With every new Pixar releases we find an influx of reviewers and random people on the internet (*ahem*) getting angry about the recent abundance of sequels and the company’s supposed focus on merchandise. I have, in the past (as you can see in this very blog), argued that the once outstanding animators are running out of fresh ideas but I must get angry at the suggestion that this prequel to the super popular Monsters Inc. was created solely because of the merchandise potential. Just take a handful of the many reviews out there and you’ll no doubt get bored of the phrase ‘golden age of Pixar’ and the lamentation that we are witnessing yet another nail in the studio’s coffin. Saying that Pixar have lost their way since Disney got involved is as much of a reviewing cliché as saying that every Woody Allen film of the last 20 years isn’t Annie Hallor Manhattan. Quite frankly guys, I’m getting a bit bored of it. Monsters University isn’t a terrible film and certainly doesn’t bring shame on it’s predecessor. Also, in my opinion this film had way more going for it than last year’s Oscar winning Brave (but you can read about that for yourself when you’re done here).
One of the greatest things about Monsters Inc. was how wonderfully it turned the idea of the bogeyman on its head by creating a familiar society that was inhabited by ghoulish creatures. Monsters Universitydelves further into this other world and shows us what life was like when the characters we met previously were entering University. This perhaps removesthe child audience slightly further but, if we’re being honest, this isn’t Pixar’s usual children’s film. The primary target audience are the now grown-up fans of the original who are at an age where they either are in or about to enter the world of higher education. This isn’t another Toy Storystyle franchise where a whole new audience was introduced to the magical toys with the release of every new adventure (which always looked a little too much like their previous adventure if we’re brutally honest). This is an animated Animal House that young children will no doubt enjoy even if they can’t completely appreciate the more specific references to college life.
The major problem with making a prequel is that you are working towards a known time and place. Going in the audience know how the story ends so everything is simply taking place to get us there. That means that the journey we go on must be engaging and entertaining enough to keep the audience on board with the concept. Although the plot is hardly breaking new ground and anyone who has ever seen a film before will know exactly which roads we are being walked down. This prequel borrows the typical buddy flick structure where these future friends start off hating each other. Of course they quickly discover that, in order to get what they want, they will have to work together. So yeah just like every 70s buddy cop film, 80s teen movie and 90s caper then. Although, this one does have added cartoon monsters which is pretty cool.
Lets say that Monsters Inc. is, at its heart, a film about Sulley coming to terms with who he is and who he could be. Monsters University throws the spotlight onto his small cyclops friend Mike Wazowski. The story begins with a young Mike deciding his future after getting a ring-side seat to a successful scare (pulled off by an octo-monster played by the vocally exciting John Krasinski no less). Mike knows what he wants to be and he has no doubt that his never-ending determination will get him there. Move on a few years and Mike is starting his first day at MU where he is ready to impress his tutors in its famous Scare Programme. Not beng the most obvious candidate to strike fear into the hearts of young children, he does this in the same way that any self-respecting nerd would do: by avoiding parties and other distractions and hitting the books. The polar opposite, as it turns out, to James P. Sullivan who has found a place in the programme thanks to his well-known family name and natural scariness. Sulley isn’t the man we knew: he’s the stereotypical jock who came to college for fun and only turns to books when his table legs are wonky.
So who will succeed in this monster-eat-monster world of terror training? Well, neither if the terrifying Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) has anything to say about it. Thrown out of their programme the duo are forced to team up with the outcast fraternity Oozma Kappa (who encourage team spirit by chanting “we’re OK”) and win the University’s annual Scare Games. So it hardly takes a rocket scientist to figure out how this is going to turn out but there is enough interest in the bunch of monster misfits battling superior scarers that it doesn’t feel like a drag getting to the inevitable ending. And, it turns out that there are still a few surprises in store to keep even the most cynical audience member on his toes.
