Monsters University: The problem of perfectly fine
“Monsters University” is perfectly fine for what it is. It wants to be a cheerful backstory of a couple of Pixar’s most beloved characters. It is. It wants to feature hijinks and drama without putting too much at stake. It does. Its aims to entertain, It succeeds.
But the film left me feeling unfulfilled. There is nothing at all wrong with simply entertaining. But saying “It’s just entertainment” can also be a copout for a film that could have been significantly more entertaining that it actually is. And that was the case with Monsters University.
The moment Mike stepped onto the Monsters University campus, I started smiling. Here was another opportunity for Pixar to showcase its immense visual creativity. And what a goofy and delightful concept: a college film among monsters. Even with the family film restrictions to keep it from being a full sendup of the Animal House genre, there was so much potential here. And the first half of the film realizes it. And then the plot takes over.
And then the film is… perfectly fine.
There’s nothing at all wrong with ignoring any sort of a collegiate narrative for the bulk of the film, eschewing it in favor of a predictable sports-film narrative. That’s perfectly fine. It just ignores what was a huge part of the appeal of this film, and a major selling point: Monsters University as a setting. The film’s remarkable promotional website is an example of the sort gleeful immersion into a universe full of interesting nooks and crannies that I was hoping for. “Monsters Inc.” relished in its setting. Even though it ended on a rather obligatory action climax (these can feel really odd in the more high-concept Pixar films; the ending of “Up” feels more incongruous upon each viewing) it was a thrilling visual experience, taking full advantage of magnificent features of Monsters Inc. itself.
“Monsters University” makes no such attempt to use its universe so creatively. The bulk of the action is tacked to one of the more tenuous set-ups in a Pixar film: Mike and Sulley are kicked out of the Scaring program, but get a chance to get back in because of a bet with the dean- if they win a fraternity and sorority scaring tournament, they can be readmitted, but if they lose they are expelled.
The entire thing feels cobbled together with string and chewing gum. It’s a series of artificial stakes with no logical connection tacked together to form a plot. And that’s… well, fine. A weak plot can be compensated for with good characters and humor and whatnot, and the film has those and it looks great, so… yeah. Fine.
But wouldn’t a story that gave a damn about itself be better?
Dean Hardscrabble is the film’s primary antagonist, and I could not for the life of me figure out why. Her motivations are non-existant. She has a vendetta against Mike and Sulley because the plot requires her to. There’s not even any inference of something deeper, like the genuinely spooky, unspoken story of what Charles Muntz has been up to all these years in “Up”. She just pops up at plot-required intervals to put the heroes down and provide obstacles. Never has a Pixar villain been so underdeveloped. The bear in “Brave” had more characterization.
But, you know, that’s not fatal to a movie. A good villain can transform a film, but a bad villain doesn’t necessarily do the same. Dean Hardscrabble serves her purpose and moves the story forward. That’s not great, not preferable, but it can still work in a movie.
And a formulaic film can be quite memorable when it’s done right. I really, really liked “Warrior”. Its script is boilerplate sports movie material, but it’s tight and splendidly acted. There’s not an ounce of filler. Nick Nolte deserved his Oscar nomination, and he gives the third best performance in the movie (cheers to Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy). It’s a formula movie that wants to transcend its material and, somehow, it kind of does. It stands out in my memory above the slew of sports movies that, superficially, resemble it at a glance. It could have been perfectly fine. It ended up being a genuinely moving, rousing experience.
By comparison, “Monsters University” (and make no mistake, this movie somehow ends up following the sports movie template to the letter in its second half) makes no such attempt to tighten its screws and trim the fat. It coasts on the pre-established charm of its characters and the knowledge that this movie will eventually turn them into friends (they begin, of course, as adversaries). And the scaring competition scenes are lively and quite entertaining. But I watched them with mild trepidation as I realized that the movie was abandoning what had made its concept seem to appealing in the first place.
The very end of the film does serve to cleanse the palate a bit, as Mike and Sulley find themselves in a dire situation that Mike must think himself out of. But even then, the film hedges its bets, far overselling the results of Mike and Sulley’s escape to one-up a villain I simply did not care about. That the ending doesn’t line up at all with the narrative (Mike and Sulley generate an atomic bomb strength scare, literally hundreds or thousands of times better than the previous record, and they still have to work their way up Monsters Inc. from the bottom?) only confirmed to me that it, like pretty much everything in the movie, was hurriedly slapped on. There was never any intention for this to be a film as interesting as its setting allowed it to be. It was only concerned with being just fine.
And when too much of a film is glaringly fine, when excellent was clearly within grasp, then it feels like less than the sum of its parts. There’s nothing outwardly bad about “Monsters University”. But watching it glide along without even trying made it, in a way, even more frustrating than “Brave”. I didn’t care for “Brave”; I thought its story misfired on so many fronts; but at least it was clearly aiming to be something memorable.
Do I recommend “Monsters University”? Yeah, I guess. Look, you’ll probably enjoy yourself. I did as I watched it. Perfectly fine movies tend to be perfectly enjoyable in the moment. But most perfectly fine movies are also perfectly forgettable. “Monsters University” is perfectly fine. It’s entertaining. But it’s completely disinterested in being great entertainment.