While the Toy Story franchise has proved that Pixar sequels can be better than other people’s sequels (or even other people’s original movies), it’s certainly not a good sign that with Cars 2, Monsters University and the announced follow-up to Finding Nemo, Pixar Studios seem to be suffering from a case of sequelitis. The worst thing that can be said about Monsters University, an otherwise pleasant and entertaining film, is that it’s completely unnecessary: the initial Monsters Inc was a self-contained story that wrapped up nicely and definitely didn’t need any further elaborations. Even worse, Monsters University is a prequel, and therefore part of the recent Hollywood trend of telling stories whose endings we already know and that sometimes end up contradicting what we already knew, just to squeeze a bit more money out of a premise.
For example, I’m pretty sure that Fluffy Monster Sully and Round Monster Mike Wazowski mentioned being childhood friends in “Monsters Inc”, but in this new film, we find out that they have, in fact, met in college, as students on a prestigious scaring course. Both Sully and Mike struggle to meet the demands of the course, for different reasons (Mike is simply not scary enough, whereas Sully is lazy and defiant of rules and authority), so they find themselves enrolling in a scaring competition between frat houses and sororities in order to prove their worth to the Dean, a dignified centipede voiced by Helen Mirren (who seems to be taking all the Female Senior Citizen jobs in Hollywood these days). As you can imagine, Mike and Sully’s fraternity is an assortment of nerds and misfits, whereas their opponents are jocks, cheerleaders and goth kids- in a nutshell, every college movie stereotype you have ever encountered before, minus, of course, all the drinking and sex that such movies usually feature, because, after all, we’re still in a children’s story. This brings on an interesting question: who is the film targeted to? I don’t know if the grownups watching it would identify with such a sanitized view of university life, and the children have no experience in the matter, so the setting is essentially meaningless to them. The very idea of a college-centered kids film is a bit bizarre.
The best thing about Monsters University was their brilliant marketing campaign, complete with a website that looked more appealing than the websites of most real-life universities. The best thing about the movie itself is that, due to its generous concept (all the characters are “monsters”), the Pixar designers can let their imagination run wild. The film is populated with interesting, inventive, funny and sometimes scary creatures that don’t even need to speak to get a reaction. Animation software has advanced quite a bit since Monsters Inc, so everything is now visually dazzling- Sully looks so fluffy you want to touch him (a desire which I’m sure will be exploited intensely through Pixar-branded merchandise). It’s pretty much a guidebook in character design through and through.
Story-wise, Monsters University is gentle, funny and entertaining, though it never quite escapes being predictable, except –what a paradox- at the very end. If you haven’t seen the movie and would like to avoid any spoilers, I suggest you stop reading now, but I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that Mike and Sully did not receive a “get out of jail free” card for all their obnoxious behavior, nor did they magically stop being obnoxious or incompetent. Perhaps one of Pixar’s greatest qualities is their ability to create kid-friendly movies that don’t insult the intelligence of adults (or children, as a matter of fact), and Monsters University stayed committed to making its protagonists learn an actual life lesson as opposed to showering them in unearned, empty accolades. It’s a good message for everybody involved, so let’s thank Pixar for this lovely and forgettable little film, instead of berating them too much for banking on our nostalgia.
I would add that it’s especially poignant and somewhat ironic that Monsters University came out when it did and that the ultimate moral of its story was that university education is not the only path to success, when the generation of children that grew up with Monsters Inc back in 2001 are now battling student debt, unemployment and the big Recession. Gaudeamus igitur!