A prequel to the 2001 film, 'Monsters, Inc.', 'Monsters University' takes us back to the very beginning of the Sulley-Mike friendship. You see, the Monster world needs to scare children in order to turn their screams into a power source. But before you can become a professional scarer, you need to hone your skills at a place like Monster University's prestigious Scare School.
Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) is a little green walking-talking eyeball. His dream: to become the world's greatest scarer. Sure, Mike might not be physically imposing, but he's the hardest working student in the school. James P. Sullivan (John Goodman) is a large blue-green furry beast with pink polka dots. Sulley is naturally gifted and comes from a family of famous scarers. His dream: to become the world's greatest scarer. But Sully doesn't think he needs to study or even try; he's ready to go pro.
Mike and Sulley become instant rivals, Mike trying to prove to all the haters that he can become a great scarer, and Sulley loathing Mike because Mike's extra efforts outshine some of Sulley's natural abilities. When Mike and Sulley get into an argument moments before an all-important final exam, the imposing Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) kicks them both out of the scare program. Mike and Sulley's life dreams seem over.
Then, through a series of loopholes and a public wager with the dean, they earn one last shot at getting back into the Scare School. How? Each year, MU's fraternities and sororities compete in the annual Scare Games, which were founded by none other than Dean Hardscrabble. If Mike and Sulley can find a way to work as a team with the least scary frat on campus -- the ragtag misfits of Oozma Kappa (OK) -- and they win the Scare Games, Dean Hardscrabble will admit Sulley, Mike, and the Oozma's into the Scare School. But if they lose, Mike will have to leave Monsters University... forever.
'Monsters University' is an interesting movie to discuss from a critical standpoint. Prequels, as the Pixar filmmakers discuss repeatedly in the Special Features and Audio Commentary, are incredibly challenging because the audience knows where the characters end up. We know Mike and Sulley's adult relationship. So then, if the prequel can't surprise audiences with the destination -- with our characters' Destiny -- they must be about an unexpected character arcs and emotional journeys.
I would argue knowing a film's Destiny is a device that works better in a tragedy structure. Think of the opening monologue in 'Romeo + Juliet'. We know the star-crossed lovers are going to take their lives. Why and How become the story engines that hurtle us towards the terribly inevitable. It's excruciating and tense. (By the way, getting this wrong is why so many of those Chosen One YA novels are boring, because they're all about a character who is guaranteed to save the day.)
But can the same thing be applied to a family film? To a comedy? Where the ticking clock is, "how will these two learn how to be friends?"
I'm less certain, especially in the context of 'Monsters University'. It's hard to invest in the drama of it all, given a lack of obvious stakes. Luckily, the filmmakers toss in a few unexpected twists, and, of course, the whole universe is wonderfully developed. The characters are charming and empathetic and have respectable arcs. There are great lessons about hard work and pride and humility and teamwork. Heck, the movie seems to be improving with multiple viewings (lowered expectations?).
'Monsters University' is a fine family film.
It's also an incredible work of visual artistry and technical craftsmanship. You can tell hundreds of people poured their heart and souls into making the movie work as well as it does. It's a fantastic Blu-ray experience.
It's just... not 'Monsters, Inc.'
Truly, that's my only criticism here. On its own, 'Monsters University' works really well, though the underdog frat competition sub-genre is a little worn out (well, not for the target audience who won't graduate high school for another decade or so). And the film's third act makes some bold choices to make up for a predictable middle. But, stand 'University' next to 'Inc.' one of the best Pixar movies ever made (my second favorite, after 'UP'), it just doesn't compare. Sure, the graphics and textures and world building have come a long way, but 'Inc.' is so inventive and clever with more stakes and an emotional core that pulls the heart strings of even the most cynical viewers. 'University', despite many strengths, simply isn't able to rise out of its predecessor's shadow.
