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Although nobody does CG friendship quite as well as the studio that brought us the original Monsters Inc., this prequel to the Pixar smash takes viewers back to the days before Mike and Sulley were brothers-from-another-monster, back when they first met as rivals in Scare School at Monsters University.
Of course, those paying close attention may recall a line in 2001's Inc. that referenced a jealousy between the two stretching back to the fourth grade. But first time Pixar feature-length filmmaker Dan Scanlon and his talented team of roughly two hundred collaborators have chosen to let that snippet of dialogue fall-by-the-wayside (owing perhaps to Mike Wazowski aka Billy Crystal exaggeration), creating in its stead an absolutely delightful predecessor for the series that deepens not only their relationship but our understanding of the two as individuals.
Inc. was arguably Sulley's picture as it followed the emotional journey of the John Goodman voiced lovable Inc. employee Scarer whose fright-inducing fangs captured energy needed to run Monstropolis from the screams of "toxic" children he visited through magical doorways at night. Whereas his character found himself questioning all that he'd held true when a darling and not-at-all toxic girl followed him out of the doorway from the human world and into his own, this time around, Sulley takes a backseat to wide-eyed optimistic, over-achiever Mike Wazowski whose underdog plight to become a Scarer is chronicled from childhood through college.
Drawn to the hallowed halls of Monsters University after a Scarer he idolized (voiced by John Krasinski) gave him an "MU" cap on a memorable grade school field trip, Mike gleefully crosses each item off on his checklist with his eyes on the prize of the job that the audience already knows that Sulley holds in the future.
Assigned Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi) as a roommate -- therefore teasing that contentious relationship as well-- Mike is soon dismayed to realize that sometimes hard work and study just aren't enough to make up for what seems obvious to everyone else. Simply put, the adorable one-eyed little green guy just isn't all that scary.
The son of a legendary Scarer himself, Sulley is the epitome of everything Mike has come to envy. So assured in his natural ability to roar his way out of any situation that he doesn't even bother bringing a pencil on the first day of class, Sulley finds himself at odds with Mike as each monster represents the one thing the other one envies -- brains vs. talent.
After a fight in class gets them kicked out of the program, Mike fast-talks his way into one last chance back into the path to Scarer Superstardom, by teaming up with the least popular fraternity on campus to compete in the annual Scare Games... along with Sulley as a teammate.
Borrowing gags from classic campus comedies and riffing on traditional collegiate pranks, school spirit and higher education superstition, Monster's University is filled with the same all-ages friendly hilarity evident in other Pixar pictures. In fact, this one may play even better to adults than children who've experienced the environment firsthand and can quickly identify the various references onscreen from the hard-nosed dean (voiced by Helen Mirren) to a kiddie-friendly homage to Carrie in a frat house.
While it's all very diverting, similar to the original Monsters Inc. (and indeed many of Pixar's titles), University is particularly groundbreaking for addressing a contemporary idea subtextually by taking a postmodern spin on an old Disney promise that promised children generations ago that they could be whatever and whoever they wanted to be, if all they did was wish upon a star and believe it.
For as Mike encounters onscreen-- and indeed many people find out right around university age whether life or family get in the way with pregnancies, military deployment, illness or loss of a scholarship that prevents you from going to "the only school you wanted" etcetera-- sometimes life leads us down a winding path that's far different than the one we planned.
In a world where adults are expected to change careers roughly half a dozen times, there's no "final" thing anymore and the ability to adapt is a necessity. The sense of entitlement or "all or nothing" embodied by some in the post-boomer generation is given a rude awakening in college and for the first time that I can honestly recall, it's dealt with in an honest, humorous, wise and endearing way in a children's movie that makes Monsters University far more existentially meaningful than a typical viewer may expect when putting it on for their tots.
While, sure, those who've seen Inc. realize that Mike is happy working as a Scare Coach to Sulley at his dream place of employment, discovering the hard work and dedication that brought him there (through the mail room no less!) as well as watching him have to face the realization that his dream may be out-of-reach from a traditional perspective makes it that much more heartfelt, humanistic and rewarding.
Also featuring one of the studio's best short films in years in the form of writer/director Saschka Unseld's The Blue Umbrella, which --even before I became lost in Jon Brion's majestic score -- seduced this lover of parasols and rain on film instantly.
A Pixar spin on a French New Wave feature as imagined by Punch Drunk Love era Paul Thomas Anderson that also recalls the iconic "yellow vs. black umbrella" city sequences on How I Met Your Mother, The Blue Umbrella soon breaks free of its influences to dazzle audiences in the promise of a grown-up romantic animated work for adults (even more than kids) and the result is an utterly lovely short that's sure to be on the Oscar short list for shorts.
Likewise, it made me wonder what Unseld could do if he took a cue from the umbrella and broke free, enlisting the others at Pixar to make a full length CG sophisticated romantic feature for grown ups as the studio has proven again and again that there's a market for their movies in fans of all ages and perhaps an under-served demographic as well.
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