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Monsters University
  • Composed by Randy Newman
  • Walt Disney Records / 2013 / 56m

A prequel to the delightful Monsters, Inc., Monsters University tells the story of the younger days of Mike and Sulley, voiced again by Billy Crystal and John Goodman.  This time the story is of how they learned their scaring, fostered their friendship and encounter various mishaps along the way.  It still feels a bit odd seeing Pixar do sequels (or in this case a prequel) but at least it’s a return to familiar territory after the disappointing Brave and the early reviews have been decent.

Returning for his seventh score for Pixar is Randy Newman.  I think it’s fair to say that you know what you’re going to get from a Pixar score by Randy Newman – there’s a continuity of style there that is absolute.  You also know that you’re going to get wit, style, charm and a whole lot of class – and I’m pleased to report that Monsters University is full of all those things from start to finish.  There can have been few, if any, such sustained expressions of joy in the history of film music as that provided by Newman in these scores.

Randy Newman

Randy Newman

The score opens with the delightful collegiate marching band style main theme, featuring the drum corps The Blue Devils alongside the brass.  “Young Michael” introduces a couple of the score’s main themes, including a particularly sweet friendship theme which is vintage Newman/Pixar.  It also reintroduces us to the familiar delights of Newman’s sound – generally fast-paced and frenetic, but with a remarkable clarity to the orchestration and incredible performances from the Hollywood musicians.  “First Day at MU” introduces another of the score’s major themes, a violin soloist elegantly playing the deliberately melodramatic piece; though before long we’re on to a fully orchestral, no-holds-barred arrangement of the main theme; then something else; then something else.  As ever, Newman packs so much in here, there’s always a danger of it becoming tiresome to the listener – but such is his skill, each idea seems held just long enough for it to never be an issue.  If you don’t like Mickey Mousing, you won’t like it, but I’m sure you knew that already; and this is the best kind of Mickey Mousing, done with an extraordinary amount of class.

“Dean Hardcastle” introduces more sinister music for the university’s dean, voiced by Helen Mirren.  It’s beautifully macabre.  This contrasts with “Sulley” which follows, which possesses a laid-back, languorous sound just perfect for the character.  “Scare Pig” is the first big piece of action music in the score and again it’s just wonderful.  Newman, droll as ever, described the piece as such: “‘There’s a little bit of Brahms Academic Festival Overture when Mike is riding the pig.  I like to think Brahms would be extremely flattered by his inclusion in the score.”

“Washed Potential” somehow seamlessly goes from a lounge style (with Hammond organ) to a genuinely touching piano theme to more collegiate brass.  “Oozma Kappa” is a collection of shorter vignettes, kinds of paeans to campus life, whose unstinting sincerity makes them all the wittier.  “Stinging Glow Urchin” is another of those tracks where you don’t quite know how he does it, yet somehow Newman moves from more of that macabre scary music to big band action music without skipping a beat.  It is utterly, unfailingly delightful.

The vast majority of music in the score is new, but there is a little material carried over from Monsters, Inc.  “Field Trip” offers a reprise of the fanfare from that score’s “Enter the Heroes”, then a lovely rendition of this score’s friendship theme, before offering the familiar sound of some of the action music from the previous score’s trips into the human world.  The wonderful, rousing “Rise and Shine” opens with a reappearance of the drum corps, then comes a quite brilliant brassy new theme, a march that’s Sousa-via-Williams (in particular one short segment sounds much like 1941) – it’s not just the highlight of this score, it’s easily the most memorable new piece of film music so far in 2013.

The lengthy “The Scare Games” is another highlight, an extended piece featuring all sorts of fun marching band music and heroic sporting underscore, including lots and lots of that fantastic march theme.  “Human World” sees a return of the action music heard earlier in “Field Trip”, then the thrills get still stronger in “The Big Scare”, a dynamic and rousing piece of action.  “Goodbyes” is, perhaps unsurprisingly, truly touching and really quite beautiful, the friendship theme getting a full airing which is really quite gut-wrenching.  “Mike and Sulley” offers one final version of the march before “Monsters University”, a choral version of the alma mater song.

Disappointingly, there’s no new song from Newman here (the college anthem doesn’t count!) – even though he won an Oscar for “If I Didn’t Have You” from the previous film.  However, there is a new track by Axwell and Sebastian Ingrosso – of Swedish House Mafia – called “Roar”.  It’s OK for what it is – house music – but sticking it right in the middle seems a rather injudicious decision, it clearly should have been left till the end.

Monsters University is an absolute delight.  It’s charming, witty, supremely well-orchestrated and performed.  From first moment to last, it’s designed with one thing in mind – joy.  It achieves that aim and then some, leaving a giant grin on the listener’s face.  Randy Newman’s primary career as a singer/songwriter shouldn’t detract from the fact that there are few film composers quite so adept at using an orchestra; and fewer still quite so adept at so consistently and so successfully filling their scores with such unbridled happiness.  This is the most wonderful film score of 2013 so far.

Rating: **** 1/2 | |

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  1. orion_mk3 (Reply) on Sunday 23 June, 2013 at 03:00

    I see you gave it a whole star more than the original. Would you say that accurately reflects your feelings on the two of them?

    • James Southall (Reply) on Sunday 23 June, 2013 at 07:55

      I think the new one is slightly better, more thematic.

  2. Josh "LF" (Reply) on Friday 28 June, 2013 at 23:05

    Which track contains the jazzy main theme heard in the trailers? It plays twice in the film, once during a montage near-ish to the beginning, and during the beginning of the end credits. I’ve been trying to find this track on iTunes, but none of the samples sound like the one I heard in the film.

