*This review is largely spoiler free, and most plot-details mentioned are evident in the trailers, but read cautiously if you haven’t seen the film yet*
Pixar are the gold standard of animation. Once upon a time that was Disney, and if all stays as is it might well be again sometime in the near future, but since 1995, Pixar have been fully leading the animation revolution. We've gone from a time when Disney was more or less the only source of feature animation, to a time when there's about a dozen mainstream animation studios. That's thanks to Pixar. Toy Story was a complete game-changer - revolutionary both visually and thematically - and since then the studio have created classics like The Incredibles and Up. Since 2011 and Cars 2 though, it seems faith in the studio has been broken: that film was widely panned, Brave got a much harsher reception than it deserved, and their fourteenth feature film, Monsters University, has been received - while rather more warmly than the previous two films - to a kind of glum acceptance unfitting of a Pixar film.
An editorial Munir wrote recently has stayed with me; Pixar haven't lost a step, they're not slumping, they're not making poor films, but it is undeniable that their last three films aren't their greatest. The key line, I thought, was "Toy Story 3 is Pixar's Lion King," meaning, once you have reached the absolute pinnacle of creative, critical and commercial success, there's nowhere to go but down. So, while Monsters University is not Pixar's finest film, while it's not as good or as groundbreaking as Monsters, Inc. was 12 years ago, it is still a fine piece of cinema, a testament to great storytelling, and proof that Pixar isn't going anywhere fast.
First and foremost, this isn't Monsters, Inc. 2 (although the ticket at the Vue Cinema I saw the film at did label it Monsters2...), Monsters University is a prequel - something Pixar haven't been given enough credit for; it would have been the easiest thing in the world to have a Boo-centric Monsters, Inc. 2, and it would've made a butt-load of money. But that's not what they did. They approached this like they would an original film, they thought "what's the best story we can tell with these characters?" and the answer is the story of how Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan became friends.
Monsters University surprisingly tells the story of our monster pals at university (other establishments are available, but this is the place for prospective scarers). I don't think it's a spoiler if you've followed the film at all in the last 3 or so years to say that the eventually inseparable duo start out as rivals. Both are students on MU's prestigious scare program; Sulley is a natural, the latest in a long line of famous, revered scarers; Mike is not. For all the talents we recognise that Mike Wazowski has, being scary isn't one of them (he looks like a tennis ball, for Pete's sake!), but he tries and he tries, he studies round the clock and he knows every book ever written about scaring inside and out. But that's not enough. And that's the truly daring thing about Monsters University, it says that you can try your hardest, you can try the most, but that doesn't mean you can accomplish anything; how you react and rebound from that is what defines you. That's a brave message for a family-oriented movie like this to pack.
Sulley's in with the cool kids and the hip fraternities. Mike isn't. Mike's acing the tests. Sulley's not. Long story short, and without spoiling the machinations of the story, the pair's squabbling jeopardises both of their places on the scaring program, and a hard-ass, intimidating and beautifully creepily designed Dean Hardscrabble (voiced to perfection by Dame Helen Mirren) is none too impressed with either of them. To get back in the good backs and back on the course, they need to compete in and win the Greek Scare Games competition. To do this though, they need a full team. Enter Oozma Kappa, the fraternity no one really wants to join, living off-campus in OK memberSquishy's (voice of Pixar's Pete Sohn, who also voiced Emile in Ratatouille) mum's house. From there, they have to learn to work together, and it's not a spoiler to say that Mike and Sulley eventually become friends. How director Dan Scanlon takes the film to what you assume will be the standard conclusion, though, is incredibly thoughtful, several times playing off what you expect to happen, flipping it, flipping it back, and sending you on a thrilling, entertaining roller-coaster of a ride.
Where Monsters University largely differs from Monsters, Inc. is that, where MI was largely Sulley's story, MU is largely Mike's. Sulley is key and his humbling and the pressure he has to live up to by virtue of his last name is an emotional through-line in the film, but it's Mike that we're particularly invested in. Where with the Cars films, Mater didn't really make an effective lead for Cars 2, Mike not only makes for an empathetic, entertaining protagonist, but he's more interesting here than Sulley was in Monsters, Inc.. In fact, he's more interesting here than he was in Monsters, Inc.. The film undoubtedly feels a little less passionate in the absence of Boo, the unequivocal star of the first film, but crafting a film that doesn't just ride that film's coattails is admirable, and largely achieved with aplomb.
The main reason for that is the film's characters, - particularly the OK bunch - who are all thoroughly entertaining, loveable, well-rounded and fun. There's Scott Squibbles (Squishy to friends) who is an absolute riot, both adorable and cringe-inducing at the same time; there's "mature student" Don Carlton (Joel Murray), president of Oozma Kappa, and hardly the height of cool himself; there's the double-headed, single-bodied Terry (Dave Foley, in his second Pixar outing) and Terri (Sean Hayes); and then there's Art (Charlie Day), the bizarre, strange, hilarious and unforgettable purple oddly-shaped fuzzball who is sure to be a hit with all audiences. The OK group are incredibly loveable, very endearing and, for a group of cartoon monsters, very real and earnest.
Other great characters include jock frat-boy Johnny Worthington III (Firefly's Nathan Fillion) and an Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation)-vocied Greek Council president. Pixar favourites, including Bonnie Hunt (A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc., Cars, Toy Story 3) and of course John Ratzenberger, pop up (the latter in hilarious fashion) too. How fleshed out and interesting the side characters of Monsters University are is one of its biggest strengths - something Brave, for all its positives, did lack. In fact, pretty much the only poor character arc was how dorky Randy Boggs became the villainous Randall of the original, the conclusion of which meaning you just arrive at: I guess he's just a douche.
