It is over a decade now since Monsters, Inc. graced cinemas and the ingenuity of its premise is still evident: monsters that craft bedroom doors to act as portals to the human realm in order to scare its children to power their own world – all the while anchored by two of Pixar’s finest ever characters. It is the sort of bold inventiveness that has become the standard benchmark for a Pixar movie. How sad it is, then, to see one of its greatest films honoured with a dishearteningly pedestrian, bog-standard college underdog narrative.
If Dan Scanlon et al did not watch Revenge of the Nerds (1984) a few times before Monsters University’s conception they were certainly channelling it subconsciously, as well as every other college campus film ever made. Disappointingly, Pixar never really uses the Monsters universe to play on the college movie tropes in an inventive way as you would expect of a studio filled with so much creativity.
This prequel tracks the early beginnings of Mike and Sulley’s time at MU as they battle to get back into scare school through a fraternity competition after an unfortunate accident gets them expelled. Ostensibly, there is sound logic behind going into the past rather than into the future, not least because Monsters, Inc. has a perfect ending; Pixar also has a proven track record for handling fractious odd couple pairings.
But an inherent problem of a prequel is foreknowledge – Mike and Sulley’s initial hostility feels drawn out because we already know where it concludes. The film hits something resembling a stride when Mike and Sully inevitably make nice and partner up, but it comes too late in the day. The side characters aren’t interesting enough to pick up the slack and the lack of any compelling antagonist does not help. The supporting cast seems like Pixar trying too hard to create new merchandise to shift. In fact, cynical cash-cow is the unavoidable feeling after watching Monsters University.
Monsters University shows flashes of brilliance here-and-there – a night time excursion to the famous Monsters, Inc. building as well as a set piece involving the university’s librarian are terrific. And of course, Pixar continue to lead the way in technical excellence: Monsters University is a triumph of colour and animation. It also finishes strongly with an ending that (rightly) suggests a university degree is not the only means to a successful career.
But those are just scattered instances in a near two-hour movie that seems to be operating on auto-pilot for large stretches. Subversive denouement notwithstanding, the plot follows a predictable trajectory and perhaps most jarringly of all, witty jokes are very much conspicuous by their absence. The entire venture feels half-hearted. For instance, Randall’s anticipated transition into Mike and Sulley’s eventual foil in Monsters, Inc. is explained in a throwaway line towards the end as he declares obstinately: ‘That’s the last time I lose to you, Sullivan.’
Monsters University is a functional animated adventure by most standards, but instead of being another winning entry into the Pixar canon to sit alongside the likes of the original, it is rather a continuation of Pixar’s current run of mediocrity. (5)