  3. JonathanAsh (Reply) on Sunday 7 July, 2013 at 12:23

    (This is comment is not related to this review, but the one it is related has no comment section :D)

    Hi James,
    I read your review about John Williams’s “Angela’s Ashes” (great soundtrack by the way) and I understand your anger because of those narrations- but, luckily, there is more than one release of the score: this wretched one you got, and another one without the narration (That’s the one I have). If you are still interested in the soundtrack I could send you a copy by mail or whatever way you prefer 😀

    Kind regards,

  4. Edmund Meinerts (Reply) on Thursday 11 July, 2013 at 20:09

    Good review, James (I appreciate the cue-by-cue breakdown), but I do have one question. In your review of last year’s Ice Age: Continental Drift, you said this about John Powell’s style: “While it was easy to get invigorated by the sheer enthusiasm of it all back in 1998, having heard pretty much the same bag of tricks so many times over now means it’s pretty hard to get the motivation to listen to any of them.”

    Randy Newman has now been recycling his own bag of tricks for animated scores since 1995 – in fact, I’d say his style is far more stagnant than Powell’s – so how come he gets a pass? You can’t say it’s because his scores branch out into different styles (e.g. the marching band stuff for Monsters University) because Powell’s do that too and then some.

    • James Southall (Reply) on Friday 12 July, 2013 at 22:46

      Edmund – that’s a fair challenge. I guess the Newman style is one that sits just right with me (and he hasn’t been that prolific). I don’t suppose there will be many, if any, more film scores by him so every one’s a bit of an event for me.

  5. Jason Farcone (Reply) on Friday 12 July, 2013 at 19:03

    I’m not that familiar with Randy Newman’s works on the whole (especially outside their reSPECtive films), but I think it’s always an interesting… thing.;.. to compare the dynamics between, u know, that lovely TRIo of americana boyz, randy david and thomas. or should I say david thomas and randy. or thomas david and randy. yeah that last order is probably how I’d rank ’em from most to least beloved, though I really have nothing but respect for all three.

    Randy just doesn’t have many scores I can think of that I wholeheartedly cherish, and of the one’s he does, there are only a few snippets from each that I could go as far as saying I actually adore. One is ‘A Bug’s Life’.. which is best represented by the track ‘A Bug’s Life Suite’ (and I suppose ‘Flick Leaves’).. Hell, the only other scores that I can think of off the top of my head are ‘James and Giant Peach’, which I haven’t heard for over a decade (but which was excellent, if consistently low-key and fairly anonymous… and certainly no ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ (Henry Selick)), and rannnnnnndy’s rejected score to ‘Air Force One’, which was much more fun and creative than Goldsmith’s, think James gave it near 5 stars back in the day. BUT I guess Randy Newman gets some slack from me since, well, you don’t see David and Thomas with such an adorned career of song and music outside of film.

    poop. anyway, just wanted to list some of my favorites from these triplet GENiuses’ (funnily enough I haven’t heard a note from Alfred Newman, sans the Fox fanfare(?)). with Thomas there’s too many to list, but David Newman seems to have a few peculiar pieces that are awesome and I usually forget about. One is the ‘End(Ending?) Credits’ from ‘Hoffa’, maybe overall my favorite track of his, that for the somewhat older (yet STILLYOUNG) folks would be recognizable from many trailers in the 90’s. Then ‘Finale’ from ‘Anastasia’, which is brief and glorious, with impeccable, majestic orchestrations only (DAVID) Newman is capable of. yeah now I’m struggling. guess there’s ‘The Phantom’ score which I will always remember, only because its theme/motif(?) worked so well at the beginning of one of the best movie trailers of all timeeeez, Starship Troopers. Outside those though damn, I’m actually at a loss when it comes to this broheim. Stuff like Ice Age was serviceable, fun even, but nothing special. What I do recognize looking at David’s IMDB though is that he’s scored a fairly large amount of fantastic comedies that I hold dear, the type of movies that predictably wouldn’t have scores that would be great outside of their contexts. stuff like Tommy Boy, The Sandlot, Bill and Ted, Galaxy Quest, etc etc. oh and I guess scores like The Mighty Ducks and “DuckTales: The Movie – Treasure of the Lost Lamp!##%!!!!!!” were solid…. compositions. Btw, teeheehooo, the first movie David Newman scored was ‘Critters’. TEHEHEOEHEOEHO?!# haven’t heard it, don’t remember it (saw the film at one point), but I can guarantee it’s no Gremlins.

    yeeesh this is what you call bloated. Still, listen to Hoffa’s end credits if you can. OH AND THE LAST HALF OF THE END TITLE FROM SIR THOMAS’SSSSS ‘in the bedroom’. no I’m not rereading this before posting. cheeeeeeeeers! where everyBODY KNOWz ur naaaaame.

  6. Jason Farcone (Reply) on Friday 12 July, 2013 at 19:28

    yeah going to spam one of those links, cause I can’t find it on youtube, and YES JAMES I KNOW ITS PRETTTTTY, prettttty, prettttty unrelated to Randy and Monster’s, but what can I say other than I’m just THAT BOLD A mo@%HER.

    last half. any word but “bliss” come to mind? not likely.

  7. Edmund Meinerts (Reply) on Saturday 13 July, 2013 at 13:25

    I guess I hadn’t really considered that Powell has written twice…maybe even three times as many animated scores in the last fifteen years or so compared to Newman…and that’s not taking into consideration the Henry Jackmans and Rupert Gregson-Williams’ et al of this world who are essentially Powell proxies. Yeah, I can see why Powell could seem overexposed compared to Newman. But I enjoy his style so much it doesn’t matter to me one bit – there are certain things you just don’t get tired of!

    But that’s not to say I don’t enjoy Newman as well! They are a bit of a treat in that we don’t get so many, and you have no idea how much that “Rise and Shine” theme has been stuck in my head since my first listen.