Film Review: Monsters University
Although it is often more prudent to leave one’s baggage at the door when reviewing new releases, with each passing year it becomes harder and harder to judge the films of Pixar Animation Studios without recalling the company’s prolific track record. However, on this occasion, it feels necessary to consider Monsters University in light of the studio’s current stature in the eyes of fans and critics.
To the chagrin of some of my course-mates, I will defend last year’s Brave to the last gasp. Granted, it is not a masterpiece to stand alongside the likes of Up or the Toy Story series, but it did demonstrate that Pixar were still capable of crafting original products, which are impressive in both ambition and emotional scope. For all its flaws, Brave had a fire in its belly and a strong human resonance beneath its flair, which helped to steady – if not entirely vindicate – the good ship Pixar after the disappointment of 2011’s Cars 2. The latter felt so forced and rote in execution that one couldn’t help but worry that the studio had begun to focus on commercial gain over creative adventure.
Thankfully, Monsters University (the debut full-length of director Dan Scanlon) fares better than Cars 2, not least because of two reasons. For one, the characters (and mythologies) that we are returning to are much more likeable than Lightning McQueen’s universe; and secondly, Monsters University makes itself easier to embrace (and justify) by offering itself as a prequel, rather than a straight-up sequel. Let’s face it, even the most diehard of Cars fans would have to admit that – even before its sequel’s opening credits had rolled – the franchise had already run out of road. Monsters University, on the other hand, rearranges the formula by turning backwards, to enhance the tableaus behind the beloved characters of Mike Wazowski and James ‘Sulley’ Sullivan. It allows for an intriguing exploration of these characters’ histories, and also gives the studio a meaty playground in which to work: the sprawling life of university.
After a fateful school visit to Monsters, Inc., wide-eyed youngster Mike makes it his life mission to become a professional “scarer”. Applying himself through his education, he bags a place at the prestigious Monsters University, wherein he enrols in the Scare Program. Naturally-gifted hotshot Sulley becomes a quick rival to the bookish cyclops, and the clashes between the two come to a dramatic head, resulting in them both being removed from the course. The film then follows the ol’ team-up routine as the pair join forces to reclaim their positions.
As per usual, the animation itself is delightful. The film’s cartoonish, rainbow-coloured palette sparkles with vivacity, augmented nicely with some top-notch voice work. The chemistry of John Goodman and Billy Crystal allows the central bond of Mike and Sulley to shine once again, and many of the new characters are invested with such panache that they become easily enjoyable company. Particular plaudits go to Helen Mirren (as the acid-tongued Dean Hardscrabble) and Charlie Day (playing the shady student Art), both of whom have great fun bringing some fresh blood to the table.
In addition, the film’s light, loose tone offers some great comedic potential: an area which is perhaps where Monsters University finds its strongest rhythm. A particular early highlight is found in the origin of Randall Boggs’ antagonistic squint, and the trials of the “Scare Games” offer a rich vein of slapstick and animated quirks which imbue the film with a kinetic excitement.
However, such pleasant fun can’t distract from the fact that, when it comes to emotional breadth, Monsters University feels very stunted. Not because its message is invalid, but because it is delivered in a manner both heavy-handed and predictable. In the crucial moments where Monsters University should flower into something rich and touching, it stalls, failing to draw any kind of rewarding connection with its audience. And consequently, for all its merits elsewhere, it is this sub-par emotional arc which reduces Monsters University to something which feels superfluous. Without anything substantial on which to hang its gags, once the film’s tale is told, there is little to entice a second viewing.
Entertaining but lightweight, Monsters University fails to capitalise on Brave’s progressive trajectory for Pixar Animation Studios. Hopefully next year’s The Good Dinosaur will prove that the animation titans still have something fresh and relevant to say, but with Finding Dory and talks of further sequels in the pipeline, one can’t help but fret that these once-invincible players are reaching a point of creative crisis.
Monsters University is certainly enjoyable, and as follow-ups go, it easily surpasses Cars 2. However, several years ago, it would seem unthinkable to regard a Pixar creation as little more than fluff, and Monsters University edges dangerously close to that line.
Posted on July 17, 2013, in The Film World and tagged Billy Crystal, Brave, Dan Scanlon, Film Review, John Goodman, Mike Wazowski, Monsters Inc., Monsters University, Pixar Animation Studios, Sulley, Toy Story. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.