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Monsters University: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy Review

Monsters University (2013) movie poster Monsters University

Theatrical Release: June 21, 2013 / Running Time: 104 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: Dan Scanlon / Writers: Dan Scanlon, Daniel Gerson, Robert L. Baird (story & screenplay)

Voice Cast: Billy Crystal (Mike Wazowski), John Goodman (James "Jimmy" P. Sullivan), Steve Buscemi (Randy Boggs), Helen Mirren (Dean Hardscrabble), Peter Sohn (Scott "Squishy" Squibbles), Joel Murray (Don Carlton), Sean P. Hayes (Terri), Dave Foley (Terry), Charlie Day (Art), Alfred Molina (Professor Knight), Tyler Labine (Greek Council VP), Nathan Fillion (Johnny), Aubrey Plaza (Greek Council President Claire Wheeler), Bobby Moynihan (Chet), Noah Johnston (Young Mike Wazowski), Julia Sweeney (Ms. Squibbles), Bonnie Hunt (Mrs. Karen Graves), John Krasinski ("Frightening" Frank McCay), Bill Hader (Referee, Slug), Beth Behrs (PNK Carrie Williams), Bob Peterson (Roz), John Ratzenberger (Yeti), Greg Dykstra (Professor Brandywine)

Buy Monsters University from Amazon.com:
Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy Blu-ray 3D Combo Blu-ray + DVD DVD Instant Video

It is tough to believe that more time has passed since the release of Monsters, Inc. than had passed in between the second and third Toy Story films. Toy Story 3 felt like a warranted homecoming, Pixar's return to its flagship franchise and the series that started the world's ongoing love affair with computer animation. Monsters University feels more like a project greenlit to keep the studio on schedule for an annual summer theatrical release. Monsters, Inc. is a great film,
but greatness is relative for Pixar and I'd rank it in the bottom third of the studio's output to date, if their output was divisible by three. Still it isn't the quality of the film, its characters or its universe that make a follow-up feel like a stretch. The story told in Monsters, Inc. was very much a poetically closed, once-in-a-lifetime tale that could not easily be reproduced or rechanneled.

Pixar tackles that issue by going in a completely different direction, making Monsters University their first prequel. A college campus comedy is a bit of a leap from a workplace comic adventure, though less so than the move from small-town comedy to international espionage thriller that Cars 2 asked us to swallow. The existence of Cars 2 and the memories of its disappointments just two years ago may very well serve to save face for Pixar, inviting comments like "Well, it's not as bad/random/pandering/shamelessly commercial as Cars 2." All of which is true. Monsters University is definitely not a bad movie, just one that falls short of the lofty standards established by the studio's fifteen years of making universally beloved masterpieces.

Before working together on the Scare Factory floor, James P. Sullivan and Mike Wazowski shared a frat house's attic apartment while attending Monsters University.

University does not find Pixar swinging for the fences or aiming to extend a new streak of Best Animated Feature glory. Their goals are the more reasonable ones typically aspired to by their fellow animated studios: to create a piece of entertainment that audiences of all ages enjoy. The film's modest ambition is evident from the B-team assigned to work on it. Monsters, Inc. director Pete Docter, who also wrote and directed Up, has nothing to do with this prequel. Dan Scanlon makes his feature directing debut after having contributed to Cars and co-helmed spin-off short Mater and the Ghostlight.
Sharing story and screenplay credit with Scanlon are Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird, veteran animation scribes who both worked on the original film. Adding to a Pixar tradition of replaced directors is Presto's Doug Sweetland, an animator at the studio since the first Toy Story who winds up with no credit whatsoever here.

Monsters University opens with Mike Wazowski as a friendless young child on a school field trip to Monsters, Inc. There, as awestruck as any of his classmates, he finds his calling and even gets a souvenir to remind him of his destiny: a Monsters University hat given to him by an alumnus who has become a top scarer at the corporation. Yes, despite the blue collar nature of the work, one apparently needs higher education to land a job at Monsters, Inc. Thus, Mike (now voiced, once again, by 65-year-old Billy Crystal) enrolls in MU's scarer program.

