We've Got Cupcakes
When Monsters, Inc. was released in 2001, it arguably secured Pixar’s dominance over an emerging big budget animation field. The company had already released two Toy Storys and A Bug’s Life. Then Monsters, Inc. was not only lauded as great in every way, but also became its highest grosser to that point.
From 2007 to 2010, Pixar produced Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3, a stunning and varied array of animated masterworks. And now comes the prequel to Monsters, Inc., Monsters University, arriving on a changed landscape. Now, big studios release seven or eight computer-animated pictures every year, and Disney-owned Pixar, the most consistent of these studios, seems to be on the other side of a creative peak.
Like other franchise titles released by Pixar, Monsters University brings back some beloved characters. Unlike the sequels to Toy Story or Cars, it looks back, filling in these characters’ unnecessary backstory by using the basic contours of a campus comedy. The result is a movie that is neither as original nor as all-around wonderful as Monsters, Inc. Essentially, it’s, well, inessential. But unlike, say, Cars 2, which felt like Pixar focused its considerably artistry on a technically accomplished Saturday morning cartoon, Monsters University has ideas worthy of its predecessor, even when it’s unable to match that movie’s considerable charms.
In the earlier film, walking eyeball Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) and furry blue giant James Sullivan (John Goodman) worked as child scarers, creeping into bedrooms to harvest the screams that power the alternate world of Monstropolis. Sully’s accidental relationship with a human child nicknamed Boo led to a change in the Monstropolis status quo—and a change in Sully, who found himself in a surrogate-parent role. This has turned into a pattern for Pixar moves, which not only include the usual jokes and references aimed at parents, but also tell stories about parenting as its own adventure: learning to let go in Finding Nemo, watching kids grow up through the Toy Story series, and negotiating mother-daughter conflicts in Brave.
Monsters University goes back to a time before Mike and Sully met Boo, following their relationship as undergraduates at the hallowed institution of the title. They both have their eye on the school’s scaring program; Sully is a natural born scarer (and part of a family legacy at the university), while Mike has strived all of his life, desperate to prove himself worthy of the job. This sort of origin story often makes prequels feel restrictive and pat. But the decision to prequelize Monsters, Inc. turns out to be somewhat inspired: rather than fussing with the Sully-Boo relationship so lovingly detailed in the first film, Monsters University changes focus.
As it considers the tension between Sully and Mike, one embodying innate ability and the other, hard work, a tension that shapes both characters’ efforts to fit in. in this, Monsters University recalls a pair of Brad Bird films, Ratatouille (2007) and The Incredibles (2004), both taking the perspective of naturally gifted characters. Mike is not gifted, at least not in the area he wants so badly to conquer. He’s smart, tenacious, friendly… but not very scary. Movies for children—movies in general, really—so rarely break from chronicles of dreams fulfilled to deal with every day disappointment that Monsters University, in its G-rated way, feels both subversive and oddly realistic.
Still, the movie’s meshing of kids’ entertainment and adult-friendly themes lacks the grace of the best Pixar works. Sometimes the screenplay by Robert Baird, Daniel Gerson, and director Don Scanlon, hits the Mike/Sully contrast too square on the nose. Moreover, the joke-writing isn’t up to the level of the Toy Story sequels. It relies less on wit than silliness and whimsy, both given ample showcase here through a pack of inventive and colorful new monster designs, particularly the members of an obligatory frat full of misfits befriended by Mike and Sully.
Scanlon and company run through the college clichés (wild parties, late-night mischief, mean frat guys) with energy, but never transcend them. The project also functions as a campus-appropriate reunion, of sorts; the voice cast includes not just Crystal, Goodman, and Steve Buscemi from the original Monsters, but also Dave Foley from A Bug’s Life, Peter Sohn, an animator who also did a voice for Ratatouille, and Bonnie Hunt from Cars. These are all comforting presences, as are the recognizable comedians who join them (Aubrey Plaza, Charlie Day, and Bobby Moynihan, among others).
Like almost any Pixar production, Monsters University mixes the familiar and the innovative into something warm and appealing. The movie makes another case too, in Sully and Mike’s shared story, that it’s okay to be less than great in every way.