Just as it was with Monsters Inc., it is the more intimate and emotional moments that resonate most with the audience. The other members of OK take the place of Boo from the first film and Mike and Sulley are once more placed into the roles of parents to bring these underwhelming individuals up to scratch. Watching the pair come together to help someone who is dependent on their superior skills is as wonderful as it was in the first film. This is a heart-warming film and even the lack of a human presence can’t remove the humanity from this beastly world. Though by far the most affective aspect of the plot is its stark reminder that, no matter how much you want it, your dreams might not always come true. We are used to Disney films telling us that if we work hard we can achieve anything. However, we live in a world where that simply isn’t the case. Mike obviously gets his happy ending but it is not the one he always dreamed of. It is something that will resonate with the audience and provides some of the sweeter moments.
For all of this intimacy and heart, Monsters University is a big film. The supporting cast is simply massive and you can tell how much of an effort it was to bring it all together. Whatever their issues may be with original storylines and concepts, Pixar thankfully still know how to write quirky and engaging characters and fill their empty screen with more than enough visual comedy. There are some delightful new additions to the cast including Mike and Sulley’s lovable team-mates and the delightfully icy Dean.
Of course, at its heart this is a college movie in the same vain as university based teen comedy we have seen before. All of the familiar faces are here but with a slightly monstrous visage. For that is one of the greatest things about Monsters University, seeing typical college situations played out by monsters and given a fresh new spin and even go against their stereotype. The frat parties, college rivalries, and the various cliques are given a new lease of life simply by placing it within this vast new world.
A world that has been created with the same love and attention to detail that Pixar is still praised for. In animation terms, the company has never been better. With the use of new Global Illumination technology the animated world has been given an even greater depth and provided a much more immersive setting. Pixar are constantly updating their software between films and it certainly pays off. After all, their overhaul of the rendering software pre-Brave created a beautiful if slightly damp squib of an Oscar winner. Although, in the run up to Monsters University the changes went a little deeper and Jean-Claude Kalache (director of photography) started a crusade to change Pixar’s relationship with lighting. (It’s a fascinating subject and, if you like that sort of thing, I recommend reading up on the subject after you’re through here. But then I’ve always been a bit too geeky about this kind of thing.) Global Illumination represented a complete overhaul of the lighting system and made a massive impact on the way their artists worked. However, the results speak for themselves and the lighting ends up feeling much more realistic than we have ever seen before. Some of the scenes are truly breathtaking. Particularly those taking place at night or in darkened spaces. It’s worth the admission price alone I’d say.
(As you’d expect given the new possibilities, lighting plays a very important part of the story-telling. You will often see shadow being used to denote fear and hardship and even light is seen to show moments of intimidation and exposure.)
That and the immense details of the monster world. Just look a little closer at the architecture of the Monster university and you’ll see that everything has been thought through with an obscene amount of care. We have doors within doors to cater for the wide variety of student sizes and additional entrances for aquatic and flying creatures. The monstrous aspects of the buildings themselves with horns, spikes, fangs and tentacles feature on the outside of the campus buildings creates a sense of Gothic history that is in stark contrast to the modernised Monsters Inc. buildings. The landscape is lush and expansive and shows that, despite a possible lack of fresh film ideas, visually they are still at the top of their game. Its just a shame that their writing department are trailing so far behind.
But who really cares? Yes, Monsters University may not be a critically acclaimed and an example of perfect film-making but it is something that will speak to its intended audience. It has taken two characters who a great number of us fell for 12 years ago and shows us more of their history. We see a heart-breaking new side to the lovable fool that we saw pratfalling to keep young Boo entertained. Yes it feels confused in places and the plot is a bit of a lame duck but it does what it wanted to. It entertained me. Pixar are doing what they know best here. Making fun and entertaining films with well-loved characters. So does it really matter that this isn’t exactly thought-provoking and academic film-making? Monsters University is like your favourite jumper. It’s a little worn out and raggedy but its comfortable and familiar. You like wearing it even though you know there are better jumpers out there. You may not wear it out of the house but, ultimately, you’ll always love it.