Monsters University (2013)
Directed by: Dan Scanlon
Running time: 104 minutes
Is anyone else really concerned about the amount of prequels and sequels that Pixar Animation Studios are doing/planning to do lately? It began with Toy Story 3*, which was amazing undoubtedly, but then followed with Cars 2, and an announcement for Monsters University and Finding Dory. Personally, that was three more sequel/prequels than I would have liked to be happening, as outside of Toy Story there were no other mysteries or questions I wanted answered from previous Pixar franchises so I would have preferred that Pixar did what Pixar does best: original, beautiful, heartfelt, childish-yet-adult storytelling. I wanted more films like WALL-E and Up (my two personal Pixar favourites), and not for Pixar to start becoming like what every other top tier movie studio is becoming: a machine for producing sequels and reboots.
I’ve prattled on long enough, but I just wanted you to understand the mindset I had going in to Monsters University; and I wanted you to feel the full impact of my words when I say: I am much less concerned about all the Pixar sequels now.
Now Showing this week is Monsters University, directed by Dan Scanlon in his Pixar directorial debut. Set an undetermined amount of time prior to the original Monsters Inc., Monsters University tells the tale of a younger Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) enrolling at the prestigious “Monsters University” majoring in “Scaring”. Mike has dreamed of being a Scarer since a school trip to Monsters Inc. and he is more determined than anyone else to achieve his dream. However, all his book smarts and knowledge of scaring technique can’t quite get him past his issue of not being an overly scary monster, and his classmate/rival James Sullivan (John Goodman) is one of the scariest monsters around (or at least, he can roar the most fiercely!). Following an incident that I shan’t spoil, both Mike and Sully are expelled from the Scare Program, and their future at MU hangs in the balance. To reclaim their studies, they must compete in the annual Scare Games. With a team of misfit nerds, their competition are some of the scariest teams on campus. If Mike and Sully win, they can resume their studies. If they lose, they face expulsion from the entire university!
The biggest trouble I have with prequels is that I struggle to be invested in them when I essentially know what the end result is going to be. We all know that eventually Mike and Sully become the monsters who break the “All Time Scare Record” in Monsters Inc. with Sully as a Scarer and Mike as a Scare-technician-person (what were they called again?!) and therefore we can pretty much discern how this whole Scare Games plot line would play out. Well, yes you would think you could discern that in these circumstances, but Monsters University does an amazing thing that all prequels should do, and they should all be taking notes! Monsters University takes surprise twists and turns that still end up with the results it needs for continuity purposes, but gives the audience something more that makes the prequel worth their time. Without going into specifics, the big highlight of this film for me was the journey of Mike, with him having so many hopes and aspirations at the beginning of his studies to him realising that perhaps he just isn’t cut out for the job he wanted most in the world and that he would have to find something else to make his career out of. Granted, most kids movies would go there, but then they would say “but wait, turns out you had ‘it’ all along!” and everything is sunshine and rainbows. But Monsters University doesn’t have that latter part; Monsters University simply says “that’s life”. And I found that to be an extremely powerful message, and a very realistic one. In a world full of “don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t follow your dreams” ending morals, I commend Pixar for trying a “not everyone is cut to be (for example) an astronaut. But that’s OK” kind of message. As someone who has experienced this feeling, it resonated very deeply.
On the lighter side of things, Monsters University is absolutely hilarious, particularly if you have ever attended university. Myself and the friend I saw it with (both of us university graduates) were in hysterics more than anyone else in the cinema and I distinctly recall the two children next to us loudly whispering “why are they laughing?!” on several occasions! Pixar has so accurately captured the aspects of new student life that it was side-splittingly funny. They had everything: the disgustingly cheery orientation guides, the spur of the moment student ID photos, the student union people hassling you in the quad, wandering through all the weird and obscure student clubs; you name it, it was in it! In a way similar to Toy Story 3, Monsters University seems to be catered not only to children and their parents, but also to the younger adults; the ones currently in, or recently graduated from, university. With the possible exception of the brave dark twist on the story line, I feel all the university in-jokes was one of the best things about this film.
The only real drawback I could attribute to Monsters University is that some of the character relationships were throw aside far too casually. The big one for me was the whole subplot (if I could even call it that, it is barely there!) involving Randell, the chameleon villain from the original film. Beginning the movie with Randell being Mike’s best friend/roommate, Randell very quickly fades away from sight and memory, occasionally popping up now and then as though the writers suddenly remembered they had to make him hate Mike and Sully so they’d better write it so that they inconvenience him in small ways. Other than that, the film has a great new cast of colourful characters, played by an excellent group of actors (including Helen Mirren and Nathan Fillion!) who perform their roles wonderfully.
While many may feel like Pixar has lost their touch in recent years, Monsters University is still worth your time. It may not be Up or WALL-E, but it is a childish film that conveys a very adult message, and that in itself is something to praise. And even if Monsters University isn’t the best of Pixar’s work, Pixar are still the greatest at what they do: they make great, high quality children’s films, with a little more to them than most. And Monsters University is certainly no exception to that rule.
See you next time!
P.S. if you’re interested in Monsters Inc. have a look at this great article explaining an amazing theory as to what led the monsters to believe that children are toxic! Monsters Inc. is listed as number three.
*yes there was a Toy Story 2 but that was the only sequel Pixar had made the in fifteen years prior to this one so I can forgive it!