It’s hard to believe over a decade has passed since Pixar’s Monsters, Inc., but here we are in 2013 with a belated, but not unwelcome, prequel. In Monsters University, new director Dan Scanlon (who has worked with the company for years, but hasn’t helmed a feature until now), takes us back to the early days of cuddly monsters Mike Wazowski and James Sullivan (Billy Crystal and John Goodman, both returning) as they struggle to become qualified ‘scarers’: the monsters who creep into the human world and extract energy from young children’s screams.
The two approach the art of scaring from different angles: Sully is the son of a renowned ‘scarer’ and is blessed with the physicality required for the job; thus, he’s arrogant and unmotivated. Mike, on the other hand, is decidedly unscary in his appearance, but makes up for it with studiousness and dedication.
We begin with a short intro in which a (very cute) young Mike attends a school trip to a scare factory, and quickly decides on his goal in life. It’s already clear at this point that the artists who worked on the picture had a whale of a time, because it’s jam packed full of wildly imaginative creature designs – even more so a short time later, when Mike and Sully first meet each other on the lovingly crafted Monsters University campus.
The first third is actually the least consistent section of the film; once Mike and Sully have been kicked out of their scare classes and must unite with loser fraternity Oozma Kappa in order to win themselves a second chance, things progress at a pace, and Pixar’s usual blend of detail and warm humour can come out.
The film, which Scanlon also co-wrote, deals with familiar Pixar themes, but still has interesting and mature things to say about the problems of identity and finding one’s place in the world – all through the family-friendly sheen we’ve come to expect from the company. Goodman and particularly Crystal do a sterling job of injecting the film with the right amount of energy and pathos.
In a pleasing change of tack from most Hollywood animations, the film lacks a genuinely villainous character, or a serious antagonist in any form, instead choosing to settle down in its nicely realised university setting and just have fun. It perhaps lacks a central hook to match the screams vs. laughter idea from the first film, or a comparable emotional focal point like the adorable Boo, but these are not absences that are felt too much during the film’s run time.
For all the design flair on show, and the obvious work that went into creating legions of diverse monster types, it’s a little unfortunate that the members of Oozma Kappa – who become the film’s primary supporting cast – are not the most memorable creations Pixar has ever come up with. That’s not to say that they aren’t adorable and funny at times, but it’s hard to imagine this ensemble residing as firmly in the memory as the supporting casts of the Toy Story films, or even the previous entry in this franchise.
For a prequel that has arrived so long after we first met Mike and Sully, Monsters University has the good sense to remind us of the joys of the original. It – like the short film, The Blue Umbrella, which precedes it – is a pleasant, fun piece of entertainment. It feels less seminal, less memorable, than its predecessor, and isn’t up there with the very best of Pixar’s enviable back catalogue, but it is nevertheless a delightful piece of family entertainment.