As director Dan Scanlon noted in our interview with him, there just aren’t a lot of good prequels. So it might be fair to say that Monsters University is the best prequel ever made. Though it may not soar to the lofty heights of the best of Pixar, this is defintely a solid film, and one of the better movies of the summer.
- Director: Dan Scanlon
- Writer: Dan Scanlon, Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson
- Cast: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren
- Original Music By: Hans Zimmer
Mike Wazowski (Crystal) has always wanted to be a scarer since he was a child (those that get the energy that runs their world), and so he goes to college at Monsters University in the hopes of becoming one. There he meets James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (Goodman), whose father is a very famous scarer. Mike is all knowledge, while Sulley just gets by on his roar. Both are thrown out of the Scare program, so they team up with the fraternity Oozma Kappa and their lovable brand of misfits to enter a scare games competition, with the stakes being that if they win, their frat gets in the scare program, and if they lose, they have to quit school.
The last couple Pixar films have been sequels or movies that don’t seem to have the same know-how as some of their best works. From Toy Story 3, to Cars 2 to Brave, it’s been a stretch of films that are good to very good at best, and calculated cash-ins at worst. I would argue that we’re now in phase two of Pixar, as it feels like none of the movies can recapture the same brilliance in storytelling, the same frenetic energy that has led to some of the best third acts in modern cinema. Monsters University is very good, and it’s got a great message and heart. but perhaps because it is a prequel it can only achieve so much. Still, it feels like whatever bar Pixar set is now too high.
- The Message: Monsters University has to end a certain way, and that ending is that Mike Wazowski doesn’t end up working as a scarer. The greatness of the film is it turns that into the best part of the movie, as the film is about how some dreams aren’t attainable, but that doesn’t mean the end of the world. In an era where movies are mostly about people finding out that they’re more special than they think, it’s fascinating and awesome to have a movie about someone who has a dream that doesn’t come true. But also a film that contextualizes why, and shows that it doesn’t mean that they are a failure. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a Dodger, or a Yankee, or Brad Pitt, but in a lot of cases, it will never happen. That’s life, and life is a good message to have.
- Funny: As to be expected the movie is amusing and clever, playing on our knowledge of the characters, without ever leaning too heavily on our love of Mike and Sulley. And how they come together, and come to appreciate each other is earned, and with a cast of great supporting actors in their goofy frat (including Charlie Day, Dave Foley and Sean Hayes), there are good jokes to be had.
- College Comedy: Though this is definitely family friendly, the set up of this film is very familiar, and it works because it usually always works. Underdogs are easy to root for, and that’s the case here.
The So – So:
- But, In Comparison: There is nothing as wondrous as anything in the first film, like the ride through the different doorways with Boo, and the story goes exactly where you expect it to, with some minor complications. And where the first film was about a company that uses terror to get energy, only to realize there are better ways and alternative methods for fuel, there’s nothing as interesting going on under the surface of this one. Bottom line: Pixar pulled off one of the greatest miracles of all time with Toy Story 2, and did okay by themselves with Toy Story 3. But sequels and spin offs are tricky business because they have a comparison point, and though this goes for a completely different thing than the first film — and works for the most part — it’s hard not to think of this as a little bit of a step down.
It’s sad to say, but this is one of the best and most satisfying films of the summer, and doesn’t have much bloat. That it’s just pretty good is only a mark we’d hold against a company that’s done a great job of making challenging and interesting material over the years. This feels safe and genial. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it represents a direction the company has taken and it seems for the worse.
Monsters University is in theaters everywhere June 21.