Monsters University

(2013) *** 1/2 G
110 min. Walt Disney Pictures. Director: Dan Scanlon. Cast: Steve Buscemi, Billy Crystal, John Goodman.

/content/films/4530/1.jpgMove over, Animal House. From now on, the first college movie that leaps to mind may well be G-rated. That'd be Monsters University, the Pixar prequel to 2001's Monsters, Inc. Weirdly, since its presumable core audience is made up of kids, Monsters University may be the most thoughtful and, in social terms, realistic film ever made about the college experience. I apply "realistic" flexibly, of course, because Monsters University is just what it sounds like: the esteemed institution where young monsters like Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and "Sulley" Sullivan (John Goodman) matriculate. These BFF characters from Monsters, Inc. have yet to meet when Monsters University begins: the film recounts their initial dislike, teamwork under duress, and eventual bond of friendship.

Mike and Sulley correspond to college archetypes that make them "natural enemies": the studious nerd and the "legacy" jock/fratboy. Given the love for the first film, there's an element of risk in making the best friends antagonistic for much of the film's running time, but it's one of several challenges to assumptions the prequel productively makes. Mike and Sulley both find themselves in the elite School of Scaring, but they can only remain there by proving themselves (to Helen Mirren's fearsome Dean Hardscrabble). Prefiguring their need for each other, each has something the other lacks: pea-with-legs Mike has nurtured mental discipline, while the hulking, roaring Sulley has the natural capacity to scare.

When both see their dream slipping away, they reluctantly team up, joining the outcast fraternity Oozma Kappa ("We're OK! We're OK!") in the hope against hope of winning the campus Scare Games. Their frat brothers comprise a humorously motley crew: middle-aged student Don Carlton (Joel Murray), nervous Scott "Squishy" Squibbles (Peter Sohn), upbeat Art (Charlie Day), and conjoined siblings Terri Perry (Sean Hayes) and Terry Perry (Dave Foley). Their polar opposite is Roar Omega Roar, the jerky jock frat headed by Johnny Worthington (Nathan Fillion, doing his best smug guy).

Comparisons to the first film will likely find this one underrated. The originality and novelty of this world may be old news, but the plotting here is surprisingly inventive, perhaps because the fresh Pixar talent involved—writer-director Dan Scanlon and his co-writers Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird—is eager to score with this first big-league at-bat. A (college) sports-movie structure provides a framework for setpiece after setpiece but also the opportunity to surprise with a nice, big, genre-shifting twist into a G-rated homage to summer-camp horror flicks.

While fairly all-around impeccable, from its sight gags to its super-fun Randy Newman score, Monsters University most impresses with its perfection as a friendship story and its breadth of considerations about the value and meaning of college, which the film acknowledges but most certainly does not take for granted (remember: one-time Pixar CEO Steve Jobs was a college dropout). The film engages in student ethics and notes the truth that learning, at least at this level, comes more from experience and peers than the classroom. Devaluing the desperation to be cool and hide feelings, and valuing education, teamwork and friendship, Monsters University is exactly the sort of movie one hopes kids will beg to watch over and over.

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 3

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 7.1

Street date: 10/29/2013

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

Disney didn't provide me with the 3D Blu-ray edition this time, so I can't comment on the preferred 3D version (sorry). But here's what you need to know about the 3-disc Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy Collector's Edition. The Blu-ray's hi-def transfer is flawless (which makes me all the more curious about that Blu-ray 3D transfer): color is vibrant and finely calibrated, as are contrast and the deep black level. Animation on Blu-ray has come a long way, at least when Pixar and Disney are involved and the material is newly minted: details and textures are consistently eye-popping in their sharpness and refinement, and I didn't spot a single compression artifact (it helps that almost all of the bonus features reside on the Blu-ray Disc Two). Audio comes in a top-of-the-line Dolby TrueHD 7.1 surround mix that blows the roof off the joint with its LFE potency, and pinpoint clarity and placement of effects within the soundfield. Dialogue is crystal clear and music full-bodied.

Disc one offers as a playback option an audio commentary by director Dan Scanlon, producer Kori Rae, and story supervisor Kelsey Mann. This friendly, well-paced and informative track covers all of the topics one would hopefully expect, including story development and the special challenges of a prequel, including visually aging down the characters.

The animated short "The Blue Umbrella" (6:46, HD)—which premiered in front of Monsters University in theaters—is also here on Disc One, though like the feature, the presentation on this set is 2D blu-ray.

Blu-ray Disc Two includes a ton of featurettes and other miscellaneous fun. "Campus Life" (15:14, HD) refers to the Pixar campus, so this video journal offers a "day in the life" of same. "Story School" (8:38, HD) looks at the craft of plot development. "Scare Games" (4:30, HD) serves as something of an addendum to "Campus Life," focused on workplace play, while "Monthropology" (5:47, HD) covers character design and execution. "Welcome to MU" (6:09, HD) details the creation of the fictional campus, including its design and backstory.

"Music Appreciation" (7:29, HD) checks in with composer Randy Newman, Scanlon, and music editor Bruno Coon on the topic of the score, which we see being recorded. "Scare Tactics" (5:16, HD) focuses on the body language of the character's various scare techniques. "Color and Light" (5:16, HD) details how Pixar mimics reality and real photography. "Paths to Pixar: MU Edition" (7:40, HD) continues the ongoing series of Pixar employee profiles. "Furry Monsters: A Technical Retrospective" (5:02, HD) shows how far animation technology (and therefore the characters' appearances) have come since 2001's Monsters Inc.

Four "Deleted Scenes" (22:04, HD) come with a "Director Intro" and comprise "Rivalry," "Recon," "Movie Night" and "Drama Class."

As you might expect, the Promo Picks section gathers commercials, promos, and trailers. These include
"Monsters Mash Up" (4:01, HD), "College Commercial" (:32, HD), "March Madness" (:27, HD), "Admissions" (1:33, HD), "Teaser Trailer" (1:10, HD), "Back Then" (2:25, HD), "One Night" (1:10, HD), and "Japan Trailer" (2:23, HD).

Set Flythroughs (6:25 with "Play All" option, HD) include "The Campus," "The Scare School," "Frat Row" and "The OK House."

Rounding out the disc is an Interactive Art Gallery, divided into sections for "Characters," "Color Keys," "Development Art," "Environments" and "Graphics."

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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