sanjay Bakshi, Adam Burke, Jason Deamer, Andrew Gordon, James Robertson, and Scott Clark.
  • Welcome to MU (6:10, HD) – Scanlon, set designer Robert Kondo, and production designer Ricky Niveara discuss the university sets and their inspiration.
  • Music Appreciation (7:30, HD) – Footage from the second recording session with composer Randy Newman, plus interviews with Scanlon, Rae, and Newman.
  • Scare Tactics (5:20, HD) – A look at the animators’ technical and ‘acting’ processes, including blocking, dailies, jargon, and differentiating character performances.
  • Color and Light (5:20, HD) – A sort of self-explanatory look at lighting and colour planning processes with director of photography (lighting) Jean-Claude Kalache and lighting art director Dice Tsutsumi.
  • Paths to Pixar: MU Edition (7:40, HD) – The latest in an ongoing tradition of Pixar staff telling stories of their journeys to working at the studio.
  • Furry Monsters: A Technical Retrospective (5:00, HD) – On the huge leaps in technology between the two Monsters films that made hair simulation so much easier. It includes interviews with Monsters Inc. chief technical officer Steve May, simulation supervisor Christine Waggoner, and simulation core architect David Baraff.
  • Four deleted scenes (in storyreel form) with director introduction (22:00, HD).
  • Promotional galleries, including trailers, TV spots, and ‘Monsters Mash-Ups’ (which I believe played on the Disney Channel between commercial breaks).
  • Four set flythroughs.
  • Five interactive art galleries.


 Monsters University

Overall


Even when working from a checklist, the Pixar people manage to wrangle an authentically loveable cast of characters that teach valuable lessons without talking down to children or beneath their parents. I’m still not convinced we needed a prequel to Monsters Inc., but Monsters University is an emotionally fulfilling, modestly subversive play on conventions that really comes together in its final act. If this is their version of mediocrity, I’m willing to wait out the storm until they have their Disney-style second renaissance. This 2D Blu-ray looks and sounds outrageously good, even for a CG animated movie, and features a solid filmmaker commentary, plus an entire disc of behind-the-scenes featurettes.

 Monsters University

 Monsters University
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking the individual images, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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