Saturday, 13 July 2013

Monsters University

Seeing Monsters University puts me in the strange situation of seeing a sequel (or prequel in this case) before the original movie. Like a lot of people I’m a huge Pixar fan but 2001’s Monsters. Inc is one of two Pixar features which I haven’t got around to seeing yet. The central characters Mike and Sully are so well known though that I didn’t think my ignorance of the first movie would hamper my enjoyment of this one. Thankfully it didn’t. Pixar managed to hamper it all by themselves.

Monsters University takes us back to our central character’s college days where they first meet on the campus of the University of the movie’s title. The ambitious and book smart Mike (Billy Crystal) initially doesn’t get along with the confident and naturally scary Sully (John Goodman) and their falling out leads to their expulsion from Scare 101. The pair discovers that their only way back onto the course is to enter and win the University’s Scare Games. To do this they must join a fraternity but the only one that will accept them is a group of no-hopers. Will they be able to shape themselves and their team into first class scarers or will their dream of turning professional be lost?

Pixar have had mixed fortunes with sequels in the past. The Toy Story films went from brilliant to great to sublime through the course of the trilogy while Cars went from bad to worse. It’s difficult for me to judge Monsters University against the original as I haven’t seen it but it feels as though this is more a Cars 2 than Toy Story 2. I’d go so far as to say that of the twelve Pixar features I’ve seen, this one would rank at ten or eleven. In the past Pixar have created visionary worlds and extraordinary stories from bold or even mad ideas but here they take one of their bold ideas (i.e. the first film) and create a paint by numbers coming of age story which feels as though it was co-written by mumsnet.

The world created by the Monsters films is vivid and beautifully designed while the central idea of running a monsters world on children’s scares is inspired. It just feels like the idea for this prequel was either rushed or not fully considered and this is unusual for a studio which is probably the cleverest or at least fullest of ideas that currently operates. There’s nothing in Monsters University to excite or inspire the audience and the overarching conceit that teamwork is best feels rammed down the audience’s throats. In Wall-E the environmental and health themes were subtle and tastefully written but here there might as well just be a constant subtitle reading “TEAMWORK WINS”. The plot and its development are also really conventional and there are no interesting turns or deviations along the way. The whole film is a bit dull.

As well as failing to excite, it also failed to make me laugh much. I know that Pixar make what are essentially children’s films but generally their output is universal, true family films which can be enjoyed by any age. In the busy screening I sat in today, all ages from around three to sixty were accounted for but there was just one lone middle aged man laughing. To be honest, he might have had heat-stroke or something because he was laughing at every line. The children, teenagers and adults barely raised a giggle and I could tell that the teens especially were getting restless. The two occasions that the film did raise a titter from my stern face were brief. The first is something I’d seen in the trailer and involved a slug type monster and the second was an elderly, middle of the road woman’s musical choice. Aside from those occasions I did not laugh. A major problem with that is that I didn’t laugh at any of the principle characters, compelling as they are. What the film does manage to capture is the sense of College life, or at least the sense of College life that I’ve seen in other films.

Pizza Planet truck

Where Pixar always manages to excel, no matter what their story is, is in their design and animation. The array of monsters to appear on screen is mind-boggling. It’s a testament to their craft and ingenuity that they managed to create so many different monsters. There are scenes were upwards of a hundred appear all at once and not one is alike. Not only are they different but in most cases they’re interesting to look at. Sully’s fur is a thing of beauty with each strand standing out from its neighbours. The film looks incredible.

Overall though that’s where the beauty of this film ends for me. I expected more from my favourite studio and left feeling bitterly disappointed. The movie feels longer than its 103 minutes and the knockout style University Games acts as a slow timer to the end which feels like it just won’t come. The film isn’t particularly interesting or funny and wastes a wonderfully imagined world on a story that has been seen time and time again. 

As they always do, Pixar accompany their feature with a short. Monsters University is preceded by The Blue Umbrella, a sweet romance between two colourful umbrellas in a world of black and grey. Pixar often use their shorts as a way of producing some of their more off-beat ideas and this is certainly true here. The story has a timeless feel and is both charming and delightful. The animation is so good that it took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the idea that it was in fact animation. It has a particularly realistic look to it. The umbrella’s features are simply drawn with smooth, black lines and this works in a nice juxtaposition to the rest of the animation. I enjoyed this seven minute short more than the main feature.  


  1. We've definitely taken a lot of the same things from this one. Agreed that the variety of Monsters is pretty mind-boggling, but I often felt this was being used as 'look how imaginative' we are distraction from the lack of imagination on the actual story.

    1. I think you're right. It was almost as though they realised the story was weak so tried to distract the audience in other ways.

  2. Dude, you really have to see Monsters Inc; my favourite Pixar, probably. The story is so clever and ingenious; I really didn't see how they would top it in MU and it sounds like they didn't. Your brief synopsis confirmed all my suspicions that it just wasn't inventive. I don't think I'll have time to see this one, but it doesn't sound like I'll miss very much.

    But hey, I'm the guy who didn't like UP!