Within the opening five minutes of Monsters University is a glimpse of the iconic ‘Monsters Inc’ factory from the 2001 film of the same name. A tangible excitement was in the air of the student-only pre-screening at this nostalgic throwback to the collective childhood of this audience. Arriving twelve years after the beloved original means that much of the audience who grew up with the original are now the same age as Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) are within this origin story, in which these characters meet each other and struggle through the trials and tribulations posed by the challenges of starting university and studying on the elite Scaring Programme.
But a prequel intrinsically poses some difficult creative challenges in remaining engaging when the destinations of these characters their achievements is already known. Dan Scanlon takes on this challenge, playfully subverting the audience’s expectations and making the journey to this inevitable destination a genuinely surprising one, as well as using this new setting to be build an almost entirely new cast of characters. These includes the terrifying Dean Hardscrabble, brought to life by the indistinguishable voice of Helen Mirren as well as the ragtag fraternity of ‘Oozma Kappa’. This hilarious group of characters fulfil the ‘Boo’ role of this film, bringing heart to the proceeding and providing parental-like responsibilities for Mike and Sulley to share again. With the few returning characters, despite being a new Pixar director, Scanlon’s film balances the fine line between capturing the original essence of the characters, while still making them feel like real students, which automatically entails a level of narcissism.
This is Mike Wazowski’s movie at its core, and his shift from comedic relief to fully-rounded (pardon the pun) protagonist is far more successful than Pixar’s attempt to do the same for Mater in Cars 2. Younger Mike is still recognisably the same, but less self-assured and with a core vulnerability which may resonate with students who are going through the same point in life, in which childhood dreams have to be discarded and reality must be faced. This thematic core provides a refreshingly realistic counterpoint to that of the standard family film, which often provide empty promises of a fantastical future where the dreamers and the determined succeed. But the Monster world has always meant to be a mirror to our own and the approach it takes to tackling these issues is sometimes achingly painful to watch. Although it might not be as deliriously ‘weepy’ as the opening of Up or the ending of Toy Story 3, the movie’s subtle approach works and this knowledge of the inevitability of his destination, intrinsic within the concept of the prequel, is used to make a quietly heartbreaking journey for Mike, which folds into the original film beautifully.
But the melancholy elements are balanced out by the incessant and brilliant humour displayed within the film. While some of the fraternity style jokes may not always land with a British audience, many of the clever university elements incorporated into the film may be particularly funny for students (highlights include jokes relating to Freshers’ Fair, mature students and campus newspapers). The film also manages to resist the obvious jokes from the original film for most of its running time, keeping the returning cast to a minimum and its references to the original being mainly in small details, such as musical cues and mirrored shots, subconsciously reinforcing the links between these two films.
Yet it is these moments which highlight the core problem is that the film relies on its predecessor for its own merits to be fulfilled. The most affecting moments, the funniest jokes and the best details are all in service to the original. While this movie, manages to build on the legacy of Monsters Inc., adding history to the relationships and the world, these are its main achievements. This leaves Monsters University feel less like its own independent film and simply an extended backstory, missing the fresh, vibrant feel of the best of Pixar. This most significant prequel pitfall is the one it is unable to overcome.
Monsters University is a well-crafted and witty film and the best Pixar film since Toy Story 3 but, like the characters gazing up at the looming factory in the film’s opening, the film lives under the shadow of Monsters Inc. It struggles to stand on its own and make an independent impression, instead serving only as a an interesting appendix to its predecessor, while still successfully managing to add depth and nuance to the original classic.
Monsters University is out in cinemas 12th July.
It is proceeded by a beautiful short called ‘The Blue Umbrella’, which is simply breathtaking with its photorealistic imagery and subtle atmosphere.