To say I felt unenthusiastic going into Monsters University would be a tremendous understatement. I have made no secret of my disdain for Pixar’s recent, increasingly commercialized direction, and as lazy and disappointing as I found Cars 2 and Brave, nothing made me worry more about the creative future of the company more than the prospect of a College-themed prequel to Monsters Inc. Every aspect of that sentence sounds wrong. College movies for kids never work; there is too much about those years that has to be ‘sanitized,’ literally and emotionally, for such films to ever feel honest or genuine. Prequels are an inherently messy concept, because there is very rarely room to surprise or challenge the viewer, let alone tell a story that meaningfully augments or expands upon the original narrative. And most importantly, nothing about Monsters Inc. calls out for a follow-up of any kind. It is a rather perfect animated classic, one that continues to hold up beautifully with impossibly rich characters and a wonderfully effective emotional core.
Yet against all odds, Monsters University works, and it works very, very well. On all levels, as a family-friendly college comedy, a prequel, and a supplement to the original feature, Monsters University is an extremely solid creative success, a minor-key work for Pixar on the whole, yet one that absolutely lives up to the artistic precedent the company has set. The film simply feels like a Pixar movie, top to bottom, and after two consecutive left-turns into lazy, generic studio animation territory, it is an extreme pleasure to watch a new Pixar movie with a real voice. Even during those stretches when the film is a bit too mired in convention, Monsters University boasts terrific characters, gorgeous and clever visuals, truly intelligent and surprising humor, and a wildly poignant emotional undercurrent, all of which serves to distinguish the film as a cut above the rest, exactly like a Pixar film should.
That last point is the most important one, as it is for all of Pixar’s good features. Ever since I started following the company closely, I have always heard the top creative craftsman discuss the absolute importance of the story above all else – that for a film to work, the narrative and themes must be absolutely clear, offering a rock-solid foundation for character, humor, and emotional heft to grow from organically. It is all well and good to imagine a world where toys come to life, or a fish family is separated, or bedtime monsters exist as a large corporate bureaucracy, but if there is not a real story there, one that can support a genuine, thoughtful theme, then these ideas are little more than gimmicks. This is what I felt went missing in Cars 2 and Brave. Yet from the opening moments, Monsters University proves that it is more than just an attention-grabbing concept, and it does so in the same way as its Pixar forbearers: By offering a clear, compelling direction for its story, characters, and themes.
The film begins with a young Mike Wazowski, the little green ball of nerves from the first movie, on an elementary school field trip to Monsters Inc. headquarters. Cheerful and idealistic to his core, Mike is ignored and mocked by his classmates, but upon meeting an inspirational monster on the scare floor, the path of his life is chosen. Despite ridicule from his peers about his short stature and decidedly un-scary appearance, Mike devotes himself to becoming a ‘scarer,’ and believes the eponymous Monsters University is the best place to do it.
And immediately, the purpose of doing a Monsters Inc. prequel becomes clear. We know Mike will not become a scarer – in the original film, he assists his best friend Sulley, rather than going into children’s rooms himself. The typical bane of a prequel’s existence is audience familiarity with the source; we know what will happen to these characters, so dramatic tension is difficult to create. Monsters University quickly turns that surplus of audience knowledge to its advantage, because in knowing Mike’s dreams will not pan out as initially intended, we are able to spot the thesis embedded in this introductory sequence: That Monsters University will not be a light, fluffy college comedy, but a real, character-based story about failing to achieve one’s goals, and how life is, in so many ways, inherently unfair. And that is not only a thematic direction worth exploring, but one that can be uniquely enhanced by the typically restrictive confines of a prequel.
Indeed, Monsters University is the story of Mike failing to grasp his lifelong dream, and every aspect of the film’s execution stems naturally from that complex but basic point, up to and including the college premise and setting. College is, after all, one massive, extended reality check, the time in one’s life when one’s goals and ambitions are tested by the often-harsh demands of the real world. It is the time when many of us learn, definitively, that life is not fair – that as much as we want something, and no matter how hard we work for it, there may be less deserving people who come in ahead, be it for luck, natural ability, or privilege. And if the roadblocks are not our peers, there are many other forces, ones we cannot anticipate or plan for, that serve to beat us down on the path to genuine maturity.
Monsters University may not be able to depict drinking, drugs, sex, or other forms of experimentation that go along with many people’s college experience, but it absolutely understands these basic, universal challenges of one’s college years. When Mike arrives at school, it is stunning to see just how authentic and articulate the film’s use of setting is. Monsters University is hilarious, and especially so when zeroing in on various aspects of college life, but there is an underlying honesty to everything the film presents in relation to its central conceit. Mike studies like crazy for his scaring classes, while his new acquaintance James P. Sullivan (who, in a nice touch, refers to himself as ‘Jimmy’ here, rather than Sulley) slacks off and parties, and various upperclassman float by on privilege and physical appearance. Mike’s challenge lies in distinguishing himself in an environment where effort and willpower only go so far, an arc that is not only foundational to college, but to adult life in general.
