Every now and then I like to try and see if I can name all of Pixar’s feature films, and name them in the correct order. I generally get them right from Toy Story up until The Incredibles, and then from WALL-E onwards. I have a tendency to mix up Cars and Ratatouille – can’t seem to remember which came first. But usually I get all 13 films correct. With Monsters University, thirteen becomes fourteen. Out of these fourteen, I’ve seen nine in the cinemas – every single one starting from Finding Nemo – as well as all the short films attached to each movie. So I like to think of myself as something of a qualified Pixar movie critic.
So how does Monsters University (henceforth MU in this blog post) stack up against its thirteen predecessors? Middle-of-the-road Pixar work, I say.
The Mike and Sully of MU aren’t the Mike and Sully of Monsters, Inc. yet. They’re far from being friends but after an argument results in their being kicked out of the vaunted “Scaring” programme, they’re forced to work together with a group of social misfits in the Oozma Kappa (OK) fraternity to win the annual Scare Games and thus win their way back into the programme of their dreams.
MU is nothing if not a very American college buddy movie. There’s the clashing personalities dynamic of a “buddy” story, the be-true-to-yourself ethos that seems to run through so many American stories, and all the classic on-campus personalities of college-based stories (e.g. the jocks, the elites, the misfits, the goths, etc.). Even the music is absolutely classic college marching band music, courtesy of Randy Newman (I quite like that sort). In terms of conforming to the genre (if “American college buddy movie” can be called a genre) yet containing a little core of warmth, MU does very well. It’s entertaining without being too shallow or hollow, and the final third of the movie becomes a little more sober, so the pacing felt a bit like stepping on the brakes after hitting top speed. And yet… that is exactly how the story is meant to go. The turn it takes there – the sudden plunge of sobriety after exhilaration – nearly perfectly embodies the emotional upheaval of someone like Mike who works really hard but ultimately can’t achieve what he wants to achieve simply because he has no natural talent for it. (Hmm, that started out as a criticism in my mind but as I wrote it out and thought about it, it turned into praise. haha)
On a visual level, MU is bursting with colour – keeping to the tone set in Monsters, Inc., where Pixar chose to turn the classic idea of monsters in the dark on its head and the scary becomes rather cute and rainbow-coloured – and there are monsters in every size and shape and form. For example, Dean Hardscrabble looks like a cross between a dragon and a scorpion and a centipede, Terri and Terry are a gangly two-headed monster, “mature student” Don Carlton looks like a rather rotund blob with arms that have squid suckers on them, and Art is basically a pair of furry legs with eyes and arms. One-eyed monsters, three-eyed monsters, monsters that look like slugs, or insects, or blobs. All sorts of monsters! But none look really scary. They can be, but they are not. Incredible design, when you think about it – they are “monsters” but not monstrous. Monsters that probably belong with the Muppets on Sesame Street rather than monsters in a typical horror flick.
But for all the good points of MU, it had one big flaw: the ending was a foregone conclusion. That’s the trouble with a prequel – you already know what happens in the end. Even though the movie starts with Mike and Sully being antagonistic, you know that by the end of it they will be firm friends. It’s just a matter of how they get there, which isn’t necessarily the most interesting type of story. In some cases, prequels can work. The Star Wars prequels, for all the criticism thrown at them, were still interesting because the Star Wars galaxy and the story of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader had so much “myth” attached – there was so much more to be told. How did the Emperor come to power? How did Vader become Vader? What’s the story behind Luke and Leia’s mother? But with Mike and Sully, there just isn’t quite as much “mystery” or “intrigue” about how they came to be buddies. All MU does is tell us how they became friends – and that isn’t something that many people (that I know, at least) were dying to know.
Pixar’s movies are mostly constructed to stand alone. There’s no deep mythology. Theirs is not the fantastical, mythical type in the vein of Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. Theirs is one where the worlds – whether connected to our human realm or not – can be understood almost instantly, and where the characters and emotion are the driving force. So prequels for Pixar stuff are really particularly unnecessary by my reckoning. (Of course, they could prove me wrong in the future… Prove me wrong, Pixar! Do! I’d be more than happy to admit I was mistaken.) Sequels I can understand (but the idea of Finding Dory does not thrill me at all) but I have trouble grasping the concept of prequels for all the movies they’ve done so far.
So take the movie on its own and MU is a good watch. It’s entertaining without being stupid, and has some nice moments. If you regard it through a different lens and hold it up to its predecessors under a critical microscope, it falls slightly short of the mark. Better than some of the other Pixar movies, but not one of their very best.