It has often been suggested that the not-so well-hidden secret to Pixar’s success is story. The studio's films can go from action spectacle to heart-warming to hilarious, and it usually works because everything is service to the story; it’s why they’re held in such high regard, and why its films appeal to such a wide audience, and consequently, why audiences have such high expectations for Pixar films. On its own terms, Pixar’s latest, Monsters University, a prequel to 2001’s marvellous Monsters Inc, is a beautifully made, tremendously fun movie, but in the shadow of not only its predecessor, but coming from the same stable as Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Wall-E, it’s proclivity for gags (albeit good ones) means, uncharacteristically for Pixar, the story for once comes second.
Directed by Pixar feature newcomer Dan Scanlon, Monsters University sees Crystal and Goodman reprising their roles as the lovable Mike (the little green one) and Sully (the big blue one) in what, if this were a superhero movie, might be termed their origin story. Taking place among the halls and dorm rooms of the esteemed MU, Monsters University is not just the tale of how they came to work at Monsters Incorporated, but how the bookish but determined Mike, and the casual, naturally-talented Sully, became unlikely friends. Though their motivations may differ, when their time at MU is thrown into doubt by the prim Dean Hardscrabble (Mirren), the seemingly odd couple must work together to secure their future.
As is usual for Pixar, the world the monsters inhabit is beautiful and fully realised, complete with dozens upon dozens of larger than life supporting monster creations, with the sinister Hardscrabble and hazy Art (Day) being particular highlights. Visually Pixar’s attention to detail is as hot as ever and there are a few nice callbacks to the original film. Mike’s university roommate is a certain Randall Boggs (Buscemi), or “Randy” as he was back then, apparently not always the megalomaniacal menace seen in the original.
Monsters University is quite different to Monsters Inc. Yes, the two central characters are the same, and the scaring kids to bottle up their screams conceit remains, but the similarities end there. At it’s heart, Monsters Inc was a loving, well-rounded tale of the relationship between children and their parents. When the inquisitive toddler Boo stumbles into the Monsters’ world, Mike and Sully are forced into a crash course in parenting. Monsters University, however, is more concerned with ideas of ambition and friendship. This in itself isn’t a problem, but because there’s no Boo, the heart of the original movie, the heart needs replacing. Scanlon and his collaborators try and do this with the relationship between Mike and Sully, though this is pretty much sidelined until the last stages of the film in favour of chuckles and set pieces.
The set pieces suitably excite and the laughs – be they slapstick, juvenile, visual or otherwise – are plentiful and well observed, but without the sentiment, although funny, are throwaway. It too seems an odd decision to set what will assumedly be a film with a large young audience, to set it in a surrounding unfamiliar to those under the age of 17. Monsters University is immensely funny, the gags work and from beginning to end are set to rapid fire, but its attempts at sentiment fall flat as Pixar uncharacteristically puts the story on the backburner. The film is like a B+ grade, to most people that would be a good mark, but to a straight A student, might come back with the note “could do better”.
EXTRAS ★★½ The lovely short The Blue Umbrella (6:46); and an audio commentary from director Scanlon, producer Kori Rae and story supervisor Kelsey Mann.