12 years ago Pixar created a gem with Monsters Inc., all about the friendship between two monsters: Mike Wazowski, a green, one-eyed orb with limbs, voiced by Billy Crystal, and James P Sullivan, a fluffy cyan ox-thing with magenta polka-dots, voiced by John Goodman. We saw the two wacky-scary creatures enter human kids’ bedrooms at night and use the resulting screams to generate power for their secret monster world.
Now Dan Scanlon’s 3D prequel takes us back to Sulley and Mike’s student days at Monsters University. Here we learn how the duo first met as freshmen and took a distinctly rocky road to their present fame as professional scarers of little children.
In a sweet prologue, we join young Mike on a school trip to the Monsters, Inc. factory floor. On the spot, he decides his ambition is to become a scarer: the creatures who creep into children’s bedrooms around the world and extract precious “scream power” with a virtuoso roar or shriek.
To get there, he needs a degree from Monsters University, an Ivy League scare school presided over by Helen Mirren’s imperious half-bat, half-centipede, Dean Hardscrabble. And it is here that we join Mike some years later, hauling a suitcase full of textbooks through its sunlit quadrangles, and towards a brighter future.
Except we know from Monsters Inc. that Mike never goes on to become a scarer: in that film, he works as Sully’s assistant, standing on the sidelines while his friend gets the glory. That’s a tough lesson, and one worth spelling out, even though the film never quite does: no matter how hard we work in life, our deepest ambitions often go unfulfilled, although what happens in their place can end up making us just as happy. What other animation house would dare to propose a moral as realistic as that?
Indeed, when Mike and Sully first meet, they are not natural allies: Sully is cruising along on the strength of his family name, while Mike spends every waking hour up to his eyeball in books. Both, however, end up in the same nerdish fraternity, Oozma Kappa, the Hufflepuff of the monster realm, whose members live in the shadow of the queen bees of Python Nu Kappa and the jocks of Roar Omega Roar.
The way Pixar breathes life into their characters becomes closer to puppetry with every film, and Mike and Sully’s classmates are less like digital creations than free-roaming Muppets; one, called Art, looks like a roll of purple shag-pile with eyes and a grin.
Essentially this amounts to an underdog tale, although what the plot may lack in innovative fizz, it makes up for with charm and quiet wisdom. One night, Mike leads his Oozma Kappa friends on a covert visit to the Monsters Inc. factory, so he can explain to them the secret of the professional scarers’ success.“Do you see what they all have in common?” he asks. “Nothing,” shrugs Sully. “Exactly,” Mike says with a smile. When considering Pixar’s body of work, you can’t help but conclude the same thing.
In plot terms it’s familiar campus comedy material about thwarted ambition, rejection and final success due to losers becoming winners through burying personal pride and working as a team. There are clever and witty moments and, both visually and vocally. But there’s a rather tired, willed atmosphere hanging over it.
Monsters University is a standard buddy, sports, and campus movie (with, incidentally, an eerie similarity to The Internship). It is funny, but the longed-for return to Pixar greatness seems as far away as ever.
Over the last five years or so, it has increasingly become the case that the only filmmakers capable of out-Pixaring Pixar are Pixar themselves. Accordingly, the most heart-melting animation you will see in the cinema this summer is not Monsters University, but the customary Pixar hors d’oeuvre, The Blue Umbrella, a six-minute curtain-raiser directed by Saschka Unseld.
A whimsical romantic comedy, it tells the tale of a shy blue umbrella falling in love at first sight with a fetching red umbrella one windy rainy evening. Separated from her, blown away, he ends up in the gutter but is finally reunited in a city that wishes them well. Beautifully drawn, delicately coloured, a charming delight.
By Ruth Walker