Since 1995’s “Toy Story”, Pixar have been synonymous with animated family films of the highest quality. Not only did they set the bar, they kept raising it every time they brought out a film. They even showed they could manage that trickiest of things: a sequel. “Toy Story 2” and “Toy Story 3” are the hallmark by which all other animated franchises should be judged.
Of course, it couldn’t last and the first fumble was 2006’s “Cars”, aka John Lassiter’s vanity project. “Cars”, of course, isn’t terrible, it’s just that coming off the back of “Finding Nemo” and “The Incredibles” (the one Pixar film everybody wants a sequel to), it was a bit of a let-down. For me, the basic premise of the universe of “Cars” just didn’t make sense and I couldn’t shift that discomfort throughout the film. Every other Pixar film meticulously creates a believable fictional world for its characters and for me “Cars” was the first one to fail to do that.
Reassuringly, it was followed by “Ratatouille”, “Wall-E” and “Up” proving not only that Pixar still had “it”, but also they were willing to push the envelope and try new and unusual ways of telling a story. 2010’s “Toy Story 3” wrapped up Woody & Buzz’s adventures in a smart and emotionally satisfying way and revealed that we had not been watching a film and two sequels but a continuous trilogy on the themes of growing up and letting go of childhood.
But in 2011, everything changed and Pixar released its first terrible movie, “Cars 2”. The spell was broken. While Pixar retained a huge amount of goodwill and affection from their audience, they were no longer infallible. With the unfocussed, lacklustre “Brave” picking up the pieces in 2012, I wasn’t overly hopeful going into “Monsters University” – which is, of course, the film I’m meant to be reviewing.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: prequels SUCK. There’s no two ways about it. There’s zero dramatic tension because you know who lives and who dies (either metaphorically or actually), you know how it must end because you know where the characters begin their next adventure. I think the current fashion for prequels is a direct and unwelcome result of the rise of geek culture and fanboy obsessions over the minutiae of fictional worlds. Only that small but vocal group really care about what is “canon” and what isn’t. It’s this need to have every detail confirmed by a nebulous creative authority that drives what little appetite for prequels there is.
In 1980, we all marvelled at the revelation that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father and literally millions of us wondered and imagined how the great Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker could have sunk so low as to become this “more machine than man” Dark Lord of the Sith. I’m pretty sure hardly any of those millions of individually created backstories were as turgid, uninspired and downright derivative as the Star Wars prequels we eventually got. I suspect fewer still took five and a half soullessly CGI’d hours to get to the only part anyone wanted to see.
So, to summarise, Pixar are in the middle of a mediocre run and I have a serious antipathy towards prequels. So what did I make of “Monsters University”?
Well, it’s okay. Better than “Cars” or “Cars 2”, on a par with “Brave” and not as good as their back catalogue. The film charts the early years of Mike and Sully, but unlike “Inc”, this is much more Mike Wazowski’s story than James Sullivan and we mainly see the world through his…um…eye.
Fundamentally, “Monsters University” suffers from being largely unnecessary and, very unusually for a Pixar film, unoriginal. Yeah, there are plenty of amusing puns based around the monster-isation of the world of academia and a handful of sequences which elicited a chuckle from the audience I saw it with but if you’ve seen any college campus comedy over the past forty years, you’ve pretty much seen “Monsters University”. It’s almost painfully formulaic and feels more like a shameless Disney cash-in (*cough* Planes *cough*) than Pixar’s clever take on an old trope. The voice work is as good as always and the cast do everything they can with the weak material. The seven year old I watched it with found some parts during the middle stretch pretty boring and got quite fidgety, which is very unusual for him. It does perk up a little towards the end with an interesting and unexpected coda which has some points to make on the nature of talent, hard work and the perceived importance of academic achievement.
So, “Monsters University” doesn’t break Pixar’s current slump but it doesn’t drive it any deeper either. I’m afraid Pixar’s end of term report will read “must try harder”.