Twelve years ago Pixar Animation floored us with their fourth feature, a delightful twist on the monster-in-the-closet trope called Monsters Inc., which gave us two of our favourite movie characters ever, the gentle giant blue scarer James P. Sullivan and the green one-eyed cueball Mike Wazowski. Now 12 years later Mike and Sulley are back in a prequel which shows us how they met. Titled Monsters University the film lets us see how scary monsters learn the true nature of scaring as they embark on the toughest journey of all…surviving college!”
There’s a nice scene at the very start of Monsters University where a young Mike Wazowski, who is cute as a button by the way, witnesses the scarers at work on the floor of Monsters Incorporated that simultaneously sets this film up succeed and to fail. By bringing us so early back to the site where all of the magic in the first film happened the audience is instantly reminded of everything that they loved about Monsters Inc., which is great, but also serves to highlight how the university setting, while interesting, lacks the joy of discovery and freshness of the “We scare because we care” factory. That’s not to say that Monsters University as a film in its own right is not worthy of a place in the Pixar canon, because it definitely is, it’s rather to say that Monsters Inc. is one of their best.
Being the fourteenth feature off the illustrious animation studio’s production line first time feature director Dan Scanlon could be sure that for one thing the visuals on display here would be at the very cutting edge. In fact they are so pristine and so clear that Monsters University loses some of the softness and cuddliness of its forebearer as the realism of image belies the children’s dreamlike world of Monstropolis. Having such fine visuals and knowing that the top-drawer voice cast could be reliably left without adult supervision should have freed Scanlon up to focus solely on story, which audiences have come to expect as a hallmark of Pixar. So what of it? Being primarily a children’s film the story is mercifully simple, with a moral undercurrent that is a little more grim than what we are used to from Pixar. Basically it’s a film about finding yourself, finding out what you are good at, and then accepting that not everything will turned out as you wished for and living with that. That is a lesson worth learning, but I’m not entirely sure that it should come from this particular source. Thankfully you can skip the metaphor and enjoy the film for its vibrant pacy script, its lush visuals, and it’s superb voice acting.
The voice casting is where this film really excels as John Goodman and Billy Crystal slip back into their roles of Sulley and Mike respectively with utter ease and as if the 12 year gap between films never happened. As the film centres on how this loveable duo go from utter distain to bussom buddies they receive the most screen time, which is only right and natural. Steve Buscemi is also back, although his newly rechristened Randy (trather than Randall) Boggs is overshadowed by the newcomers to the franchise. Amongst those newcomers is an excellent Helen Mirren as the frightening Dean Hardscrabble…seriously her entrance is the stuff of nightmares and utterly brilliant as a result, a cocky self-satisfied and utterly fitting Nathan Fillion as Johnny J Worthington III (president of uber-fraternity Roar Omega Roar), and the hilarious dynamic duo of Sean Hayes and Dave Foley as the two-headed member of Oozma Kappa, Terri and Terry. The other Oozma Kappa members are funny and each gets their own brief moment but really they are not much more than stereotypical college movie cut-outs and seem designed more than a little with toy-sales in mind.
While the 3D is redundant, the Randy Newman score is nothing special, and there is no one scene that even comes close to the “door scene of the original, there is a lot to love in Monsters University. Kids will adore the cuddly monsters, the vibrant colours and the physically comedy, while adults too will get a lot out of the comic and emotional touches that litter the film. If you need a perfect family film to go to this summer then you really need to give Monsters University a try.