After dominating the animated film market for over two decades in both profitability and quality, Pixar has arrived at an intriguing crossroads. With its once iron-clad reputation tarnished as a result of money-grubbing ventures such as the Cars franchise, Pixar’s ability to consistently craft films that move children to laughter and adults to tears seems to be slipping, and the studio is left scratching its head as to how to get back to its golden age. Monsters University is Pixar’s latest attempt to claw its way back to glory, and while the film is every bit as raucously fun and nuanced as its predecessor, it doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve in the way that we’ve come to expect from Pixar.
As a prequel to 2001’s Monsters Inc., Monsters University explores the origins story of everyone’s favorite partnership, small-but-mighty one-eyed Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and looming James “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman). Idealistic, by-the-book, and mocked his entire life as unfit for scaring due to his diminutive appearance, Mike is immediately rubbed the wrong way by loafing ne’er-do-well Sulley, who rests comfortably on the laurels of his natural talents and impressive scaring heritage. However, when both lose their places in the prestigious Scaring School, they form an unlikely and often fraught alliance in order to fight their way back to the top.
Helen Mirren excellently rounds out the original cast as the daunting, draconian Dean Hardscrabble, a veteran of the Scaring School who sets the narrative in motion when she offers Mike and Sulley readmittance on the condition that they and their team of misfits win the university’s annual Scare Games. The Scare Games pit Greek house against Greek house through multiple events testing physical endurance and scaring prowess, and in this sense, the Games resemble The Triwizard Tournament featured in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The Scare Games make for many of the film’s most vibrant scenes, including a romp through a pin-drop silent library and a heartwarming palm-sweater of a climax that establishes Mike and Sulley as the dynamic partnership we know and love. Additionally, the throwbacks to the original film are delightful, including cameos from such familiar faces as Monsters Inc.’s shape-shifting antagonist Randall (Steve Buscemi), who surfaces in this iteration as Mike’s duplicitous roommate.
Though Pixar’s narrative record may be tarnished, its visual record remains unimpeachable—Monsters is an enchanting feast of vivid colors and touchable textures, and its drizzly afternoons and sunny autumn mornings seem at times almost photorealistic.
However, Monsters suffers from the same malaise as previous lukewarm Pixar ventures such as Cars and Cars 2, and that malaise is undoubtedly the film’s lack of heart. The film isn’t heartless by any means—it’s more thoughtful and sincere than much of today’s animated drivel by far—but it won’t leave parents crying into their popcorn in the way that Pixar films are expected to. Perhaps the struggle with Monsters also lies in its departure from the Pixar tradition of innovative premises—gourmand sewer rats, walking and talking toys, and houses lifted across the world by balloons come to mind. While the trappings of the monster world in Monsters University are every bit as delightful and once-removed from the human world as they were in Monsters Inc., Monsters University trades on familiar stereotypes surrounding American college life, whereas Monsters Inc. felt fresher for its creative take on mega-corporations.
That much being said, Monsters University’s evocation of the college experience is part of its charm—the film’s representations of dorm life and Greek life are painstakingly accurate, but this accuracy is perhaps the root of the problem in that Monsters University is, when juxtaposed against the rest of Pixar’s oeuvre, ultimately too close for comfort. Although Pixar is still top of the heap when it comes to animated films, perhaps the studio’s glory days could be revived if the creative team stuck to what it knows—premises that transport us from our world rather than resituate us there.
All photos via Disney's Monsters University Gallery