No one believes the short, green, one-eyed creature has what it takes to scare human children in nighttime visits to their bedroom (their screams, you'll recall, power Monstropolis). Not the legendarily stern dragon Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), nor the large, furry, easygoing legacy student Jimmy P. Sullivan (John Goodman). It's not best friendship at first sight for Mike and Sulley, as Sulley joins the coolest fraternity on campus, Roar Omega Roar, while Mike is accepted only by the joke that is Oozma Kappa. That fraternity of outcasts lives in the house of one member's mother and includes an old guy (Joel Murray), a monster with two conflicting heads (Dave Foley and Sean Hayes), and a handle-shaped wild card (Charlie Day).

After a disastrous final exam folly gets both Mike and Sulley booted from the scarer program and stuck in boring classes like Scream Can Design, they see the Scare Games as their only way back in, a wager agreed upon with the doubting Dean Hardscrabble. To render Oozma Kappa eligible for the Games, Sulley joins Mike and the misfits. Wouldn't you know it, the underdogs narrowly stave off elimination through each challenging round that has them dodging toxic objects and a strict librarian.

Just as Monsters University seems to be wrapping up with a predictable happy ending to its competition, the movie goes on for nearly another half-hour, providing less foreseeable redemption for those who need it.

Mike Wazowski and the Oozma Kappa team are outmatched in the Scare Games.

The once chasmic gap separating Pixar from the various other animation studios continues to narrow. Monsters University is a film that DreamWorks or Blue Sky could have made without obviously being their finest work to date. It's consistently entertaining and shows a good deal of effort, but it doesn't serve to remind you that Pixar is the best in the business or convince you that you were wrong to question the iffy premise. Yes, it is two clear steps above Cars 2, managing not to betray or undermine the good will generated by Monsters, Inc. But it doesn't have the heart, humor, or story to top the film that should have won the first Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

On the plus side, animation has come a really long way in twelve years. The visuals that wowed us back in Monsters, Inc. are sure to seem primitive when compared to the far more detailed, populated, and striking imagery that fills every frame here. To the typical viewer, computer animation always looks pretty spiffy, but this film is an unlikely source of major technical strides. The lighting, shading, textures, reflections, environments and character animation all soar to new heights. It's no exaggeration to call this the most visually polished and sophisticated animated film ever. Other studios may be able to create films with comparable entertainment value, but Pixar remains clearly ahead of the field in terms of technical artistry.

Beyond Mike, who by some margin is the lead, and Sulley, few characters from the original film resurface. Reptilian villain Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi), who here goes by "Randy", is Mike's roommate and a fairly harmless Roar Omega Roar brother. Waternoose and Celia get pictorial representation. A certain undercover bureaucrat makes a cameo in a Hazmat suit that can't hide her distinctive figure. And good luck charm John Ratzenberger reprises his role from the original film in a questionable usage.

Mike Wazowski's interest in Monsters, Inc. is formed at a young age on a wide-eyed class trip. The legendarily stern Dean Hardscrabble is unimpressed both by Mike's enthusiasm and Sulley's family legacy.

The last time that Pixar sacrificed a bit of artistic integrity to cash in on a popular brand, they sold a record-low number of tickets domestically. While there didn't seem to be tremendous demand for Monsters University, this prequel performed in line with formidable expectations,
becoming the studio's fourth biggest domestic earner (and third biggest by worldwide haul). Adjusting for the industry's steep ticket inflation (thank you, 3D premiums), Monsters University only ranks 10th of 14 among Pixar's feature output and fell far short of Monsters Inc.'s inflation-adjusted domestic gross of $362 M. Probably more troubling than that is the fact that Pixar surrendered their usual command of the animated marketplace. Despicable Me 2, a product of Universal's Illumination Entertainment, opened twelve days later and grossed nearly $100 million more domestically and over $150 M more globally. The success of the Despicable series is unusual, but it's obviously aided by the fact that only three years passed between installments.

