Film Review – Monsters University
It would be fair to say that my feelings were tepid upon hearing the news that Pixar wanted to do a sequel to Monsters, Inc. After all, alongside A Bug’s Life and Ratatouille, Monsters, Inc is one of the most overlooked films in Pixar’s long and illustrious history, but certainly not because of quality. Ignoring the massive demand for a sequel to films such as Finding Nemo or The Incredibles, Pixar made the bold decision to first revisit the monster team of Mike (Billy Crystal) & Sully (John Goodman) that scored them their first nomination for Best Animated Feature. Much has been made in recent years about Pixar’s decision to start making sequels (in which I’ve certainly played my part), but with Monsters University they went in a whole new direction—into the past—by making a prequel for the first time.
One of the most painful things to admit is that, despite how much I love them, in the last few years it has felt a bit like Pixar plateaued. Competing studios such as Dreamworks Animation and Blue Sky Studios have been gaining ground in the quality of their productions, and last year was the first time I felt it was undeserving for Pixar to win Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards. While I would be willing to argue that Cars 2 was better than the original, I still don’t think it needed to be made. Similarly, I really enjoyed Brave, but it didn’t feel groundbreaking in the same way previous Pixar films had; it felt like it was playing it safe. It had started to feel like the company was playing catch-up instead of trendsetting. With each modest critical reception—an arena where they had been used to dominating (look up their past ratings on Rotten Tomatoes to be amazed)—the pressure continued to mount and they continued to be second-guessed. In a bizarre turn, going back to their past catalog might have reinvigorated Pixar in a way they have desperately needed.
In Monsters University, we follow Mike & Sully during their formative years, as they navigate cliques and peer pressure while attending school to become “Scarers.” The fundamental problem with prequels is that you know where the story is going. A lot of the time this means the ending is predictable and eliminates much of suspense from the story. The brilliance of Monsters University is that it acknowledges the existence of its predecessor, but goes off in a completely different direction. Monsters, Inc was a story about revenge, prejudice, and fears; Monsters University is a story of identity and friendship. Sure, there are nods towards Monsters, Inc, as characters such as Randall (Steve Buscemi) play key roles in the story once again, but it is more apt to compare Monsters University to college movies like Revenge of the Nerds or Animal House than to Monsters, Inc.
The story is about the experience of being in college: making friends, reinventing yourself, confronting bullies, striving towards goals, and discovering who you really are in the process. The only thing that makes this different is that it is about monsters instead of humans. To show you how universal Pixar makes their stories, you could pretty much replace the characters with anything and it would still work. The smartest decision that they made was to not try to recapture essence of the film’s predecessor, instead creating a unique property that exists within the same universe—almost like if they made another Toy Story movie, but with completely different toys at the heart of it.
The film is one of the most human stories this year, and yet it is set in one of the most imaginative worlds. Monsters University showcases how deceptively simple Pixar’s work can be. On the surface, this is like any other college movie, with a lot of the same plot beats that you’ve come to expect. But it is the minutia between those moments that separate this from everything else. Pixar’s work here demonstrates their contradictory nature: creating a movie entirely around the concepts of fear and scaring and making it something that children will relish, taking a familiar plot and making it unique, and taking characters you already know and making them feel new.
In addition to the original Monsters, Inc. having a heartwarming story like all Pixar movies, it was noteworthy because of its huge strides forward in visual effects, such as creating realistic hair effects for Sully. This new film isn’t quite the landmark step forward of its predecessor, but once again Pixar is at peak performance with their best use of 3D that I’ve seen so far (still not gimmicky, but more noticeable than some of their other attempts), and the visuals continue to amaze, including things like moon reflections that appear photorealistic and wave effects that look like real water. Obviously photorealism isn’t of interest to Pixar, but this once again highlights the attention to detail they spend on moments that probably won’t be noticed by 99% of audiences. Quality truly is their number one priority.
This isn’t a new property, and that will always be a bit of a bummer, but if Pixar is going to continue to build on their existing franchises, this is the kind of work I want to see them doing. Monsters University doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it puts the wheels on a whole new car. Unless there is a surprise hit animated movie on the slate this year, it looks like Pixar has returned to their post on top. (Oh, and The Blue Umbrella, the Pixar short that plays before the feature, is also excellent…once again, Pixar shows they can work magic within silence.)
Final Grade: A