While it is quite frankly miraculous to see a family film touch so effectively on concepts this tough – Mike and Sulley’s respective arcs culminate in one of most emotionally raw and powerful scenes in Pixar history – what makes Monsters University feel so much of a piece with the larger Pixar family is how it eventually arrives at a destination of inspiration, not defeat. Even as a prequel, the film finds suspense in keeping the audience unaware as to how Mike and Sulley will find happiness, both as professionals and as friends, when so much in their early years challenges them. While I will not spoil how the film wraps itself up (the final few minutes are gloriously, giddily effective), I will say that Monsters University ultimately turns out to be a story about how the measure of one’s character does not lie in how clearly one achieves one’s dreams, but how one picks oneself back up after being knocked to the ground. It is rare to find a film that feels truly inspirational, but Monsters University is that rarity – utterly honest about the trials of adulthood, and meaningfully optimistic in illustrating how happiness may be found.
If this all sounds a bit dry and stuffy, do not worry – like many of Pixar’s works, it is easy to get bogged down in celebrating theme, when comedy and entertainment value are two of the company’s greatest assets. Monsters University is high on both. Director Dan Scanlon has a tremendous amount of fun playing with all the possibilities this world affords him, not only in creating dozens of new, creative monster designs, but by integrating gags based on the broad comic potential of the Monsters premise at every last turn. Monsters University is among Pixar’s absolute funniest features, with Scanlon proving himself extremely adept at developing a consistently unpredictable, and always satisfying, comedic rhythm. There are big, overt jokes, small background gags, and everything in between, all of it coming fast and most of it landing with expert precision. Whether the jokes arrive in the form of major comic set pieces or small, scene-accentuating grace notes, the humor always derives from the setting, story, and characters. As noted before, the film’s portrait of college is very well observed, especially in the beginning, and it is no coincidence that the best jokes are the ones that stem from universal college experiences. Good, insightful material provides a rich foundation for drama and comedy alike, and Monsters University exploits this simple truth to its fullest advantage.
The film is also bursting with great characters, not only in returning players – I am amazed at how effortlessly Billy Crystal and John Goodman step back into the roles of Mike and Sulley, and how invested I became in watching their iconic friendship develop – but new figures as well. Monsters University does not rely on characters from its predecessor as a crutch, but creates and develops many compelling personalities of its own, especially where Mike and Sulley’s group of underdog friends are concerned. The main plot of the film involves Mike and Sulley competing in a scare competition with a team of underdogs, and if the arc is conventional – these characters seem bland and unimpressive at the outset, but we come to love and value them by the end – the execution is spectacular. Some of Pixar’s best character creations lie in Mike and Sulley’s newfound fraternity of outcasts, and that is no small feat.
If Monsters University handles convention with ease where these characters are concerned, it should be noted that the film is not always as graceful when dealing with predictable material. The aforementioned scare competition is such a conventional route to take for a college tale that it does, inevitably, come across as a bit underwhelming. The realization of this story is never anything less than solid, but the film loses something in its second act, where many of the most well-observed particulars of college life are left by the wayside, and the narrative becomes intrinsically rooted in plot points we have seen in plenty of other movies. Your mileage will vary, and I suspect this will be a bigger problem for some than others – I personally feel the film’s characters and themes are rich enough to support lulls in overall creativity – but it is undeniable that, viewed holistically, Monsters University packs less originality than many Pixar features, and feels less ambitious as a result.
It is also worth mentioning that while Monsters University mostly uses its prequel conceit spectacularly, there is one inevitable issue that proves a mildly nagging distraction. Scares and scaring may be everything in this film, but Monsters Inc. was in large part about the characters learning of scaring’s dark side, and how laughter was ultimately more effective and emotionally rewarding for their world (not to mention that the revelation leaves Mike in the dominant leadership role he spends this film chasing, and ultimately letting go of). It is a tad off-putting to see young Mike and Sulley so invested in something we, the audience, know will one day betray them, but such specificity does not affect the film’s overall thematic purpose or impact.
One could easily argue that back in 2001, Monsters Inc. was the film that proved Pixar had life beyond John Lasseter, that the company could continue telling creative and poignant stories outside the realm of Toy Story. Monsters University arrives at a similarly crucial moment in the studio’s history, at a time when audiences have learned the hard way that Pixar is not infallible. If Monsters University is a lesser feature than the original on the whole – but at times, only just – it still offers more than enough to give Pixar another major boost in creative credit. This is a wonderful little movie, a great story about maturity and fraternity – not to mention a beautifully animated, top-notch comedy – and if it does not automatically make me excited about the prospect of future Pixar sequels – Finding Dory just provokes a kneejerk reaction of trepidation for me – it does make me less apprehensive. Pixar’s core will always lie in telling profound, intimate human stories through big, imaginative scenarios, and so long as that balance can be achieved, they are capable of anything. The unlikely excellence of Monsters University is proof positive of that.