Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Pixar Edition. Monsters University

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Monsters University

Year: 2013

Source materials : Based on characters from Monsters, Inc.

Budget: $200 million

Box office: $744.2 million

Plot: Michael “Mike” Wazowski aspires to become a scarer – a monster who enters the human world at night to scare children and harvest their screams for energy – after visiting Monsters Inc., Monstropolis’ most profitable scaring company, on a school field trip.

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Eleven years later, Mike is a first-year scare major at Monsters University, where he meets James P. “Sulley” Sullivan. Mike studies hard, while the privileged Sulley, coming from a family of talented scarers, relies only on his natural ability and begins to falter. As the semester progresses, Mike and Sulley attempt to join a fraternity, but only Sulley is accepted into Roar Omega Roar, the strongest fraternity on campus.

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At the semester’s final exam, a fight between the two causes them to accidentally break Dean Abigail Hardscrabble’s cherished Scream Can. While Hardscrabble initially downplays the accident, she reveals more harsh intentions by failing both of them immediately, citing Sulley’s laziness in not studying and Mike’s lack of scariness; Roar Omega Roar then kicks Sulley from their group.

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Wanting to prove himself, Mike enters the university’s “Scare Games”, and makes a wager with Hardscrabble: she will reinstate him and his team to the scare program if they win, but Mike must leave the university if they lose. He joins a group of misfits named Oozma Kappa, the weakest fraternity on campus, but they are denied entry to the Games for being one team member short. Sulley immediately joins them, seeing the competition as his ticket back into the scare program. Oozma Kappa finish last in the first challenge, but are saved from elimination after another team is disqualified for cheating.

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Oozma Kappa improve gradually due to Mike’s training and intricate knowledge of scaring, and they advance through each following challenge, finishing just behind Roar Omega Roar. In the final round, they defeat Roar Omega Roar with a decisive final scare by Mike in the simulation bedroom. However, Mike soon discovers that he only won because Sulley altered the machine’s difficulty levels during his turn in the simulator, which went unnoticed by Mike and the audience.

Determined to prove that he can become a scarer, Mike breaks into the school’s door-making lab. He enters a door to the human world, but finding himself at a summer camp in a cabin full of children, is forced to flee into the woods. Meanwhile, Roar Omega Roar offers to reinstate Sulley, but he declines, instead confessing to Hardscrabble that he cheated just as she is alerted to Mike’s break-in.

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Hardscrabble forbids anyone else from going through the door, but Sulley sneaks through to rescue Mike. After reconciling, they try to return, but are unable to exit after Hardscrabble deactivates the door while waiting for the authorities to arrive. Pursued by camp rangers, Mike realizes that the only way to escape is to generate enough scream energy to power the door from their side. Working together, Sulley and Mike terrify the camp rangers and generate an overwhelming amount of scream energy, returning to the lab seconds before the device overloads and explodes in front of Hardscrabble.

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Mike and Sulley are expelled from the university as a result of their actions, while the other members of Oozma Kappa are accepted into the scare program for the next semester, as Hardscrabble was impressed by their performances in the Games. As Mike leaves on the bus, Sulley runs after him to raise his spirits. Hardscrabble then appears and wishes them good luck, claiming they were the first students to have surprised her. The two take jobs in the mail room of Monsters, Inc., eventually working their way up to join the scarer team.

Continuity Error: In the first film, Mike tells Sulley “You’ve been jealous of my good looks since the fourth grade.” but in this film, they do not meet until college. 1

Background: Disney CEO Michael Eisner announced that a sequel to Monsters, Inc. would be made by Circle 7 Animation. Titled Monsters, Inc. 2: Lost in Scaradise, the film would have focused on Mike and Sulley visiting the human world to give Boo a birthday present, only to find that she had moved. After getting trapped in the human world, Mike and Sulley would split up after disagreeing on what to do. Once Pixar was reacquired, the idea was scrapped.

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For research, the filmmakers visited several colleges in the U.S., including Harvard University, Stanford University, UC Berkeley, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, observing college architecture, student life, Greek organizations, and the teaching methods of professors and faculty. To research fraternity life, which is central to the film, many of the film’s producers spent several weeks at a fraternity house. Researchers also attended a “Bonfire Rally” at Berkeley in anticipation of the Big Game, a rivalry football game between the university and Stanford.

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Animation: Monsters University is the first Pixar film that used global illumination. It uses path tracing, a technique that imitates the behaviour of the light in the real world, automatizing the process. The School of Scaring building is a visual homage to the famous H.P. Lovecraft monster, Cthulhu.

Music: The music for the film is Randy Newman’s seventh collaboration with Pixar as composer. The songs “Main Title”, “Rise and Shine”, and “The Scare Games” feature the drum line from the Blue Devils group “BD Entertainment”. The songs “Island” by Mastodon and “Gospel” by MarchFourth Marching Band are featured during the film but do not appear on the soundtrack.

