There was a time when Pixar was synonymous with spellbinding, original filmmaking. However, after the back-to-back disappointments of Cars 2 and Brave, the future suddenly doesn’t look as shiny anymore. Whether this phase is a sign of things to come or a temporary period of creative lull is left to be seen.
Monsters University, Pixar’s third non-original film in four years, is also its most unnecessary film to date. It goes back to the days before Mike and Sully, the heroes of 2001’s heart-tugging Monsters Inc., became the best scare team in the monsters world, back when they met each other at the titular university.
It’s a scenario no one who loved the first one was clamoring for but since prequels are in vogue today (Star Trek, The Hobbit, Prometheus, Oz the Great and Powerful etc…), here we are. Yet, in spite of this rote scenario, and a formulaic plot, Monsters University manages to work! It may not hit the high notes of The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E or the Toy Story movies but with its hilarious mix of slapstick, clever visual gags, and its endearing characters, the film marks a step up from the studio’s previous two movies.
When we first meet Mike (Billy Crystal), the smooth-talking one-eyed hero of Monsters Inc., in the prequel, he’s just a little runt on a field trip. When a chance encounter with one of his heroes sparks a lifelong fascination with scaring, Mike becomes determined to become a scarer. Flash forward a bunch of years later and he’s a starry-eye freshman at the university; a Hermione-like know-it-all with straight A’s to his credit. On the other hand, the big-blue and brash Sully (John Goodman) is a slacker who thinks he can coast his way through college on the back of his illustrious family name. It’s not hard to see why the two would end up clashing heads, or horns.
When a mishap during an exam ends with the school’s no-nonsense dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren in tyrant mode) chucking them both out of the scare program, they reluctantly join forces to participate in the Scare Games, a championship between the university’s various fraternities, as a way to get back into the program.
From then on out, the film plays as a loving homage to 80s college comedies, especially Revenge of the Nerds (without the sex and language of course), as the duo, along with the rest of their sad sack team of monster nerds, rise to the top in the competition against the evil jock team.
As with every Pixar movie before it, the animation in Monsters University is a marvel. Like the original film, the world of Monsters University is a vibrant mix of primary colors, sight gags, and clever details (the film’s jab at university campus quads and the types who frequent them –weirdos, campus organizations, guitar-playing hippies –is remarkably on the nose).
Where Monsters University comes short is heart. It doesn’t have as strong of an emotional core as Monsters Inc. That film pulled on your heart and left you sobbing. Remember the last scene of the movie when Sully pops his head into Boo’s room? This one doesn’t have anything close to the emotional heft of that film. It’s more like that film’s playful younger cousin, a buddy comedy that you laugh with but don’t really think of much after.
Yet what makes the film more than a standard direct-to-video cash-grab, and a more essential film than Cars 2 or even Brave, is the other Pixar staple – its attention to character. Mike and Sully are two of the most endearing characters the studio has ever produced, and the dynamic between Crystal and Goodman is so good that it more than makes up for the film’s missteps.
What I found most interesting about Monsters University though is its theme. The film sends a concrete message that you don’t always have to be a winner to find your way in life. For every winner, there are 10 people who don’t win, so just because you don’t get accepted into a program, or fail at something, that doesn’t mean you should give up. In life, set-backs are inevitable but if you put your mind to it, your hard work will pay off in other ways.