One of the most cherished films in the Pixar back catalogue, the news of a prequel to 2001’s Monsters, Inc. was met with near universal jubilation. However, Pixar have undergone some monumental changes in the last decade, reflected in a string of perturbing announcements about forthcoming sequels. There was also last year’s Brave which, in spite of it’s Academy Award, felt like an innocuous Disney fairytale dressed in Pixar clothing. So, Monsters University (2013) arrives at a tentative period in the studio’s history. Surely the return of pals Mike Wazowski and “Sulley” Sullivan should be cause for celebration?
Filling in the background of Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sulley’s (John Goodman) formative years, Monsters University begins in the Monsters, Inc. factory where a young Wazowski – complete with a full set of train track orthodontics – is on a school trip. After finding himself on the wrong side of an inter-dimensional doorway, Mike gets a taste of what it’s like to be a ‘scarer’ and knows exactly what he wants to do when he grows up. This impishly innocent first act is by far the film’s crowning achievement, capturing the magic and spectacle we’ve come to expect from Pixar’s talented team of effects artists – who also brought us Toy Story and WALL-E.
An eager and determined Mike becomes fierce foes with the cocky ‘Sulley’ Sullivan when the pair first meet at university – that is until their hatred of each other ends up getting them kicked out of the campus scare programme. Their only chance to get re-enrolled is to win the annual ‘Scaring Games’. However, to do so they need to join one of the many fraternities on site. Enter the clumsy, and downright unscary Oozma Kappa house that accepts the pair with open tentacles. From here on in, Pixar director Dan Scanlon’s Monsters University turns disappointingly into a tame origin story with a formulaic and somewhat pedestrian ‘rise of the underdog’/frat boy Animal House-style adventure tagged on for good measure.
This isn’t to say there aren’t laughs along the way, with Scanlon littering the story with the usual inventive Pixar characters we’ve come to expect. What does become apparent is the fact that there’s precious little of the fierce wit of previous offerings. Monsters University’s diverse and eclectic menagerie of monstrosities will certainly entertain younger audiences, whilst parents and older viewers will still find the odd subtle adult joke here and there. In the past, however, Pixar could always be relied upon to draw you into their stories on an emotional level – here, a deeper connection is one thing that’s sorely missing here.
The film’s cavalcade of jokes feel deprived of the subversive bite and charm that made Monsters, Inc. and films like The Incredibles, WALL-E and Up such remarkable achievements in animation – entertaining all ages on a variety of different levels. Thankfully, the touching short Blue Umbrella that accompanies Pixar’s latest does offer some hope for the future, with this diminutive romance showing the type of ingenuity and charisma that’s sadly absent from the main feature. With any luck, Monsters University will be looked back upon as an adequate excursion that marked the end of a small period of commercial mediocrity.