I generally start by putting the films I discuss into some kind of context. In fact quite often half the review is context but this time more than ever I really need to explain the history.
Monsters Inc was the film that properly cemented Pixar’s reputation. Sure we’d already had two thirds of the groundbreaking Toy Story trilogy and the so so Bug’s Life (Antz was better) but this was the point that the studio’s run of brilliance truly started. Following Monsters Inc they gave us Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up and the sublime Toy Story 3 and so it was that every other animation house in America responded by throwing out the drawing boards and retraining or retiring all of their inkers and pencillers.
With a more personal significance though Monsters Inc was my eldest child’s first proper trip to the cinema (she had slept through the first Harry Potter film when she was eight weeks old but that doesn’t really count.) She was all of six months old and she sat riveted to the screen for the entire running time. Clearly all of my daughters are now film fans (it helps them develop a good attention span and teaches them story progression) but this was where it started, this is when I first shared my passion with one of my precious offspring. This is why Monsters Inc has a very special place in my heart.
Due to all of this I thought my reaction to Monsters University would either be one of love or one of crushing disappointment (as it was with the charmless Cars 2). As it turns out it was both. My opinion started at one end of the spectrum but moved very definitely the other way by the end of the film. At first the weight of expectation was too heavy and I felt I was watching an insubstantial retread but by the time the credits rolled I had been totally won over and knew I had seen something special. Once again Pixar have given us a film that is a good cut above most other kid’s movies.
The trick with a follow on film, be it a sequel or as is the case here a prequel, is knowing how many of the elements from the original to include. Too often characters that are superfluous to the new story are shoe horned in because the writers just think they should be in there somewhere. C3-PO’s appearance in the second Star Wars trilogy is an example of this where the idea that he originated as the hobby project of a young Darth Vader is just stupid and devalues both characters.
The Toy Story films worked because they got this right concentrating on their estimable ensemble of characters even knowing which of them to jettison at the end. The only element they really repeated was Andy’s bedroom game from the beginning of the first film and when that was replayed at the beginning of part three it was a wonderful mix of the familiar and the spectacular.
Monsters University mostly gets this right too. The main concentration is clearly on the central duo of Mike Wasowski and James P. Sullivan showing the journey they take from being arrogant and cocky to responsible and respectful of others (a journey that many of us no doubt travelled our own versions of at University). There is a nice role for Randall too who’s character arc inevitably goes the other way. We also get to revisit Monsters Inc and The Scare Floor on a couple of occasions but this is done nicely in service of the story. Thankfully there is no sign of Boo from the first film or any of her ancestors and there is no Celia. Henry J. Waternoose also makes the briefest of appearances which I thought was nicely played and very funny. There are a couple of old characters that I did think were clumsily inserted but this is mostly avoided.
As with the Cars and Toy Story sequels we are introduced to dozens of new characters, many of them monster versions of the people you would expect to see in a university campus film. Clearly we get the goths, the cheerleaders, the jocks (one of them voiced by Nathan Fillion who’s involvement makes any film better) and the dweebs. Most of these characters work, some not so much, some seem to be inspired by Lilo & Stitch but none of them really get the character development they need which is one of the things I found disappointing.
This last concern though is balanced out by the way the film handles Billy Crystal’s Mike and John Goodman’s Sully. Here we get excellent character development and their motivations seem very authentic and real, especially for an animated film. They way they move from animosity to friendship is totally convincing and genuinely touching.
The other thing that has always driven the best Pixar films is the adventure and this the area in which Monsters University initially doesn’t but then suddenly does deliver. A large part of the film is quite episodic and the stakes are never that high but the final sequence is just brilliant, epic and very exciting.
Also on the plus side, for what it’s worth, is the animation which is just breathtaking. When you see new renderings of familiar environments such as The Scare Floor you can really see how the quality of the image has moved on in twelve years. It all just looks brilliant and, unless you are watching it through 3D glasses, beautifully vibrant. The Blue Umbrella, the traditional short film that plays before the main feature really showcases this technology and at times during this I thought I was watching real footage not something that had been computer generated. It is only when I later saw the equally realistic backgrounds behind the comedy monsters that I realised their artistry really was that good.
On the down side, the film isn’t consistently funny. It isn’t that the jokes fall flat, it is that they are not really there, certainly not often enough. Bear in mind when considering if this is one for the kids that parts of it could be quite scary for under fives (these characters are training to scare children after all) but as the makers of Monsters Inc know better than anyone; laughter is ten times more powerful than scream and compared to its predecessor it does not measure up in this respect.
So Monsters University doesn’t rank up there with the first film, which along with When Harry Met Sally and The Princess Bride is one of the habitually rewatchable Billy Crystal three, but it is an entertaining, captivating and beautifully made if only mildly humorous kids film. That is a recommendation.
Oh and baby Mike is one of the cutest things I have ever seen on a cinema screen. It’s that big eye!