A dozen years after we first met Mike and Sulley in Pixar’s impressive, imaginative Monsters Inc., the duo is back for a college years prequel. First up, let’s allay the doubts of franchise-cynics by saying that the film works. As an entertaining family comedy and a touching how-did-they-get-there story, it works.
By focusing on Mike Wasowski’s quest to cast himself against type as a Scarer, Monsters University defines a clear emotional through-line that leads to an unexpected message. When you wish upon a star, do your dreams come true? Not in this picture. Sometimes, wishing and hard work just isn’t enough. Sometimes, you have to fail and adapt.
Described by producer Kori Rae as the first U-rated campus comedy, the college setting allows the film to tick off conventions – frat houses, societies, nerds versus jocks, caffeine-fuelled finals – whilst sidestepping any real adult content. Though its humour and design ingenuity save Monsters University from becoming a castrated Animal House, its best and most affecting moments happen off-campus.
The first of those is an Elementary School trip to the Monsters Inc. facility, which efficiently lays out young Mike’s quest before the opening credits roll. Adorable in his Grade School iteration, little Mike is Nemo-like in his size and pluck, though the peril in his hero’s journey never comes close to that faced by the motherless clown fish.
Ordinarily, the curse of a prequel is that any danger faced by the leads is automatically negated. By dint of this being a Pixar film however, we already know our heroes will out. The only loss here then, is to the stakes, which, save one surprising and striking sequence near the film’s close, are kept small. As is the locale. Mike’s mettle-testing journey of self-discovery is largely achieved within the safe, jolly confines of the campus. There’s no intercontinental balloon travel or spaceship navigation here.
Thanks to its glorious array of characters, the setting doesn’t lack for variety. Monsters University is Pixar’s most populated film yet, stuffed with crowd scenes that would take the collective CPU power of Europe (probably) to render. Anyone who noted the technological achievement of Sulley’s fur in the first picture will recognise the galactic leap here. A sweet-shop rainbow of colourful monsters, furry, horned, flying, swimming and sliming go about their business in the background of scenes, participating in sight gags sure to reward multiple viewings (something parents will thanks Pixar for on their umpteenth go-around come the DVD release).
As we’ve come to expect from Pixar, the attention to detail continues throughout. From the monster-themed components of the university architecture down to the horn-shaped zip-pulls on student backpacks, every asset adds to the world characterisation. It’s often said – and rightly so – that Pixar’s films are made lovingly, but tirelessly might be a closer description. The collective design and animation talent on display here is staggering.
Visually, Pixar again demonstrates its virtuoso ability to tell a story using traditional, feet-on-the-ground cinematography. Light is used expressively and thematically, viewer attention is directed with depth of field tricks. Though meticulously designed to be toony, the monster world is also home to some of the studio’s most photo-real work yet. There may not be one isolated image to rival the Fitzcarraldo beauty of Up’s balloon-transported house perched atop a ravine, or the whimsy of two robots waltzing in space, but there’s ingenuity to spare in terms of character design, and fun in spades.
If the geographical scope is limited, then time period by the film covered is one of Pixar’s longest. Starting with tiny Mike, the body of the film falls over a full university year and ends with a lively montage that more or less fills in the gap between the conclusion and the beginning of the first film. (That reminds me, stick around after the end credits for a you-know-what.) At 110 minutes including handsome short The Blue Umbrella, young families may need to plan a runtime loo break. If so, they’re best off waiting for the middle third, which is where the film’s narrative cogs are at their most visible and the story beats at their most familiar.
Speaking of familiarity, voice cast returnees Billy Crystal and John Goodman are as fun as ever as Mike and Sulley. As a Pixar buddy friendship, they’ve some large cowboy and spacesuit boots to fill, but are nearly as endearing here as their Toy Story predecessors. Like Buzz and Woody, the pair spends much of this film at loggerheads with one another, before fulfilling yet another tradition of scholastic comedies and each learning a lesson.
The supporting cast too, is full of treats, from the always-recognisable Nathan Fillion to the slightly more camouflaged Aubrey Plaza, Alfred Molina, Sean Hayes, Charlie Day, and John Krasinski. Helen Mirren is well-cast as the patrician not-quite villain of the piece, Professor Hardscrabble. (One thing the fraternity setting does limit is the number of female characters, meaning that Pixar has returned post-Brave to a mostly male ensemble with Mirren voicing one of the few female monsters.)
Does John Ratzenberger appear along with Pixar’s other customary cameos? Well, it wouldn’t be a Pixar feature without him. (Incidentally, keep an eye out for a nod to 2014’s The Good Dinosaur too. I missed it on both viewings, but have it on good authority it’s in there). Randy Newman’s peppy horns and optimistic jazzy score is a similarly welcome return for an established favourite.
Monsters University doesn’t just piggy-back on the first film, but expands its world in eye-catching directions. Does it feel as vital as Wall-E or Up? Perhaps not, but that’s an awfully high yardstick to measure against. Put it like this: if Pixar was going to make another film in the Monsters Inc. world, it’s hard to see how they could have bettered this.
Monsters University comes out in the US on the 21st of June and in the UK on the 12th of July.
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