Stars: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Alfred Molina, Nathan Fillion, Helen Mirren, Steve Buscemi, Peter Sohn, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Charlie Day, Tyler Labine, Aubrey Plaza, Bonnie Hunt, John Krasinski | Written by Dan Scanlon, Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson | Directed by Dan Scanlon
As is traditional with Pixar features, Monsters University is preceded by a short film featuring whimsical anthropomorphic objects falling in love. The Blue Umbrella is a bit twee, but charming nonetheless and sees two umbrellas meeting-cute amidst a city downpour. It was impressed on the audience by MU producer Kori Rae that everything we were looking at was CGI and it’s a good thing she did as the photorealism was startling.
The film proper begins with a teeny tiny Mike Wazowski (Crystal) on a school trip to the Monsters Inc. factory of the original film. It’s there that he decides to dedicate his young life to becoming a professional ‘scarer’ and a few years later, we see him again enrolling at Monsters University. There he meets best-buddy-to-be Sully (Goodman) and a whole bunch of other monster students and faculty including Alfred Molina’s professor Knight, Nathan Fillion’s fraternity president and Helen Mirren’s crusty old dean, headmistress Hardscrabble. Whilst Mike has the book-smarts, can he overcome his innate un-scariness to pass his class?
It’s a testament to the quality of the characters and world of the first film – now well over ten years old – that for a prequel, Monsters University feels like a fresh and interesting prospect. It usually doesn’t feel necessary for creatives to revisit earlier work (Finding Dory strikes me as a little cheap-sounding), but I was quite intrigued by an expansion of the Monsters, Inc. universe. The focus on this film is on Mike rather than Sully, which means that he’s not really playing as the comic foil to Sully’s straight man, so the double act is kind of lost there. I did like that Mike was cast as the nerd and Sully as the jock, forced together by circumstances. In fact, the whole film is basically Monsters, Inc. doing Revenge of the Nerds, with lots of tributes to classic college movie tropes (the crazy college party, stealing the rival’s mascot, etc) which as a fan of 80s college comedies, I liked.
What this means, however, is that the film has nothing of the emotional heft of its predecessor. There’s nothing to correspond with the Boo character and nothing like the frankly heart-breaking scenes between her and Sully at the previous film’s conclusion in Monsters University, which makes it feel a little flippant. A romantic subplot would have been nice – in fact it seems particularly weird that we’re watching a college movie and neither of our protagonists are trying to get girlfriends. In addition, its episodic nature didn’t sit quite right with me. Because of the almost skit-based nature of scenes, it almost felt like Pixar had originally opted for a Monsters University television series, ran out of material and decided to stick what they had together as a feature.
To be honest, it’s a little unfair to keep unfavourably comparing MU to its predecessor, which is arguably one of the best family films there’s ever been. Monsters University may not reach its heights, but it’s consistently funny – more so than several recent comedies for ‘mature’ audiences I could mention – splendidly voiced and lovely to look at. It’s a notch above most other family films, has some great set pieces and I enjoyed it pretty much from start to finish. And more importantly, the hordes of children in the auditorium were thrilled by it too.
A final, pernickety note – you could argue, if you were being a real nerd about it (and heck, we are nerdly here), that the whole film is kind of redundant. At the end of Monsters, Inc. we learnt that laughter, not screams, produced more energy to power the monster society, which makes it all feel a bit pointless watching Mike and Sully learn how to be good scarers. Oh well. That said, how many of us have put what we learnt at uni to good use in our everyday lives?
Monsters University is released in UK cinemas on Friday July 12th.