Monsters Inc. was the fourth feature film to be released by animation giant Pixar. A critical and commercial success, it has taken over 10 years for the follow-up to be released in the form of a prequel Monsters University. Reuniting the original cast along with newcomer Dan Scanlon as director it is the fourteenth film released by Pixar.
On a school trip to the scaring floor at Monsters’ Inc. young Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) meets a scarer and sneaks into a live scare environment without being noticed. Inspired by his new hero, Mike begins studying hard and graduates to Monsters University where he majors in scaring along with his room-mate Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi). He finds himself however in competition with Johnny Worthington III (Nathan Fillion), his fraternity the Roar Omega Roars and their newest recruit, the young, cocky James P. Sullivan (John Goodman) and their feud draws the ire of legendary scarer and University Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren).
Like all the great Pixar films, Monsters University draws inspiration from numerous genres notably American college films like Animal House. The warring fraternities, the intimidating Dean character and the improbable competition to tie the narrative together are all here. Director Dan Scanlon and co-writers Robert L. Baird and Daniel Gerson obviously understand the genre as this semi-parody is treated with the care and attention that we became accustomed to during Pixar’s earlier films.
What it also has however is the touch of Pixar magic that has been lacking in the pretty good Brave and the plain bad Cars 2. Experts at layering their characters with depth, while creating a perfectly realised fantasy world, Pixar and Scanlon have outdone themselves. Monsters University is every bit as beautiful and surreal as its original. From the moment Mike steps onto campus for the first time, we’re in safe hands and there are plenty of visual gags in the background throughout. But where the film is strongest is in the exchanges between Crystal’s superb Mike and Goodman’s equally impressive Sulley. So good is the writing that jokes catch the audience unawares and seem like improvised comedy, rather than scripted animation.
Many of the jokes work so well because time is taken to develop the characters, giving the audience a deeper understanding of their motives and eventually a reason to care. Much like their previous work Up, there is a mini-prologue to set that scene, and while it may not be as emotionally powerful as the story of the early life of Carl Fredricksen, it is every bit as important to the complex narrative. The animation too proves that Pixar are consistently at the cutting edge of the art form and while the original boasted the individual hairs on Sulley, Monsters University truly transcends other recent animated efforts.
With the aforementioned Cars 2 firmly in the rear view mirror, Monsters University once again proves that Pixar are the animation house to beat. Moving, engaging, delightful and very, very funny, Monsters University doesn’t quite reach the original in terms of quality, but is a step back in the right direction for Pixar.
There’s a chance that this being one of my first top-level journalistic press screenings that I may have got a bit carried away with the film because I was enjoying the environment I was watching it in. Everyone makes a mistake but on further viewing I definitely over-graded Monsters’ University, although it is still a great film, just not film of the year.