Pixar has to be honest with themselves and admit that they’ve recently put a lot of their fans on suicide watch. A couple of years ago, Cars 2 didn’t sit well with followers — even though I thoroughly preferred it to Cars 1 — and Brave was nothing but a dazzling fairytale with a rather hollow centre. Monsters University — the prequel to their smash hit Monsters Inc. — however, is an excellent film in almost every way, but the thing that makes it special is its effortless ability to make us laugh.
Where Pixar classics like Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, Up, and Toy Story 3 appeal to the older audience by tugging at our heartstrings and making us turn on the waterworks, Monsters University is completely happy to keep us laughing. That’s its comfort zone, and it couldn’t be any more comfortable. This isn’t to say that it has us adults laughing in our seats like a bunch of seven year olds without a care in the world, because it manages to maintain a high level of maturity by tackling various social issues that will wash over any seven year old’s head.
Without giving any sort of spoilers away, I can tell you that Monsters makes it okay to be in the Not-So-Cool Squad, or even in the Hated-By-Everyone Squad. It also teaches us that looks aren’t everything, and that usually, it’s what’s inside that counts. It warns us not to be glib in school just because we may come from a famous family (I’m thinking of the Winklevoss twins here). It reminds us that studying is important, and that it can get you through tough times. But most importantly, I think, it lets us know that we need to have fun, and that fame and fortune will not give us satisfaction.
Since this is a prequel, we should already be familiar with the major players: Mike Wazowski (the big green eyeball voiced by Billy Crystal) and James Sullivan (the pink-spotted scare machine voiced by John Goodman). This is what I like about prequels; the characters have already been established, and now the filmmakers can take them away from the world that we’re familiar with, settle them down in a new environment in a new time period, and give them back to us from a different perspective. Of course, throwing in a bunch of new characters doesn’t hurt either.
We meet Mike in elementary school, and a class excursion to the Monsters Inc. factory fills him with a burning desire to become a top scarer. Scarers, in case you’re not familiar with the term, refers to monsters who can scare children out of their skin in order to use their screams to power the entire monster world. So naturally, you have to look scary to be a scarer. Mike, however, looks like a toy you’d yank off a shelf and cuddle to sleep at night. But never mind, he wants to be a scarer, so we’ll let him try.
He goes to Monsters University, where he meets the snobby Sullivan — “My friends call me Sully” — a brash teen who thinks he can flourish in the house his dad built. After he and Mike refuse to see eye to eye, they end up competing in the college fraternity Scare Games in order to prove to their slithering, creepy-crawly faculty headmaster, Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), that they have what it takes to be a Scare student.
This Dean Hardscrabble is a testament to what the creative minds at Pixar are capable of. She’s essentially a centipede with a humanoid torso, and vampire wings. She flies like a squirmy jet, and she can creep out of the shadows like a thief in the night. Her presence is always heard first, then seen, and Helen Mirren does a fantastic job bringing her steely nature to life. Ironically, though, the majority of monsters in this prequel seem to look the same — capsule shaped, with three eyes — except for the librarian, but I’ll let you find that out for yourself.
What I like about this movie, apart from the numerous laughs it solicits, is how it manages to be completely fresh. These are monsters who go to school like humans. They study like humans, they party like humans, they compete like humans. Their world is so human that I have to wonder where it exists in our universe. The story involving these monsters is relatively simple, but it works in great ways to deepen their histories, and it ties in to Monsters Inc. quite seamlessly.
It’s not as deep or as thought-provoking as your Ups or your Wall-Es, but it’s great entertainment that’s still fun for the big ones. I’ve always measured Pixar movies by whether or not they can appeal to the adult audience. Usually, they have that extra layer that only we can understand. Monsters University has this extra layer, but it comes in a different form: laughter through life lessons. It doesn’t take time to be melancholy; it just storms on through with awesome animation, a bundle of laughs, and a narrative that enjoys being lighthearted.
Best Moment | There’s literally a buffet of best moments. The Art Club. The Can Engineering teacher. The football game. Squishy’s mum’s music choice.
Worst Moment | Hmm. Nope.