Director: Dan Scanlon
Cast: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Nathan Fillion, Charlie Day, Steve Buscemi, Alfred Molina and Helen Mirren
Plot: With ambitions of becoming a professional scarer, Mike Wazowski (Crystal) heads to Monsters University, where he locks horns with slacker, yet natural scarer Sulley (Goodman).
Monsters University is the first prequel in the Pixar universe. It takes place before the events of the original film, giving us the characters of Mike Wazowski and James Sullivan as freshers in an University complex. Mike is the hard-working bookworm, intent on becoming a scarer, despite not being the most threatening student in the course. Sullivan on the other hand comes from a family of terrifying creatures and has a natural talent at scaring kids. Therefore the two end up forming a rivalry, which sees them expelled from the course. An unexpected turn of events, as we would expect from a Pixar film, sees the two rivals forced together in order to win back their place on the degree, needing to learn to work as a team in order to succeed.
Monsters Inc is one of the earlier Pixar films, released way back in 2005. It is one of the Pixar films that we look back with a fondness, a staple of the Pixar glory days. As Monsters University kicks in, it is easy to get into the Pixar frame of mind. The moment we see the Monsters Inc logo and the figure of Wazowski (albeit much younger), the fond memories rush back in and we are ready to get on with an adventure. Pixar is aware of this and uses it to its advantage. This movie is spent reflecting on the first movie, with hidden references and in-jokes that will have knowing viewers grinning throughout.
Pixar’s real talent comes from attention to detail. Not one frame of this movie is wasted. It is the kind of film you want to buy on DVD and pause each shot to soak in every aspect of the image. The crowds around the characters are made up of amusing monsters, giving us the impression that some designers had some amusing board meetings. Flyers litter the buildings with easy-to-miss jokes. It is almost too much to handle on a first watch. You are trying to take it all in, but the film races on regardless. This is part of the Pixar territory though and when the foreground of the movie is wildly entertaining, missing a few tricks the first time around never seems too troubling.
The difference between this film and the original is the University context. This is where the fresh gags come in, as we are given amusing sororities, stern lecturers and student in-jokes. The problem with the University theme is that it feels a little predictable. Even when the two leads are kicked off the course, we know that events will redeem them and that the popular monsters will end up being punished to a certain degree. I know the predictability flaw is diluted by the fact that this is a children’s movie, yet I couldn’t get over the fact that I knew exactly where this movie was going. There is a few fresh scenes in the final act (Mike and Sulley’s confrontation in the human world is the highlight of the film), but for the most part, there are few surprises.
Billy Crystal is of course the star of the show, his voice so perfect for voice acting that you can never get enough of him. Despite this, John Goodman matches him blow for blow though, his deep voice somehow coming across as a student age, thanks to subtle changes in his scripted dialogue. The other person of note is Helen Mirren, the closest this movie comes to getting a villain. She is chilling and her performance is helped by the fact that she is given the scariest and most memorable looking monster of the lot. Let’s just say Pixar is able to make a cross between a dragon and a centipede work with sinister results. The disappointment of the lot was actually Randall, the villain from the first movie. We were promised an interesting origin story, but I was unimpressed. It seemed forced and not as fun as critics made it out to be.
The biggest flaw of the movie, and it is hard to call it a flaw as the movie works so well, is that there is an underlying impression that Pixar is just coasting through this movie. There is no need for a massive sense of originality, as the Monsters universe is already set up. All we want to see is a slight expansion of the Monsters world, which Pixar deliver. It is a prequel in every sense of the word and while enjoyable, this movie is riding off the back of the original Monsters movie. In fairness, you cannot really blame them for it.
Final verdict: With loveable characters and a fun universe already plotted out, Pixar have no problem giving us an entertaining insight into that world once again.