With 2 sequels to Toy Story and one unwanted sequel to Cars Pixar was no longer delivering one original movie after the other. Last year they returned to original territory with Brave with mixed results.
While I really enjoyed Brave as a kids’ movie it had notable flaws that previous Pixar tales had not. So when a prequel to Monsters Inc. was announced my expectations were modest at best.
Would Monsters University be the final confirmation that Pixar had lost its mojo?
Do you have what it takes to be a scarer?
Monsters University is the story of how Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) and James P. Sullivan (voiced by John Goodman) became friends. But while both characters are featured on the poster the story is about Mike front and center.
When Mike finally comes to Monsters University he hopes to fulfill his lifelong dream to become a scarer but this bubble soon seems to burst when headmistress Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren giving a fantastic voice performance) tells Mike that he doesn’t have what it takes.
The subsequent movie while being structured like a sports movie consisting of trials and battles revolves around this central question: what if you are “just not made for the job”?
It is a frustrating question and reminded me a lot of the Simpsons episode where Bart keeps failing despite his hardest efforts.
And the moment I realized that this movie was not a simple “in the end Mike always had it in him” I relaxed and went on with the movie.
The stories of Pixar
The only gripe I have with Monsters University is the fact that it is set in a world we already know. We have been to Monsters Inc. so the initial “wow” effect is less strong than with movies like Ratatouille or Wall-E. But still this movie boasts a lush and detailed world full of great characters and designs.
The tasks that Mike and Sully have to overcome might fall in line with typical sports movies but the tasks themselves are very funny, creative and fit in the world built around scaring children. On top of that Pixar delivers the usual solutions that never seem as hollow as they might come across in the hands of a less skilled writing team.
Once again they hit the exact balance of Disney optimism and real world pragmatism never losing the connection to real conflicts and therefore making the eventual resolution much more enjoyable than your typical happy end.
The prequel problem
Despite being a prequel there is never the usual problem that we already know the end of the movie – after all we could make the case that in most children’s movies the end is rather obvious. The reason why Monsters University works is because it is a completely different movie than Monsters Inc. The university demands different visuals and stories and therefore the two movies couldn’t be more different.
The entire movie reminded me of J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot and is the first prequel I have ever seen that neatly connects with the predecessor without feeling contrived.
I’d go as far and say that if you had never seen any of the two movies you should start with Monsters University and then continue the journey. There are no moments in this prequel where the story stops for a contrived plotline that is only there to remind us of the sequel.
Even the villain Randall (Steve Buscemi) from Monsters Inc. is logically included while never getting too much attention. Quite on the contrary: If you have seen Monsters University first the rivalry between Randall and Mike/James will make complete sense.
Monsters University is probably the most rounded movie experience I had this year. It once again reminded me of the great ways that Pixar tells story for children that don’t make adults roll their eyes. Never is a conflict simplified yet never is optimism crushed entirely.
When I watched Brave I enjoyed the movie but knew there were some overly cheesy sequences.
When I watched Monsters University I couldn’t stop smiling the whole ride.
The fact that I went to the cinema with a person who had never seen a Pixar film and was completely swept away by the storytelling might have added a lot to my enjoyment as well.
And with The Good Dinosaur next year Pixar might return to full form with a completely new universe!
For comparisons sake I decided to make a graph going from my favorite to least favorite Pixar films and I was surprised how much to the left (favorite) Monsters University landed.