The Review: Who are the greatest animation house ever to have made motion pictures? Most people answering that question would likely say Disney, and the evidence would support that – to a point. If you look at the Internet Movie Database Top 250 Films list (as I frequently do), there are currently 17 animations among those 250 films. Nine of them bear the stamp of the fairytale castle at the beginning, but only two were old school Disney (Beauty And The Beast and The Lion King, in case you were wondering). The other seven – Toy Storys 1 and 3, Up, Wall•E, Ratatouille, Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc. – all share the castle opening with that of an anglepoise lamp jumping on a letter. (Quiz question for you – can you name the other eight, non-Disney movies? Answer at the bottom.) Pixar has become so synonymous with not only quality, but outstanding quality of both animation and storytelling, that the expectation on every film they make is almost inevitably going to prefix disappointment. Movies such as the Cars films, and to a certain extent Brave, would have felt perfectly acceptable, even decent, from other studios, but from Pixar they feel missed opportunities, so high has the bar been raised. Now, the studio seems intent on mining its back catalogue, buoyed by the success of Toy Story sequels and now set to find more fish (in the upcoming Finding Dory) and to scare more monsters. But did the world really need a prequel to Monsters, Inc.?
It feels an incredibly safe storytelling decision from a studio renowned for narrative bravery, not least because the various endings of Monsters, Inc. would seem to preclude any sensible sequel without diminishing the magic of the original. So we’re presented with what, for a decent length of the run time, is about as predictable an American college / fraternity movie as you could possibly imagine. Inspired by a school visit to the local scaring company, Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) dreams of becoming a top scarer. Pursuing this dream all the way to college to major in scaring, Mike meets many of the familiar faces we’ll know from his future, including his friendly roommate Randall (Steve Buscemi) and the arrogant jock monster James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman). They are all in fear of the university’s ominous Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), and when Mike and Sulley inadvertently upset the dean, they both end up off the Scare Program. The only way back in looks to be an alliance with the dorkiest fraternity on campus, Oozma Kappa, and somehow getting them in shape to win the college’s Scare Games.
There are very few points anywhere in the duration of Monsters University where you get the feeling that this was a story that needed to be told. Where most Pixar feels fresh, vibrant and can often move you to tears, the only tears here will be those of frustration during the opening stretches when the laughs seem to have been scared off and the monsters are playing out the plot in the most predictable way possible. There’s a few reasonable gags, but it’s not until the movie reaches the Scare Games that the laughs start flowing thick and fast. This is a relief, as it’s then easier to overlook the predictability of the plot – which may as well be on rails, so predestined does it seem on its course – and to enjoy Monsters University for what it is, which is a decent amount of fun from that second act onwards. All of the returning voices, from Crystal to Goodman via a fair few background monsters in a variety of fun cameos dotted liberally through the run time, fit snugly back into their original roles but some of the new characters are less successful. While the likes of Nathan Fillion and Aubrey Plaza fill out the background well, the weakest link might just be Helen Mirren as the dean, simply for the fact that she’s just being Helen Mirren being a monster, and it never feels quite enough for her character.
Of course, this Pixar movie – as with every other Pixar movie – still manages to look gorgeous, achieving a strange mix of almost photorealism mixed with cartoon monsters, but every frame is a visual feast. What the original had in spades, as do most Pixar movies, were a level of invention and surprise that would feed ten other normal movies; the climax, with the chase through the realm of doors, can’t quite be matched here, but a smaller scale finale is almost as effective, favouring atmosphere over spectacle and still satisfying as a resolution. The last stretch of the film feels the most genuinely Pixar, where the plot doesn’t always go where you’d quite expect and where the character beats manage to strike just the right notes. The real problem with Pixar is the rod they’ve made for their own back with such a sustained period of immaculate quality, but it would be wrong to feel hard done by with a good Pixar movie instead of a great one, when their good still manages to outdo the great of almost everyone else. But, while the Toy Story movies managed to feel necessary for their characters, Monsters University is more disposable; let’s just hope this studio learns when to stop going to the well before it’s too late.
Why see it at the cinema: It’s a Pixar movie, so of course it’s packed with rich and incidental detail, so while you won’t have the luxury of a pause button, you will be able to pick out a decent number of the tiny and obscure references in the background thanks to the cinema screen. Also, the second and third acts have a high level of laughs, comparable to the original, and that always works better with an audience.
Why see it in 3D: It’s a tricky one: there’s nothing offensive about the 3D, but nothing compelling about it either. It adds depth of vision, but there’s none of the minions-in-your-face malarkey of Despicable Me 2, its likely box office competition in the UK this summer. The best I can say is if that you’re not paying a significant 3D premium, don’t mind the glasses and can’t find a 2D screening, then the 3D is perfectly watchable.
What about the rating: Rated U for mild slapstick and comic threat, meaning anyone over the age of four can see this, with or without parents. And you all should.
My cinema experience: Saw this at a preview with two burly women in attendance at the door, looking for all the world like night club bouncers and rather aggressively insisting that Mrs Evangelist turn her phone off before we entered. As it turns out, thankfully the standard of ushering hadn’t dropped sharply, it was actually two employees from the House Of Mouse there to ensure we didn’t spread the film all over t’internet before it was even released. So nervous did that make Mrs E and I, we didn’t stop to see if there’s an end credits scene. Apparently there is, and it sounds like a decent LOL, so do stay if you’re into that sort of thing. (End credits, that is, not LOLs. Of course you’re into LOLs.)
The Score: 8/10
Answer to the earlier quiz question: The eight non-Disney produced or distributed movies in the IMDb Top 250 at the time of writing are Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro, Grave Of The Fireflies, Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind and Howl’s Moving Castle (all Studio Ghibli), How To Train Your Dragon (Dreamworks) and Mary And Max (Melodrama Pictures). If you got them all, then you obviously cheated. Shame on you.