Monsters University: A dual review by Imaginary Amie and Roxie Rider

{Monsters University opens in Seattle on Friday 6/21 is playing at the Majestic Bay, AMC Pacific Place, Sundance Cinemas Seattle, and Oak Tree Cinemas}

Usually we stick to the usual around here with movie reviews: one person per movie, but since we break that mold a little with SIFF, we decided to throw it out the window for Pixar's Monsters University (a prequel to Monsters, Inc.), because two of our film-loving writers both adored it equally. If you need a bit of background on the plot: Monsters U is about Mike Wazowski attending Monster college to learn the ways of being a top Scarer. He meets Sully there, but their friendship is not instant. Mike has to battle distractions against studying, a doubting Dean, Sully's ego, and a bullying jock (voiced by Nathan Fillion, naturally) and figure out how to turn his sad nerd frat into winners so he can get the education and degree he needs to work at Monsters, Inc. 

Here's a transcript of what both Imaginary Amie and Roxie Rider thought about it! (Warning: MILD spoilers ahead, but we tried not to go into too much detail)

Amie: Let's talk about that beautiful short at the beginning of the film The Blue Umbrella! What were your impressions? Did your kids like it? There was a little girl in back of us saying "Oh no oh no oh no" during a tense moment. So much emotional pull packed into a little short. I loved it! 

Roxie: I liked it very much too. I thought the story was very sweet, but I was more impressed by the extraordinary realism. Pixar movies and shorts have always have a really cartoon-y look, which is smart—it sidesteps the whole uncanny valley question neatly. But it honestly took me well into the short to figure out that it wasn’t a mixture of live-action and animation. Can you think of another digital movie that seemed so realistic?

Amie: You know, I can't! And I noticed that too; it was amazingly realistic. It's simliar to what they did in Toy Story 2 & 3, but this seemed like, LEAGUES ahead of that. I kept waiting to see the people's faces under the umbrellas to see how awesomely they were rendered, but I know that's not the point of the story.

Roxie: Right. But while I was marvelling the techy bits, the kids were totally swept up in the story. My 3-year-old was like that little girl in the back of your showing—she was so scared! And so relieved when everything turned out ok.

Amie: Another great short from Pixar. Who knew? Okay, onto the feature! The first thing that thrilled me about Monsters University were the tiny kid monsters on the bus at the beginning, especially little Mike Wazowski! Not gonna lie, I kind of freaked out over how cute he is. I mean, he's freaking adorable! All one big eye and funny teeth and wondrous about everything. 

Roxie: I loved Little Mike! And I loved that he was completely undaunted by his classmates’ disregard for him. He was like a green, bald, one-eyed Hermione Granger—totally unashamed of being ambitious and studious. I wish I’d been that self-assured in my dorky studious years! I also loved how one grown-up, taking him seriously, made such an indelible mark on him.

Amie: Yeah, that part on the scare floor where he meets the top scarer was AWESOME. Nice encouragement! Another thing I real loved is that they packed some familiar characters into the University setting: especially Randall! Seeing the evolution of his character was so great.

Roxie: I know, I was surprised that I was surprised to see Randall—I don’t know why I wouldn’t have expected him, but I when he showed up I was so pleased. And it totally makes sense how he ended up being so bitter and vindictive.

Amie: Being an 80s kid, I also appreciated that the basic plot was Revenge of the Nerds – the shy, misfit-frat up against the popular athletic frat. You really wanted those misfits to win! And the way the story played out was REALLY interesting to me. Not typical at all.

Roxie: It’s hard for me to overstate how much I loved that device for this movie. I lurve these characters already—Monsters, Inc. is one of my top 2 or 3 movies to watch with my kids—but I was really skeptical that Pixar would be able to do a back-story movie that did them justice. Framing it in this great tradition of loveable-losers-overcome-musclehead-jerks movies was genius, I thought.

Also, I couldn’t wait to see what frat challenges they’d have to bumble through during the Scare Games. The library challenge was my favoriite. It got me in all the sweet spots. The kids were so anxious through the first challenge, with the little urchin things. Which one was your favorite?

Amie: It's so hard to pick! The library challenge was AWESOME. But they were all great — they all seemed like normal hazing techniques that were Monster-fied. I also enjoyed the hide and seek type challenge, where the nerds really excelled, especially the blobby old guy with his octo-tentacles.  

Speaking of the frats, how cool was that sorority that turned into hissing monsters? And the one that was all disaffected punk rockers? Ha. 