Voice Cast: John Goodman, Billy Crystal, Bob Peterson, and Steve Buscemi reprise their roles from the first film.

Dame Helen Mirren as Dean Abigail Hardscrabble. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2007 for her performance as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen and received the Olivier Award for Best Actress and Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for the same role in The Audience. Other films include The Madness of King George, Gosford Park, The Last Station, Cal, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Age of Consent, O Lucky Man!, Caligula, Excalibur, 2010, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, Calendar Girls, Hitchcock, The Hundred-Foot Journey, Woman in Gold, Trumbo, The Leisure Seeker, Red, and Red 2. She is also known for her role as police detective Jane Tennison on the series Prime Suspect. Peter Sohn returns as Scott “Squishy” Squibbles.

Joel Murray as Don Carlton. He has had prominent roles in television series such as Mad Men, Grand, Love & War, Dharma and Greg, and Shameless. Charlie Day as Art. He is best known for playing Charlie Kelly on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. In film, he is known for his role as Dale in the films Horrible Bosses and the sequel, as well as for his roles in Pacific Rim, The Lego Movie, Fist Fight, and Pacific Rim Uprising.

Sean Hayes and Dave Foley as Terri and Terry Perry. Foley previous appeared as Flix in A Bug’s Life. Hayes is best known for playing Jack on Will & Grace. 2 He is known for his film work in movies such as Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss, Cats & Dogs, Pieces of April, The Cat in the Hat, Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!, The Bucket List, and The Three Stooges.

Alfred Molina as Professor Derek Knight. He is known for his roles in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Prick Up Your Ears, Enchanted April, Maverick, Species, Boogie Nights, Chocolat, Frida, Spider-Man 2, The Da Vinci Code, An Education, and Love Is Strange. Tyler Labine as Brock Pearson. He starred in the television series Dead Last, Breaker High, Invasion, Reaper and Deadbeat , and the film Tucker & Dale vs Evil. He plays Hunk on Voltron: Legendary Defender. He plays Dr. Iggy Frome, head of psychiatry, in the NBC medical drama New Amsterdam.

Nathan Fillion as Johnny J. Worthington III. He best known for the role of Captain Malcolm Reynolds in the television series Firefly and its feature film continuation, Serenity, as well as his role as Richard Castle on the ABC series Castle. He appeared in the films Saving Private Ryan, Waitress, Slither, and Trucker. He is currently starring in The Rookie. Aubrey Plaza as Claire Wheeler. She is best known for playing April on Parks & Recreation and The Shadow King on Legion.

Bobby Moynihan as Chet Alexander. A cast member of Saturday Night Live from 2008 until 2017. He currently voices Louie on Duck Tales. Julia Sweeney as Sherri Squibbles. She was also a cast member on Saturday Night Live from 1990 to 1994. She played Mrs. Keeper in the film Stuart Little and voiced Brittany in Father of the Pride.

John Krasinski as “Frightening” Frank McCay. He is best known for playing Jim Halpert on the US version of The Office. His film credits include License to Wed, Leatherheads, Away We Go, It’s Complicated, Something Borrowed, Big Miracle, Promised Land, Aloha, and 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. Krasinski directed and starred in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and The Hollars. Krasinski co-wrote, directed, and starred in the critically acclaimed horror film A Quiet Place. He also portrays the title character in Jack Ryan.  Beth Behrs as Carrie Williams. She is best known for her role as Caroline Channing in 2 Broke Girls.

Bonnie Hunt returns as Ms. Karen Graves, 3 and Bill Hader plays the Referee

Where in the World is John Ratzenberger? John repises his role as the Abominable (Adorable) Snowman during a post credits scene.

Pizza Planet Truck: can be seen parked by the left of the JOX fraternity house during the party as Mike is riding Archie the Scare Pig.

A113: Professor Knight’s lecture hall is room A113.

Critical Reception: Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave the film three stars out of four, and said “It’s all infectious fun, despite the lack of originality. In the art of tickling funny bones, Crystal and Goodman earn straight A’s.”

Leonard Maltin of IndieWire praised the animation and art direction, but wrote that he wished “the movie was funnier and wasn’t so plot-heavy” and that “Pixar has raised the bar for animated features so high that when they turn out a film that’s merely good, instead of great, they have only themselves to blame for causing critics to damn them with faint praise.”

Rene Rodriguez of Miami Herald gave the film two stars out of five and wrote that it “feels half-hearted and lazy, like they weren’t even trying. At least show a little effort, guys.”

My take: Well it doesn’t have the same heart as the first film, but it’s still pretty darn funny.

There’s a kind of absurdity to the world of the monsters that they embrace. The kind of skewed reality that is their normally.

Some highlights:

Squishy dancing, and any bit with his mom
Anything that comes out of Charlie Day’s mouth

Next Week: Let. It. Go.