The original Monsters Inc is one of the greatest buddy movies ever made. As heartfelt as it is funny, the jokes were set up, paid off and timed to perfection. The monsters felt fleshed out, developed and far more human than most of the characters other movies have created to hunt them down. It had a mind boggling scale to the set pieces that allowed for one of the most astonishing action climaxes any film has ever conceived. And that final shot, simultaneously uplifting and heart breaking in a way that no other studio could possibly pull off, has stayed with me for the twelve years since it made me cry like a girl in the middle of a packed cinema. It created a benchmark that Pixar themselves would take seven years to match with WALL-E and eight to better with Toy Story 3. So will Monsters University measure up to the legacy of its predecessor?
The answer, obviously, is no. But then again it was always going to be no. But to call a film average or bad based on the disappointment caused the originals brilliance is to judge the film unfairly. Monsters University is a very good film. A few yards short of greatness yes, but very good none the less.
Monsters University joins us up with Mike and Sully in their freshman year, both dreaming of futures in the legendary Monsters Inc as all-star Scarers. Mike has all the knowhow whereas Sully has all the natural talent. The dynamic is a classic odd couple set up, the majority of the intrigue coming from just how these two guys with serious compatibility issues end up being the friends we know they will become. It’s kind of heartbreaking at first to see Sully be so dismissive of his future pal and to see Mike be such an arrogant control freak, but just as heart-warming to see their relationship develop into the friendship we remember so fondly from the first film.
The jokes are not simply written in Monsters University they are crafted, it isn’t just in the words, it’s in the performance, the animation, they have been pulled apart beat by beat and put together again to optimize the comic potential for maximum laughter. You can practically see the workmanship, that oldschool vaudeville charm that treats comedy as an artistic trade.
It only rarely goes for the cheap laugh, the kind of chuckle gotten through the grubby means of so many other animated films (inappropriate Hip Hop references, old people acting bawdy, kids spouting catchphrases, the comedian’s cameo that only serves to crowbar their shtick into the movie). Although the fact that some of these bad examples do slip through the net shows that Pixar’s standard is slipping. Their refusal to pad out their movies with tiresome easy shots is just one of the ways they’ve managed to stay ahead of the pack, to differentiate their work from lesser movie studios.
There’s also a few too many characters. Not many of the characters from the supporting cast get as well developed I would have liked, reduced to performing their roles, getting a laugh, then disappearing again almost as if they had never existed. This means we spend too much time in the company of characters who aren’t as integral to the plot as they perhaps could have been in a less crowded script.
Its one of the downfalls to the tropes of the Frat house comedy. By setting the film in such a rigid environment the writers have forced the characters to serve the genre before the story. Its not the most comfortable of fits and it means the screenwriters have to sacrifice some of the freedoms that usually make Pixar films so distinctive from their contemporaries. In fact even though there are still some surprises to be had in the very end, I have never seen a Pixar film stick so rigidly to formula before.
Having said that though, its heart is still in the right place. So many were certain that after the cash grab that was Cars 2, Monsters University would be just as cynical in its execution, being nothing more than an excuse to create another line of plush toys for beguiled boyfriends to win in the claw machines of grotty seaside arcades. But this is a Pixar film and despite recent missteps still carries an expectation of quality that Monsters University doesn’t entirely fulfill but still gets close enough to let the flaws be at worst trivial.