Pixar has a lot riding on Monsters University. Critically, they needed to tell the world that their magic hadn’t faded since Toy Story 3, following the surprisingly disappointing Cars 2 and Brave. And personally, Monsters Inc. was an integral part of my childhood, being one of the first films I remember seeing at the cinema, so this film needed to live up to it. Does it do these things? Yes, in a way.
Monsters University is a prequel telling the story of how Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal, When Harry Met Sally, City Slickers) and James “Sully” Sullivan (John Goodman, The Flintsones, The Big Lebowski) met at the titular university and became friends through rivalry. This rivalry goes up to the point where both are almost kicked out of scare school, meaning that they have to join one of smallest fraternities, Oozma Kappa, in order to compete in the Scare Games, a decathlon of scaring contests to prove who is the most frightening monster and keep their place on the course.
Pixar maintains its trend of providing a stellar voice cast which makes you feel connected to the characters. Goodman and Crystal maintain the banter that runs between them from the first film, and it was refreshing to see them be jerks at each-other’s throats for most of the film, instead of them instantly becoming best mates. This works, because on paper, they’re two entirely different characters: Mike is a studious nerd who has desperately wanted to be a scarer all his life despite not being all that great at it, and Sully is an arrogant, privileged student who has only got so far based on his natural ability and famous parents. In this regard, their relationship reminded me of the dynamic between Woody and Buzz in the original Toy Story, which is never a bad thing. Monsters University is full of nice throwbacks to the original film, be that a poster on a wall or a cameo or two (look out for Pixar’s famous “lucky charm” John Ratzenberger!). But one of the most interesting returns is that of the baddie from the first film, Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi, Con Air, Reservoir Dogs). Director Dan Scanlon does something that I didn’t expect, he makes the audience sympathise for this eventual villain, yet at the same time sets up his fall from grace.
There are some new characters in the film as well, with stand-out performances going to Helen Mirren (The Queen, RED) as Dean Hardscrabble and Nathan Fillion (Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Firefly) as Johnny Worthington. The former is the intimidating headmistress of the university and the latter is a smug jock who is the head of rival fraternity Roar Omega Roar. Mirren adds to her character with her cold, British tones, and Fillion channels his Captain Hammer performance in animated form. Other new entries don’t fare as well. There isn’t a single bad performance in the film, but the OK members were disappointingly forgettable and were only there to make a few laughs. The only exception to this was the two-headed monster and magician/dancer Terry (Dave Foley, A Bug’s Life) and Terri (Sean Hayes, Will and Grace), but even then, they don’t make as much of a mark as other Pixar supporting characters.
The plot of the film is a relatively predictable underdog story, with the exception of the final 30 minutes. Here we see some of the most memorable scenes of the movie, in particular one about scaring adults. But in comparison with the original, it lacks the emotional attachment like the one seen with Boo and Sully. But as an animated family comedy, Monsters University did its job really well, full of more humour and entertaining moments for both kids and adults.
I went into this film with relatively low expectations, and came out pleasantly surprised. Is it as good as the original: no. But Monsters University is a worthy prequel, and certainly better than the past Pixar offerings of late. It reunites the old cast, with some new additions, with a simple yet and effective plot and some funny jokes. This film was a relatively safe bet to get the studio back on track, but hopefully they will start focusing on original projects before returning to sequels. I know Finding Dory is scheduled for 2015, but I think we deserve to see that long-awaited follow-up to The Incredibles.