Roxie: Those were both hilarious, but it also highlighted probably my only quibble with the movie, which was… well, there weren’t any female students who got to have actual individual personalities, or matter to the story. The Dean was a woman (Helen Mirren, Queen of Fuckinfantastica), and they mentioned that some of the top scarers were women, but aside from the Game Leader (who I should really have figured out was Aubrey Plaza), all of the other double-X chromosomes in the movie were essentially stereotypes.

I mean, I know the whole movie is built on stereotypes—that’s part of the fun—but it raised my feminist hackles a bit that in a world filled with an infinite variety of anthropomorphic diversity, women were still mostly in the background. Like, what if one of the two-headed monster’s heads was a girl? That would’ve been pretty funny. And check this out: when I asked my daughter after the movie which her favorite monsters were, she listed all of the female characters. So she definitely was on the lookout for some girls. (My son’s favorite, hands-down, was the U-shaped guy.)

Amie: [Interesting side note: the U-shaped guy was also my boyfriend's favorite!] So true! I had that fleeting thought while watching, but was still on a high from the cuteness of tiny Mike. The Dean as a woman was really interesting though, kind of a villian but kind of not. It would have been awesome to have more female characters, but I guess when you're dealing with a frat vs. frat scenario it's kind of hard. I was actually surprised they worked in any sororities at all, as even that seems against the grain of this type of plot. Maybe next sequel can focus on the ladies? Or you know, just have Pixar make AN ENTIRE film with female characters. How about that?

Roxie: Yes! I actually asked the Production Assistant during the Q & A [after the SIFF screening] if Pixar has anything on the docket that’ll get more female characters in the mix. He said he couldn’t comment on future plans, but he gave me a big “I’m with ya” thumbs up, so that was cool.

Amie: So glad to hear you voiced your opinions to Pixar at the Q&A! That's one of the very cool perks I love about SIFF, being able to talk to the filmmakers and influencers, and have your voice as a filmgoer heard. 

One of the other things about Monsters U that keeps sticking with me was how they handled all the moral lessons. I don't want to get into specifics, because I don't want to ruin anything for viewers, but man oh man. It was pretty great. Even the little stuff they threw in matters. The girl I mentioned earlier would say things like, "That was mean!" when the bad guys were being jerks.

Roxie: I agree. I would have been plenty satisfied if the movie was just a series of entertaining capers, but the fact that they wove in so many genuinely useful take-away lessons for the kidlets is what put the movie in that upper-eschelon category of kids films for me. I love when movies can stick that kind of stuff in without getting all preachy.

Amie: Yeah, it was surprising in a way I didn't expect. All those lessons learned that didn't just go away, like they normally would in animated kids' movies. Instead of being typical, those are the things that elevated this movie to another level for me. (which Pixar is really SO good at, anyway). I can't figure out how Disney and Pixar are now under one roof, yet Disney keeps kicking out typical animated stuff which is fine, but not GREAT, and Pixar nails it almost every single time on the adult-friendly scripts that kids also love. 

What else am I missing here?

Roxie: All the easter eggs, callbacks, and references! I think this is a movie that’s going to reward repeat viewings (a holy grail for kid movies). I’m sure I didn’t catch even half of the references. And every time the kids recognized something from M.I. they couldn’t contain themselves. They were knocked out when Roz showed up.

Did you have any particularly awesome ones? I know I’m forgetting most of them (I should have taken notes!), but I sort of remember something about posters on the dorm room walls… man, now I’m annoyed that I can’t remember! Oh! The Carrie reference. That was such a great gag.
I’ll just have to watch it again ;).

Amie: Me too! And yeah – so many callbacks and refs. The Carrie reference SLAYED ME. All I can think of right is Roz; I know I saw more embedded in there re: posters, etc. It definitely bears repeat viewings. I think this is because I am still STUCK ON THE CUTENESS OF TINY MIKE WAZOWSKI. That's it, I'm sticking a photo of him in here just so people can see how adorbs he is.
 
Roxie: I also loved this idea that there’s nuance and technique to scaring. You can’t just have a loud roar, you have to know what is going to scare each kid, not just make them cry. (God, that’s so horrible when you think about it!)

Amie: Horrible, but great. I loved that too! It really ties into the larger plot points. And I especially loved that Mike figured something out that NOBODY else knew, not even the big mucky-mucks at the University.

Oh man. I can't wait to see it again! Let's have a viewing party when it comes out on DVD!!!

 

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