After Monsters U opened to good but not great reviews, it seemed a given that Pixar was not about to add to their dominance in the Academy Awards' Best Animated Feature category. Then again, its critical reaction was virtually identical to that of Brave, which surprised many by winning the Oscar last winter. With just two months to go, 2013's animation crop has been far less impressive than other recent years. At this point, Monsters seems like a lock for a nomination and no mainstream release thus far poses a better chance of winning.

The toughest competition might again come from within Disney, should Frozen wind up being better than it looks and should Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises be up to the director's usual high standards. That Wind is Miyazaki's swan song could generate some sympathy, but the film will remain unknown to the general public until its scheduled February 2014 release. A vote for Frozen could serve as consolation to Disney's in-house division, which has improved steadily over the past decade since it moved primarily to CG. But its trailers are not encouraging. It's worth noting that the Animated Feature award has taken into consideration the medium, snubbing motion capture works like The Adventures of Tintin. Technical achievement could have been a factor in Brave's victory and it could easily aid Monsters' chances this season.

Monsters hits stores on Tuesday, just in time for Halloween and barely four months after opening in theaters (in contrast to the 10 its predecessor took). Disney releases the film in four physical editions: a featherweight single-disc DVD, that DVD alongside two Blu-ray Discs with or without a code for a downloadable digital copy, and a 4-Disc Ultimate Collector's Edition Blu-ray 3D combo pack. The studio sent the three-disc Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy set for review here.

Watch a clip from Monsters University:

Monsters University: Collector's Edition Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.78:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
BD: Dolby TrueHD 7.1 (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish), Dolby Stereo 2.0 (English, DVS)
DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, Spanish), Dolby Stereo 2.0 (English, DVS)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, English, Spanish; BD-only: French; Bonus Disc only: Japanese, Portuguese; DVD Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Release Date: October 29, 2013 / Suggested Retail Price: $45.99
Three single-sided discs (1 BD-50, 1 BD-25 & 1 DVD-9)
Blue Keepcase in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Also available as standalone DVD ($29.99 SRP), Blu-ray + DVD ($39.99 SRP), Blu-ray 3D Combo ($49.99 SRP), and Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

In what will surprise positively no one, Monsters University gets a dazzling direct digital Blu-ray presentation. The 16:9 screen-filling visuals brim with life and detail, making it easy to marvel at just how far animation has come, especially since Monsters, Inc. I've already gushed about the technical advances, but they do make this stellar transfer especially satisfying.

The imagery of course is matched by a powerhouse soundtrack, encoded in Dolby TrueHD 7.1. The sharp sound design and an upbeat Randy Newman score help to give your home theater a hearty and happy workout. I'd be surprised if any other Blu-ray this year approaches this one's lofty audio-visual heights. As always, choosing the French (which is BD-exclusive) or Spanish dubs seamlessly changes most onscreen text (even the most subtle of it) and credits to reflect that language selection.

A blue umbrella and a red umbrella share a brief happy moment together on a rainy night before being parted in Pixar's technically stunning short "The Blue Umbrella." "Campus Life" follows director Dan Scanlon around on a typical day in the production of "Monsters University."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The DVD and movie Blu-ray include two bonus features.

First up is The Blue Umbrella (6:46), Monsters University's theatrical accompaniment. Even subjected to the scrutiny of home viewing, you'll swear this photorealistic Pixar short uses live-action elements, but it apparently does not. Unfortunately, writer/director Saschka Unseld's rainy night tale of the separation of two compatible faced umbrellas (one red, one blue) in an urban world where no object is inanimate feels much too close to Disney's Oscar-winning Paperman from last year. Still, it is a technical delight, especially with its default Dolby TrueHD 7.1 soundtrack (Dolby 2.0 and DVS tracks are also offered). Guess we'll have to wait for the next volume of Pixar shorts to get a commentary on this.