Vital Disc Stats: The 3-Disc Collector's Edition Blu-ray
'Monsters University' arrives on home video in a variety of different editions:
The Collector's Edition is housed in a 3-Disc flapper case. Disc One the high definition version of the feature film. Trailers include 'Frozen', 'The Jungle Book' Diamond Edition, and 'Planes'. Disc Two contains all the HD Bonus Features (see below). Disc Three is a DVD copy. The Digital Copy instructions say it is compatible with iTunes; we haven't been able to test this yet, but it should be compatible with other streaming services such as Vudu and Amazon.
'Monsters University' scares its way onto Booooooo-ray with a wonderfully textured and colorful AVC MPEG-4 encode framed in the film's original 1.78:1 Aspect Ratio.
While I may personally prefer the 3D version, the film's 2D incarnation is another example of reference quality high definition. Colors are bright, bold, and vivid. Resolution and the sense of depth are exemplary. Contrast is incredibly dynamic, especially the gothic lighting inside the Scare School when we meet Dean Hardscrabble -- (this scene, along with the first Scare Games tunnel race, are really going to test some displays). Shadow detail is extraordinary; not only are black levels deep and inky, but the film's lighting palette is complex. The film's darker, less saturated third act is particularly impressive and pays a nice homage to the woods sequences in 'E.T.' Finally, there are no signs of banding, aliasing, macro-blocking or other encoding errors.
As I said in the 3D video review, Pixar movies truly set the standard for computer-generated animation. What always surprises me is how well they render various textures. From shiny metal busses to cobble stone sidewalks to rusty hand railings to grassy lawns to furry hides to scaly skin to sunlight reflecting off the water, the Pixar universe runs a fine line between cartoon and photo realistic.
Each new Pixar film floors me with new technical and if laughter reeling artistic achievements. 'Monsters University' is a Blu-ray stunner.
'Monsters University' roars onto Blu-ray with a wonderfully atmospheric 7.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack.
'MU' certainly isn't as bombastic as the more action-oriented Pixar films, but this is an incredibly complex, dynamic, and precise mix. Starting with the dialog, everything is perfectly clear, and character voices are well placed around the front sound stage. LFE levels are generally subdued, until various moments (bigger monsters roaring, the heavy dance beat at frat parties) call for more of a presence. Randy Newman's collegiate score fills the entire room, uniting front and rear sound fields. Effects pan nicely and the filmmakers utilize the rear channels nicely to build out the world -- you really feel like the MU campus is an actual environment.
MU's 7.1 Dolby TrueHD sound mix recreates the theatrical experience perfectly. This is one of those soundtracks that gets better with volume -- enjoyable at all levels, but crank this one up and you'll discover more and more complexity. However, those looking for their next aggressive-bash-your-head-in demo probably won't find it here. Also, the only reason it's just-so-ever-shy of a full 5-star rating is because I've heard better from Pixar.
Other audio options include English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD, English 2.0 Dolby Digital, English DVS Dolby Digital, Frech 7.1 Dolby Digital Plus, Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital.
All the 'Monsters University' Bonus Materials appear to be HD Exclusives (see below).
'Monsters University' is an engaging and funny prequel that doesn't quite live up to the original 'Monsters, Inc.'. However, I found myself opening up to the film upon multiple viewings. There are tons of gags and references and details to enjoy, along with likable characters. Our readers who have young kids -- kids who didn't exist when the first film came out -- will no doubt have this movie on repeat for years to come.
As a Blu-ray, the 3-Disc Collector's Edition includes reference quality HD video and a terrific 7.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. The Special Features are also very extensive. And you get an HD Digital Copy to play on any of your mobile devices. If you, or your kids, enjoyed 'Monsters University', but are not fans of 3D, this is definitely the way to go.
If you love 3D, for about $5 more you can pick up the 4-Disc Ultimate Collector's Edition, which includes everything above, plus a reference quality Blu-ray 3D version of the movie. For about $5 less, there's also a 3-Disc Combo Pack, which doesn't include 3D or the Digital Copy.