Monsters University (2013)
From the creators of Toy Story Trilogy, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, WALL•E & Up, the masterpieces through which Pixar Animation Studios has single-handedly pushed the animation industry forward with their perfectly balanced blend of humanely moving stories with jaw-dropping animation, Monsters University is Pixar’s first foray into the prequel genre & is a backstory to one of their finest films, Monsters, Inc.. In spite of adding interesting dimensions to its beloved characters & bringing some new things to the table, this chapter still falls a little short of living up to the celebrated legacy of its predecessor and isn’t as heartwarming, emotionally stirring & near perfect as most films by Pixar. Nevertheless, where most prequels fail terribly, Monsters University surprisingly succeeds and is a fairly satisfying, if not great, follow-up to the original film, thanks to the absolutely hilarious, unabashedly rib-tickling & wildly entertaining laughter riot that this film is from start to finish.
Monsters University begins with a prologue that introduces a very young Mike Wazowski to us, who after visiting Monsters, Inc. on a school field trip decides to become a scarer on growing up. The movie then jumps 11 years where we see this one-eyed green ball monster making his entry into Monsters University as a freshman to turn his lifelong dream into reality. But also aiming for the scare glory is the large, blue-furred & proud monster named James P. Sullivan aka Sulley and after their unexpected first meeting which doesn’t go well with Mike, a personal vendetta is born. When both are dropped from the program by Dean Hardscrabble for fighting during the final exam, Mike collaborates with Oozma Kappa, a shunned fraternity, & manages to strike a deal with the Dean to get back into the program by winning the Scare Games competition or be expelled & reluctantly includes Sulley into his team when they fall one member short. The rest of the film is about Mike & his team of misfits trying to work together in harmony to win the games while his relationship with Sulley slowly transforms into a beautiful friendship.
Although a return to the monster’s world wasn’t really needed in the first place, the one thing to be really glad about is that Pixar decided to make a prequel instead of a sequel to Monsters, Inc. because there would’ve been absolutely no way for them to top the perfect ending of the 12-year old masterpiece. The people at Pixar have always managed to amaze us with their advancement in animation technology in every single film & Monsters University is no exception to this long-running tradition. The atmosphere of the college life is vividly captured, the new monsters & their personalities are freshly envisioned, designed & rendered on-screen, its relation to the original film is strongly referenced, the voice cast is perfect just like any other Pixar film & the slapstick humour this film exhibits is tastefully devouring. But when it comes to the storyline, Monsters University lacks the originality & freshness of a typical Pixar film and is less refined when compared to their previous works. The plot has a very conventional & clichéd narrative which falls short of living up to the high standards which this animation studio itself had set in the past and as a result, this very vital aspect of filmmaking turns out to be a disappointment.
The one thing that amazed me the most about this film is just how beautifully Pixar has carved the personality arcs of its characters so that each & every viewer will somehow be able to connect with one of this film’s characters. From the very beginning of the film, we find Mike to be an individual no one wanted to be friends with, and this lack of emotional support is what fuels his burning desire to become something important & respectable, in spite of his irreplaceable flaws. Sulley enters the college with lots of aura & pride surrounding his family name, thinking that his coming from a renowned family of legendary scarers is enough to clear him the program only to later find himself under the crushing burden of living up to his family’s legacy when he begins to falter. The character of Randall “Randy” Boggs is also given a sad portrait of an insecure loner who later gets seduced by the dark side. The members of the Oozma Kappa fraternity are presented as misfits shunned by the entire university campus. And each one of these characters finds a perfect companion in their voice actors, be it the returning cast of Billy Crystal, John Goodman & Steve Buscemi as Mike, Sulley & Randy respectively or the new voice additions amongst which Helen Mirren impresses the most as the voice of Dean Hardscrabble. How Pixar manages to evoke such vast amount of genuine emotions from its characters, especially from just a one eye character in this film is a testimony to their meticulous attention to every detail and is one of the many good things about this prequel.
And now, the worst part about Monsters University that deeply saddens the very crazy Pixar fan in me. Until 2010, when Toy Story 3 was released, which in my opinion is their best all-round work so far, Pixar was hailed as the only studio in Hollywood that was never afraid of taking heavy risks involving failures, overcame every limitation of 3D animation & always embraced unconventional stories and still managed to make it all work seamlessly on a visual & emotional level, resulting in them delivering one masterpiece after another which were unanimously adored by viewers & critics alike for 15 consecutive years. But all that feels like flushing out ever since Pixar tasted its first failure with Cars 2, which I believe was made only because of Disney’s insistence. After all, Pixar’s Cars earned billions of dollars for Disney in merchandising alone. Last year’s Brave was, no doubt, an undeniably fun film but it also looked & felt less like a work of Pixar’s & more of Disney’s. But neither Cars 2 nor Brave confirms a heartbreaking possibility like Monsters University does. A possibility that Pixar has now downgraded from earning our love & respect through its heart-wrenching stories for viewers of all ages to playing safe by delivering products that are more targeted at younger audience, thus escaping challenges & risks it once used to welcome. I’m still waiting for Pixar to come up with something that would leave me speechless once again, the last time it happened was 3 years ago with Toy Story 3, and I believe that they soon will. Their next two projects, Inside Out & The Good Dinosaur, look far more promising than any of their recent films and they just might be the rebound that Pixar needs to re-discover its lost magic.
If Monsters University was released by some other animation studio, most of us wouldn’t even be complaining right now but since it is Pixar’s, it’s reasonable to expect a film that not only entertains but surprise & dazzle us too because that’s exactly what their previous films (before Cars 2) have managed to do. All in all, Monsters University is a nicely crafted tale about the beauty of friendship and provides an interesting evolution of Mike & Sulley’s relationship from hardcore rivals to inseparable friends. Many other characters from Monsters, Inc. also make their small appearances in this chapter so if you haven’t seen that film, you might miss the references & importance of some scenes. But still, it’s not a compulsion as you can choose to watch this film first & then check out the original without any hassle because the ending of this film sets everything up real nice to make a seamless transition to Monsters, Inc.. Also, one more thing that’s dearly missed in this prequel is the sweetness & wonder that the character of the little human girl named Boo brought with herself into the monsters world in the previous film and even though director Dan Scanlon tries to compensate for that by filling this film with loads of humour, that beloved character remains irreplaceable. On the scope of entertainment & fun, Monsters University is a roller-coaster ride of unlimited madness that will amaze the little ones & take most grown-ups to a nostalgic tour of their college lives, but on an overall scale, I really doubt if this film will be remembered in years to come, unlike its predecessor. Worth a watch? The answer is a resounding yes. It may not be as perfect as Monsters, Inc. but you’ll still find yourself laughing & enjoying this film because the heart of Monsters University is very much in the right place.