There’s no doubt that Monsters University is creative, family-friendly fun, but this prequel to 2001’s Monsters, Inc. is not up to the standards set by Pixar’s earlier efforts such as the Toy Story series, WALL-E and UP. Despite the outstandingly bright and varied colour palette, inventive creature designs as well as the visual gags and humourous dialogue, the plot itself is disappointingly predictable while the decision to make this a franchise movie and a prequel at that continues to feel like a safe choice informed by commercialism rather than artistic desire. Naturally, this might not be true – Monsters University is nonetheless a step in the right direction after the low point that was Cars 2 – but it still feels a bit like a stopgap for Pixar to give the studio time enough to collect itself and prepare for something that’s more meaningful and lasting.
I should point out however, that I’ve never seen Monsters, Inc. – it’s one of those movies that I simply missed when it first came out, and when I caught wind that they were making a prequel I decided to watch Monsters University first without rose-tinted glasses then launch into the original (which I haven’t done yet). As such, I hold no nostalgic love for lead characters Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) – if you do then perhaps University will resonate on a more personal level in a way similar to how Toy Story 3 successfully came to represent the end of childhood for my generation who grew up with the first two Toy Story films.
Regardless, we follow adolescent monsters Mike and Sully as they enter college and attempt to major in scaring (because you need to be qualified to go and terrorise humans). Little green and big blue don’t get along well to begin with; Mike is small and brainy whereas Sully is a big brute with might and muscle. After a squabble gets them both expelled from their scaring major, Mike manages to negotiate a deal with sinister Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren): if he enters a club and his team manages to win the university’s annual Scaring Games, he’ll be allowed back into his major – but if he loses he’s out of the university forever. Sully agrees to also take up the opportunity and so the dastardly duo reluctantly band together to come out on top.
Although you can probably already see the twists and turns in the story, what makes it all work are the imaginative supporting characters. Standouts include the tentacled ‘mature student’ Don Carlton (Joel Murray) who has a background as a salesperson, and a purple chameleon voiced by Steve Buscemi. Monsters University is at its best when director Dan Scanlon lets these characters run rampant, brought to life by gorgeous animation and effective 3D. If only the rest of the production could match the visual wizardry.
Stunning animation breathes life into a predictable plot in this middle-of-the-road Pixar picture.