After delivering two lacklustre movies in the past two years (Cars 2 and Brave), the once-reliable Pixar animation studios turns to its back catalogue yet again. There’s no real reason for a sequel to 2001’s highly amusing Monsters Inc. to exist, and Pixar seem to realise this as well, so instead they’ve given us their first prequel, taking place a good few years prior to the events of the original film.
Scaring kids was still big business in the monster’s world then, creating their source of energy, so naturally they have to learn how to do it well. The film begins with a cute scene of Mike as an outgoing but unpopular child visiting the Monsters Inc. scare floor on a school trip, and finding his calling; to go to Monsters University and become a ‘scarer’. It then cuts to many years later as he is about to disembark the bus for his first day at MU.
Although the film takes place in a wacky alternative universe, it’s unfortunate to see that the University is extremely, one could say stereotypically, American. It’s a place overrun with competing, matching jacket sporting fraternities and sororities with silly, Greek alphabet based names. It does manage to feel like a typical American movie university without being able to use many characteristics one would associated with that not-exactly child friendly environment, (drinking, swearing, sex etc.), but it’s a shame to see Pixar’s lack of imagination here.
This is not just a kid’s campus comedy though, what it really feels like is a sports movie. The main plot involves a multi-stage competition, ‘The Scare Games’, for which the stakes are particularly high for Mike and Sully. The familiar pair are not friends when the movie starts and initially dislike each other, but find themselves forced to team up, along with an uninspiring ‘loser’ fraternity. How will these underdogs possibly take on the top jocks? It plays out as you’d expect.
One of the advantages on animation is that even when you have a prequel set around a decade before the original, made a decade or so after it, you can employ the same acting talent. Billy Crystal and John Goodman both do excellent work with their well-developed characters, making them convincingly younger, but this film still suffers from the prequel problem; we know where exactly they will end up. This foreknowledge unfortunately does dilute the film’s admittedly admirable message too.
Good character work can’t raise Monsters University to the level of Pixar’s top work, it might be fun to enter the monster’s world again but an unoriginal story and setting, coupled with many misfiring jokes, make this the third sub-par Pixar in a row. The week that I was writing this, they announced that both of their next films are being pushed back, and there will be no new Pixar film in 2014. It sounds like a good move to me, taking their time to see if they can reclaim some of their old magic.