The other movie disc extra is an audio commentary by director Dan Scanlon, producer Koria Rae, and story supervisor Kelsey Mann. It's kind of surprising to get just an old-fashioned commentary instead of a picture-in-picture presentation or Disney Second Screen, but I'm definitely not complaining. They immediately address the inconsistency created by a throwaway line from the original movie, which they tried to honor but could not. (Scanlon declares, "Take that, Internet!")
Beyond that, they show clear concern for the structure, characters and details and passion for the project, while crediting others (from Dan Fogelman to John Lasseter) for their specific input. They acknowledge being inspired by 1980s college movies, their own experiences, and Toy Story's "match out" moment. Pixar's movies may be coming down to earth, but their commentaries still remain far better than the competition.

While the DVD extras end there (a thought inconceivable after Monsters, Inc.'s loaded 2-disc set so long ago), a wealth of bonus features fill a bonus Blu-ray Disc.

"Campus Life" (15:14) give us a taste of life not at Monsters University but at Pixar. A single day of the film's production is documented, from breakfast through quitting time, as we follow writer/director Dan Scanlon and check in on the various departments. Details are sweat over animation dailies, "loop group", scratch recording sessions, live-action reference, and so on. This snapshot of production is more revealing and preferable than the more routine and staged making-of featurette.

"Scare Games" shows that Pixar animators don't just work hard. They play hard too. "Monthropology" takes us inside the process of populating the monster world with hundreds of unique monsters.

"Story School" (8:38) takes us inside the process of writing Monsters University, with collaborators trying to subvert expectations, streamline action, and punch up the humor.

"Scare Games" (4:30) shows us how crew members got into the film's spirit with fun competitions pitting departments against one another.

We move to topical featurettes whose titles read like a class schedule.

"Monthropology" (5:47) gives us insight into populating Monsters University with diverse monsters, making countless varieties from five main types. Besides that topic, we learn how Dean Hardscrabble's design (and gender) evolved over production.

"Welcome to MU" (6:09) explains how the filmmakers looked at real American colleges to design the campus' architecture, and then tried hard to make it look like an old but alive and suitably monstery. Just a few more of the many details taken for granted.

The value of look-establishing color scripts is demonstrated in "Color and Light." Crew members like graphic artist Cassandra Smolcic explain how they ended up at the studio in "Paths to Pixar: MU Edition."

"Music Appreciation" (7:29) turns our attention to the creation and recording of Randy Newman's score. Scanlon confesses his own ignorance
DisneyStore.com Halloween
of the subject allowed Newman to do his thing as he saw fit.

"Scare Tactics" (5:16) considers the animators' work, including their uses of acting, jargon, and collaboration.

"Color and Light" (5:16) describes and demonstrates the use of color scripts (somewhat abstract illustrations) to establish the intended look of all the film's scenes.

"Paths to Pixar: MU Edition" (7:40) lets several of the film's crew members describe how they came to work at the studio after other career aspirations didn't pan out and after enduring many rejections.

"Furry Monsters: A Technical Retrospective" (5:02) revisits the original film's challenges in depicting realistic fur and explains how they were tackled scientifically.

This deleted scene shows the filmmakers tried to make good on a line in the original movie by introducing Mike and Sulley as elementary school students. Art shows off his dancing skills in a Monsters Mash Up bit.

Four deleted scenes (22:04) are introduced by director Dan Scanlon. Presented in story reel, they show us an attempt to introduce Mike and Sulley in elementary school, an interrupted Omega Kappa movie night, Mike and Sulley clashing and putting on a play in the drama class they share.

Watch a deleted scene of Mike and Sulley in drama class together:

Promo Picks neatly preserves the film's marketing. "Monsters Mash Up" (4:01) consists of assorted animated gags designed to market the film in small, irregular doses. Under College Campaign, we get a fun Monsters University college commercial (0:32), a March Madness showing Monsters University's basketball team being disappointed not to be chosen for the NCAA Tournament (0:27), and the recruitment video-styled trailer "Admissions" (1:33). Theatrical Campaign holds more conventional marketing: the teaser trailer (1:10) made of uniquely-created animation, "Back Then "(2:25) emphasizes the prequel angle, dance-themed promo "One Night" (1:10), and, for some reason, a subtitled dramatic Japanese trailer (2:23).

