I never thought much about it before, but it dawned on me while watching Monsters University that Pixar essentially makes bedtime stories for both sides of the page, the reader and the read to.
This formula, blending the concerns of parents and their kids into familiar, high-energy family entertainments, has been the stock and trade of the studio for almost twenty years now. It’s not surprising then, that in a period of creative drought the gang are returning to the world of Monsters Inc., a universe that takes the idea of that ultimate bedtime story villain, the bogeyman, and turns him on his head. The only question is whether the same audience enchanted by the adventures of Sully, Mike and Boo will go out for a prequel that sends the two monsters to college and jettisons the little tyke altogether.
At first glance, Monsters University seems more than happy to continue to amble down the quaint recent path of Pixar mediocrity that included the empty Cars 2 and the gorgeous but cloistered Brave. A cute, clever prologue introduces a pint-sized Mike Wazowski, he of the green, grape-shaped body and one leering eye, as he visits the scare factory of the original film (where a child’s fear is transformed into useful energy) and meets his idol, Frightening Frank McCay (John Krazinski). The little green eye gets into his fair share of klutzy trouble, but something sticks with him; a sense of purpose and a burning desire to become a scarer like Frank. Director Dan Scanlon hits just the right tone necessary to draw the audience back in, reminding them of the immensely creative world of the original, and providing a perspective shift that hones in on the Cyclopean viewpoint of Mike, who was glorified sidekick on the first go-round.
When a teenage Mike (Billy Crystal) arrives on the campus of Monsters U, the film opens up visually while flattening out on a narrative level. Amidst a staggering, obsessively detailed menagerie of new creatures and their college comforts is a plot that feels like a retooled Revenge of the Nerds, checking off the usual touchstones with minimal emotional investment. Mike has shown up at university to get down to business and work his way to the top of scaring excellence, but he’s thrust almost immediately into the orbit of big blue slacker Jim Sullivan (John Goodman), a monster with gobs of natural ability but with just as much grounding apathy. While Mike slowly starts to see the gap between his own ambition and aptitude, he must watch Sully coast along affably on a reputation. A first, this means the two are anything but friends, getting into a skirmish that eventually has the foreboding Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) kicking them from the program, with the concession that if they join a frat and win the Scare Olympics they can be re-admitted.
What follows, with Mike and Sully stumbling on to the only fraternity that will have them—the dispiriting and un-athletic Oozma Kappa—and trying to shape up these outcasts into a competitive team, makes up the bulk of Monsters University and awkwardly juggles that balance between kid’s film and all-ages storytelling. The Scare Olympics themselves owe something to young adult fantasy gauntlets like The Wizarding Cup and The Hunger Games, while the college stuff plays out with gusto similar to Animal House but without any of the rowdy context or vitriol, which makes one wonder why they bothered with this kind of setting in the first place.
The thriving microcosm of a college campus, populated with mythical beasts of every and any shape and size—conceivable or not—is an indulgent feast for the eyes, but larks like trying to steal another frat’s piggy mascot or mixing it up with the kooky, poodle-legged sorority sisters don’t really register as drama or comedy. The Oozma Kappa gang offer a little variety in the form of schlubby, out-of-touch monsters; there’s older computer nerd Don Carlton (Joel Murray), thoughtful slinky-thing Art (Charlie Day), a shy blob aptly named Squishy, and the erratic Terry and Terri (Sean Hayes), a two headed hard case who seems based off that guy in study group who was always muttering arguments to himself.
Crystal and Goodman jump back into the characters as if they never left. The developing verve of young Mike and Sully, slowly calibrating to become the workplace dream team of Monsters Inc., gives the two actors plenty of space for wily improvisation and they bring their A game, nurturing small personal traits until they form the sprawling roots of a sturdy friendship, built on mutual appreciation and sincere sacrifice. Just as the duo carried the first film into the upper echelon of Pixar classics, they also re-align Monsters University and move it away from a frisky, lightweight jaunt and towards a final act that reminds us what the studio is capable of when they connect with the heart.
Although it’s just a little late to properly transform Monsters U into a legitimate classic, Pixar’s bait and switch is clever and effective. In keeping with its subversion of traditional fairy tale tactics—like making the monster under the bed a blue-collar embodiment of the real nightmare of working-class adulthood—Pixar wrestles the classic Disney axiom, ‘If you can dream it, you can do it’ into submission with a surprising finale. Without spoiling things, there’s a refreshing helping of realism applied to Mike and Sully’s adventures, and the usual tight and tidy ending is traded up for something more honest and poignant. There’s a reason good friends are to be valued, and there’s real virtue in understanding that sometimes we need others to help us on the path of our dreams, especially when that trip has detours we don’t expect. By the time it wraps up, Monster’s University has grasped once again that bright burning light of its potential, even if it took a meandering jaunt through college to get there.
Monsters University is out now in the US and FINALLY opens in UK cinemas from Friday.
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