Directed by Dan Scanlon
Written by Dan Scanlon, Daniel Gerson, and Robert L. Baird
I think it’s pretty obvious from my Cars 2 and Brave reviews that Pixar’s work post-Toy Story 3 hasn’t quite matched up to their finest efforts, and from all the trailers to Monsters University, it looked like they were going to continue down the road of unremarkable work. I’m happy to say I’m wrong on that one, as Monsters U is a definite return to form.
Mike (Billy Crystal) has wanted to be a scarer since an elementary school field trip, and is willing to do whatever it takes to become the best, studying hard at one of the best schools, Monsters University. Sulley (John Goodman) is planning on coasting through scare classes on his father’s name and his natural scariness. When they both get in trouble, they make a wager with Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) that if they win the college’s Scare Games, they get to stay in the scare program, but their egos end up clashing along the way.
One of the things the movie really does well, especially comparing against Cars 2, is a successful perspective shift. Monsters Inc was about Mike and Sulley in a sense, but really, Sulley was the main character. Monsters U transfers the main character status over to Mike, and manages to bring him past the basic neurotic/sarcastic image from the first movie. Instead, we really see the road that led Mike from wanting to be the best scarer to simply being the assistant to the best. And it’s satisfying. The big trick with a prequel, any prequel, is giving the audience something they can’t figure out from the start. So of course Mike and Sulley are going to end up as best friends, they’re going to work at Monsters Inc, Randall is going to hate them, etc. But Monsters U actually makes that journey worth seeing, especially thanks to a series of plot developments in the final act that leverage the predictable-looking plot into something better, with a strong moral that should successfully resonate with those who saw Monsters Inc as a kid and are now in college. Maybe not Toy Story 3-strong, but it’s still a wise case of knowing how the audience has and hasn’t changed.
And one way that nobody’s changed is the sheer joy at being in the monster world. Maybe it’s because most of the other Pixar movies take place in a human world that might peel back a layer, but doesn’t really take us to an absolutely unnatural world. And while Monsters U is certainly a familiar atmosphere, the monsters and their lives are so different that the small details of the world Pixar has put in are always great. And Pixar also uses their different lives for the best effect in gags. A multi-armed monster during exam week is holding several cups of coffee. The fraternities and sororities in the Scare Games are filled with memorable monsters and jokes, even with their fairly limited individual screen times. In general, there’s just a great new cast of characters here, with very little reliance on Monsters Inc cameos. The members of Oozma Kappa, the lame fraternity that Mike and Sulley end up joining, are equal parts pathetic and likeable. You start out laughing at them, and by the end of the movie, you’re laughing with them.
Monsters U isn’t quite Pixar’s best, but it’s back to the level where Pixar’s less-than-best was still great. It’s a good sign, to be sure.