Set flythroughs allow us to tour the scenic Monsters University campus and other colorful locations. The Blu-ray's art gallery serves up over 300 images, nearly half of them in this Characters section.

Four nifty, scored Set Flythroughs (6:25) allow us to explore and marvel at The Campus, The Scare School, Frat Row, and the OK House. This is one of the unique thrills afforded by computer animation. Now you'll know where to find the Pizza Planet truck that appears in nearly all Pixar movies.

Blu-ray's scarcely-used gallery technology is employed for a substantial Art Gallery consisting of Characters (130 images), Color Keys (30 images), Development Art (61), Environments (77), and Graphics (37). You're able to quickly move (or be moved) through this wealth of content. You can also pick favorites, rate images between 0 and 5 stars (down to half-stars), and choose between flow, thumbnail, and full-sized views. This seems to be Blu-ray's most unsung technology. There are a few minor bugs (e.g. excerpts of Newman's score come and go, inexplicably linked to your navigation, and are easily turned off and thankfully not frequently restarted), but for the most part this rocks, once you get used to it. Unfortunately, so many studios opt to abandon DVD galleries instead of redoing them in this advanced, user-friendly format.

A Blu-ray Easter egg takes us inside the making of the film's fun opening titles. The DVD and Blu-ray movie discs' main menus give us a view of the Monsters University front gate.

An Easter Egg, accessed from a stained glass window on the bonus Blu-ray's menu (hint: down, left),
we get a short (1:42) in which Adrian Molina discusses the creation of and the thought behind his opening titles for the film.

The movie discs open with trailers for Frozen, The Jungle Book: Diamond Edition, and Planes. Second string ads promote Disney Movie Rewards, Disney Store, Disney Infinity, Mary Poppins: 50th Anniversary Edition, Iron Man & Hulk: Heroes United, and The Pirate Fairy. (The DVD drops the Disney Movie Rewards, Mary Poppins, and Pirate Fairy spots.)

The movie discs' main menus settle on a subtly animated view of Monsters University's gate. The DVD's submenus offer static locations' concept art. These Blu-rays still fail to resume playback to the extent that DVDs and most other Blu-rays do these days. Though at least the movie disc remembers where you were in the film if you left that unfinished. The bonus Blu-ray is set inside a hallowed School of Scaring building.

The three discs (the rare Disney ones given full-color character artwork nowadays) share a standard-sized Blu-ray keepcase. Topped by an embossed and bevel-bordered slipcover, it also holds a Disney Movie Rewards code/digital copy booklet and another booklet of ads and a 50% off coupon to Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores.

Mike Wazowski, Art, Don Carlton, Terri, Terry, Squishy, and Sulley tip-toe to avoid a librarian's wrath in one of the Scare Games challenges.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

While it has the foundation of a Saturday morning cartoon spin-off, Monsters University tries to make a go as a respectable Pixar feature. Though short on ambition, it delivers an always agreeable but never special outing. There are more than enough creative sequences and the film is at least twenty minutes longer than it needs to be. Still, it's a fun time, which proves that a relatable G-rated version of college life is doable. Surprisingly and unnecessarily, it is also truly a technical marvel. It lacks the overall impact of Monsters, Inc. and most Pixar films, but it's a film you can't help but like on the basis of its appealing color, comedy, and characters.

While DVD customers have every right to be disappointed by what they get, Blu-ray ones will be delighted by this three-disc combo pack, which serves up the dazzling feature presentation expected plus a substantial and enjoyable assortment of extras. For a film that for some could be on the bubble between a rental and a buy, this fine package is enough to push into recommendation territory.

Buy Monsters University from Amazon.com:
Blu-ray + DVD + DC / Blu-ray 3D Combo / Blu-ray + DVD / DVD / Instant Video

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Reviewed October 28, 2013.



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