17 July 2013


You can't say Toy Story without "story", and so, as the franchise model of filmmaking has crossed over to dominate CG-animated features too, it's fairly safe to rely on Pixar to prize character and story development over a quick buck at the box office. Cars 2 was a combo-breaker for Pixar on many levels, so if anyone were unsure about Monsters University, it wouldn't be without reason.

Monsters Inc is pretty self-contained, with an unimprovable concept at its core- it was the story of monsters realising that bringing happiness to children is far more valuable than upsetting them. There's not a whole lot of room to tell a story after the events of that film, and so Monsters University is a prequel, taking place during Mike and Sulley's college days. Mike has wanted to be a scarer from a very young age, while Sulley has coasted into the monster world's most prestigious institution on his family name. They don't get along at all, but if they don't work together, both of their academic careers will be sharply cut short.

It's pretty good going when a prequel manages to make you forget that you know how everything turns out. Over the course of three Star Wars prequels, they leant into that with knowing gags and music cues that nodded towards later events that we already knew about. But those Star Wars prequels weren't rubbish because we knew what was going to happen. They were rubbish because despite all of the visually interesting new characters, those films had no sense of humour whatsoever. Maybe if The Phantom Menace had been a college comedy, we'd have liked it more.

After borrowing from prison break movies and spy movies for their previous sequels, this one aims to recreate the anarchy of an Animal House, toned down for a U-certificate audience. To some extent, this is being marketed to the now-students who were the right age when the first film came out, in a slightly less subtle follow-up to how the target audience grew up with Andy over the course of the Toy Story series. Happily, the knowledge that Sulley and Mike becomes best friends doesn't necessarily make their exploits less interesting.

While Sulley is arguably the protagonist in Monsters Inc, this prequel explores the young Wazowski's obvious shortcomings for a career in scaring- he may be an eyeball with limbs, but he's considerably cuter than he is scary. Again, we know how things turn out, but it's very easy to root for this more naïve Mike. Billy Crystal gives a great vocal performance as the teenaged version of the character, and when the action and tension are ramped up towards the end of the film, in one of the better action sequences that Pixar has ever devised, Mike's character is a big part of the effect that makes you suddenly, frighteningly forget that everything works out OK.

Elsewhere, the new characters are both likeable and visually interesting- if you showed your kids the films in chronological order, they'd surely be upset that some of these guys don't appear in Monsters Inc. My personal favourite was Art, a cheerful, fluffy philosophy major who gets most of the funniest lines. There are some worthwhile nods to characters we already recognise too, with Randall, the first film's antagonist, getting fleshed out almost as much as Mike does, while remaining completely backgrounded for most of the film. There are also two particularly enjoyable cameos putting the cherry on top of a film that gets funnier and more enjoyable as it goes along.

Monsters University brazens its way through the usual prequel problems, based purely on charm and character moments. When looking backwards, there's an inherent lack of distance to travel in story terms, and the film does get off to a slow start. While it never quite reaches the standard of Monsters Inc, it's still very enjoyable, and the last half hour is a truly outstanding mix of imaginative action scenes and stirring character moments, and the laughs keep coming too. It's a terrific prologue to a modern animated classic, and should make for a double bill that kids can enjoy in any order.

Monsters University is now showing, in 2D and 3D, at cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Monsters University, why not share your comments below? Unfortunately, I really didn't like The Blue Umbrella, the short film before this one. It struck me almost as a parody of Pixar's anthropomorphous tendencies, and a very poor cousin to Paperman.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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