Before they worked at Monsters, Inc., Mike (Crystal) and Sulley (Goodman) studied the art of scaring at the same college. And before they were the very best of friends, they were the bitterest of enemies.
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Pixar has walked an uneven road with sequels. The Toy Story movies each stood on the hinged shoulders of the last to become something bigger, greater and with ever-increasing depth, with the result of causing grown men to weep over the possibility that some plastic might melt. Cars 2, on the other hand, had no sense of needing to have anything to convey. It is the only time the studio has felt even remotely cynical in its planning, bending its own rule that story comes first. Monsters University, it is a relief to say, is much more of the Toy Story template.
It is, if you want to be picky, Pixar’s first prequel, rather than its fourth sequel. That’s a tricky proposition for this series, since the end of the first movie revealed Monstropolis, the home of the things under the bed, to be built on a lie. While its workers were striving to terrify every shade of bejesus out of children, they should have been telling them knock-knock jokes — laughs carrying greater power than screams. So this is technically a film about kids striving in order to waste the next decade of their life doing everything wrong. Which might be accurate and sort of timely, if not wholly inspiring.
Director Dan Scanlon, with co-screenwriters Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird, is wise to that, so this isn’t really about how James P. Sullivan and Mike Wazowski came to work at Monsters, Inc., nor even exactly about how they became friends. It of course takes those ideas in, but the story’s thrust is much more about how they came to be the people, or rather monsters, they are, which is an altogether smarter and more difficult story to tell. And like The Incredibles, which told us that not everyone is special and there’s nothing wrong with showing that you are, Monsters University has a realistic, unfuzzy message: the thing you want to do isn’t necessarily the thing you’re meant to do. Which will be crushing to X Factor contestants and anyone who owns a copy of The Secret.
We begin with a pint-sized Mike, a little booger with legs, who is friendless in school but admirably brimming with self-confidence.A visit to the Monsters, Inc. scare floor sets his mind on the one thing he wants to do with his life: become the greatest scarer in history. Fast-forward to his first day in college, where he’s enrolled on the scare programme, his eye constantly in a text book, while Sulley, a fellow student from a long line of successful scarers, coasts along on natural talent. Thanks to a bickering mishap, both find themselves off the course and desperate to get back in. To say much more about how this develops would give away a lot of the smart turns taken by the story, which rarely goes down the path most obvious, but it very elegantly weaves in other characters from
the first film, including Randall (Steve Buscemi), whose villainy is succinctly explained in the space of approximately two minutes on screen. Its plotting is some of the best Pixar has ever achieved.
This is also the studio’s pass at the college comedy, without many of the staples of that genre, like booze, sex and gratuitous nudity (although you could argue the leads are nude throughout). But there are other touchstones, like frat houses — an opportunity for punning with the Greek alphabet that the movie has embraced with both paws — campus douchebags (led by Nathan Fillion) and a scary dean (Helen Mirren), who, to show that these truly are monsters rather than cuddly toys, has several moments that may well cause upset for very small children or, more likely, their parents.
Monsters University is perhaps not as consistently gag-filled as Monsters, Inc., but that’s not to say it’s not as funny — just based more on observation than punchlines. And the new characters, particularly a fraternity of achingly ineffectual keenness, are all welcome. In all its enthusiasm for the new, Scanlon never loses focus on who this story is about. Even if Monsters, Inc. had never existed, this would still stand up as a film about two teenagers from very different backgrounds with their eye(s) on the same goal. It doesn’t trade off its predecessor but enriches it, which is exactly what a sequel should do.
Dazzlingly clever and hugely funny, it succeeds both as a broadening of the Monsters universe and as a film in its own right. Monsters University had a tough task, and it’s passed with honours.
Reviewed by Olly Richards