Pixar returns with a crazy tribute to college films, returning to form and reminding us why they will always have the power to make us smile.
Once the undisputed masters of the animated medium, Disney/Pixar has given us some cause for concern these last few years. Even with the magnificence of Toy Story 3, the abysmal cash-cow of Cars 2 and the lukewarm rehash Brave tarnished that hard won reputation. Indeed, the appearance of another spin-off film, this time a prequel, may have elicited enough screams of horror to power a monster factory for several decades to come. After all, the Academy Award-winning Monsters Inc. is an almost universally beloved film, featuring not only groundbreaking animation but, like the best of Pixar’s work, a beating heart as well. It gave us all permission to believe in the monsters under our beds and in our wardrobes, the same way that the Toy Story films gave us a glimpse into what happens when the humans aren’t looking. With Monsters University, Pixar go a long way towards restoring our faith.
Set about a decade before the original film, young Michael “Mike” Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) can’t wait to start college, working hard and refusing to see any obvious impediments towards becoming a champion “scarer”. James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (voiced by John Goodman) is the complete opposite, a laid-back son of an all-star scarer who chooses to coast on his name and some of his natural ability. When the duo is kicked out of college by Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) due to a mishap, they must put aside their differences and team up with the forgotten members of Monsters University to compete for re-entrance via a series of gruelling tasks.
The problem with prequels is that we ultimately known how things are going to turn out. This foreknowledge often undercuts any potential for drama. However, this isn’t a problem when the storytelling is compelling and the characters are engaging. Crystal and Goodman’s interplay was one of the highlights of the original film, and despite a slight shift in their relationship, it remains the central appeal of Monsters University. Likewise, Pixar’s messages of inclusiveness and unlikely camaraderie have been staples of their films since Toy Story, and here Pixar filters it through every college film from National Lampoon’s Animal House to Revenge of the Nerds, right down to a scene in which Mike rides a pig-like creature across campus. Monsters University is just about accepting others for who they are (“Oozma Kappa! We’re O.K!”) and finding your own place, and it’s this positive power that gives the film an enormous amount of infectious energy. Director and co-writer Dan Scanlon, who is unique (for Pixar) in that his previous credits including a short animation and a live-action mockumentary, throws in a number of gags that will sail over younger audiences, but rest assured: there really is something in there for everybody.
It goes without saying that the animation is gorgeous. The original film was known for refining the technology by which fur could be rendered in detail on screen, but Pixar are never content to rest on their laurels. Sully, for example, now has over 5.5 million individual hairs (we counted), with the hundreds of people working on the film also doubling their “render farm” to produce this monolith in a lean four years. Individual flags and blades of grass sway in the breeze, and thanks to a process they developed called “global illumination”, light behaves the same way it would in the real world. A scene where Dean Hardscrabble descends from the rafters of the classroom is beautifully lit, creating an effortlessly sinister atmosphere. However, like The Muppets, the monster characters are scary-looking but strangely appealing, so the little ones will find them funny and cuddly. It’s a beautiful marriage of technology and art, and here none of those technological advances are had at the expense of its indelible charm.
So few films this blockbuster season are filled with a simple “goodness”, that trait often misjudged for tweeness or substitute saccharine by lessor studios (or Pixar on a Cars day). Monsters University has all the irreverence of a college caper, but the warmth of its predecessor. Welcome back, Pixar: we’ve missed you.
Monsters University is released in Australia on 20 June 2013 from Disney. It screen in the US from 21 June 2013.