The characters you care most about, though, are undoubtedly the main two. Seeing how Sulley and Mike become best friends is a truly rewarding and emotional journey, one which not only stands on its own, but also adds more dimensionality to the original film. MU takes a little longer to find its footing, in respect to that story, though, than you'd expect. While little Mike is adorable, and the antics and happenings in the first 10 minutes are very funny, the rather cheesy, uninspired dialogue and voice acting of that time means the film opens with a bit of a whimper. Things pick up when classes begin and this stops being just Mike's story, and starts including Sulley, though. Much like Despicable Me 2 did, Monsters U picks up steam drastically as it heads into its second and third acts, and the unexpected and very welcome twists and turns make for one of Pixar's best resolutions. That deserves large props too, that the ending was reasonably open, every loose end wasn't tied up in a neat, convenient little bow, the audience was allowed to do that strangest of things and engage its brain.
The film isn't without emotion - as said, the blossoming relationship between Mike and Sulley is a joyous one, and Mike's journey is very emotional itself; the scene by the lake is the emotional crescnedo of the film - but its greatest strengh is in its knowing that it isn't WALL-E. It isn't Up. Heck, it isn't even Monsters, Inc.. This is a college movie which tells the story of two friends, its aims and goals are proportionate to that. So while it may lack the powerhouse gravitas of Toy Story 3, the film is an absolute riot in terms of comedy. The Oozma Kappa guys, as well as some of the rival fraternities, are hilarious, but the biggest laughs, and indeed the most fun of the movie, comes in the the form of references to the original film. Whether that's a "Winds of Change" poster hung by Randall, or seeing the CDA around the place, or a permed Mr. Waternoose in the credits; it makes the film as nostalgic for returning viewers as it is entertaining for newbies. The film more than stands as a separate entity.
Saying a Pixar film looks great is almost superfluous; of course it does, each one of their films has been more visually impressive than the last. But, to not mention it feels disrespectful to the enormous teams who work tirelessly to create such realistic fur, lighting and shading, and animate in such an amusing and nuanced manner. This is a colourful film, and it looks magnificent. Over a decade after Monsters, Inc., Monsters University looks so much astonishingly better. The opening title sequence, too, animated in a hand-drawn way, reminiscent of the opening title sequence from Monsters, Inc., was great. The film was made only better by Randy Newman's brilliant score, which touches on the original's, but adds a collegiate feel, mixed in with some heavy, raving songs and tracks, the MU soundtrack was as good as we've come to expect from Pixar.
For Dan Scanlon, someone with no prior major feature film directorial experience, Monsters U was a huge opportunity, yet you never get the feeling he's trying simply to recreate what Pete Docter did with the 2001 original, nor that he's going for a completely different direction like Cars 2 did, this is an organic, expanded follow-up to the original. Scanlon directs finely, and I look forward to seeing what he tackles next.
I know Brave had its detractors, but, for the record, I think it is a better film than MU. As this is Pixar, it goes without saying they're both packed with loveable characters and fantastic writing, but I felt Brave was just that bit, well, braver, in its story and its emotion. Not to slate this film though, which is still a solid, funny, entertaining continuation of the much loved original, which has emotional prowess and resonance fitted perfectly to its theme, message and context; it is a college movie, its aims, all of which are abundantly achieved, feel very natural to the characters and to the world and to the theme.
Yet, it's the strangest thing, I was fully amused and entertained by Monsters University, but for the first real time, I felt a Pixar film was lacking something. I won't harp on too much, as I'm not quite able to put my finger on a tangible thing that was missing, but there was something. This isn't to say I thought this was a bad film, a bad Pixar film - or even the worst Pixar film. Maybe the reason I wasn't disappointed by Cars 2 is because I didn't expect all too much from it; I'm not of the belief that Pixar should be crucified for making a good film or a very good film rather than a great one, just because they've been so stellar in the past, but Monsters University is definitely not the studio's finest effort. That said, it is an entirely entertaining, thoroughly fun, clever and at times emotional film that serves to actually enhance one's experience of the first film. That, and it's the best animated film of 2013 so far - only marginally though.
Monsters University is preceded by The Blue Umbrella, directed by Sachka Unseld, up until now a Pixar layout artist. The film looks absolutely phenomenal. The eternal debate is whether animation should stay cartoony in nature (à la Hotel Transylvania) or push to photo-realisim (à la Rango), this does the latter and it does so phenomenally. The first words out of one of my friend's mouth when the short started playing was "this isn't animation," because, yes, it is that good. It looks real. Yet the juxtaposition of the simple cartoon faces onto the umbrellas is pure genius. Seeing the city come to life is classic Pixar, and Jon Brion's score, with vocals from Sarah Jaffe, is infectious. That said, story-wise, it is a bit slight. It's been compared several a time to Disney's Paperman, and there is a bit of that, it's just that this short film feels short. Compare it to something like Presto or last year's La Luna, and it doesn't feel quite as exciting as it might. It is a visual wonder though.
Do you agree that Monsters University is the best animated film of 2013 so far? Or were you charmed my Despicable Me 2 and its minions? Heck, are you the anti-Munir and did you love Epic? Vote in our poll on the right sidebar!