Monsters University

14 Jul

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Monsters University is the 2013 prequel to Disney Pixar’s Monsters Inc, which was released all the way back in 2001 (doesn’t that make you feel old?). The premise of that film was wonderfully imaginative; There exists a world that humans don’t know about, inhabited by Monsters. To power their world, the Monsters collect the screams of young children. That film took a wonderfully oddball concept and became a typically brilliant, heart warming Disney Pixar production.

Monsters University takes the same two lead characters from the original film, namely Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) and Sullivan, or Sulley (John Goodman). In it, we see how the two progressed to work for Monsters Inc. They had to study at the Monsters University (or MU) and take a course in scaring. However, we find out that Mike and Sulley weren’t always the best of friends. In fact, they didn’t get on at all when they first met, and an argument between the pair goes too far and they end up being kicked off of their course. Desperate to regain their place, they form a team with a group of misfit Monsters to enter ‘The Scare Games’ – an annual event staged at the university to find out who the scariest Monsters are.

Whilst in this film, it hits all of the usual Disney Pixar buttons, there is just something that doesn’t feel quite right about it. First of all, the lack of character change from the first movie was something I found really surprising. Mikey has barely changed at all from how I recall him in Monsters Inc. The only notable difference is that, to show he was younger, he has braces. Now, don’t get me wrong, that’s a nice touch. It makes Mikey look cute and all that, but is that really what we’re there for? Writing a prequel does present an interesting challenge to a writing team in that, rather than looking at character development, they’re effectively trying to establish some character un-development, if that is such a thing? I was hoping to see what really made Mikey and Sulley get into scaring, and I don’t feel I got that. In fact, Sulley’s lack of un-development is even worse than Mikey’s. Unless my memories of the excellent Monsters Inc are well off, I didn’t really spot much difference in Sulley at all.

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I am aware that this next criticism may sound odd taken at face value but I’m going with it anyway; Monsters University felt, to me at least, very much like a children’s film. “Well duh, Richard, what did you expect? It is a children’s film!” Oh I know, I know, but at their best Disney Pixar have displayed a wonderful knack of creating films whereby the basic premise and slick, colourful visuals please the younger audience with terrifically fanciful stories and aesthetics, whilst also retaining an appeal for the adults that have the joy of taking those children to the cinema. It’s an incredible balance and has been known to come in the form of relatively ‘mature’ jokes that the adults get but the children don’t understand well enough to be corrupted by. I’ve had arguments with people who have suggested that the Toy Story series are ‘kids films’; they’re not, they’re far more universal than that. Or perhaps it’s just the story lines and emotional context that resonate with the adult audience; would anybody really describe Wall-E as a kids film?

Well, whatever the special ingredient is that usually entrances a Disney Pixar adult viewer, it’s missing here. If there were any jokes that were designed to make an older viewer laugh whilst sailing over the head of a child, then they went clean over my head too.

I also found that the story failed to keep me sufficiently interested. By way of fair warning, you may consider some points made from here to be plot spoilers for Monsters Inc and/or Monsters University. The problem, story wise, is that we all already know happens, by default of having seen the original movie. We may not know this particular tale, but the happy ending is even more obvious than it usually is in a Disney film. We are aware that Sulley and Mikey end up as best friends, we know what jobs they will end up with, so it’s incredibly hard to retain any interest in the overall story.

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For it’s problems, I would say that this film gets better as it progresses. Large parts of the first half felt a lot like the creators were saying “Hey! Look how many different designs and affectations we’ve been able to think of for our Monsters!” There’s even the unusual feeling that a lot of the jokes were written without context and just crowbarred in. Like I said though, it does improve and become more interesting as it progresses, but then lets itself down again with an all-too-obvious epiphany moment shared by the two protagonists. It’s as simple as one saying, “I’ve been a jerk”, and getting the riposte, “Me too. We could make a great team”.  And then that’s it, two characters who have been fighting like cat and dog throughout are suddenly best friends. It’s just all a bit too obvious.

If I was a parent, I think there is one thing that would thoroughly please me about this story. It takes a great moral high ground and delivers a clear message to it’s young target audience; ‘Cheaters never prosper”. Sitting there as a 24 year old, it didn’t do a lot for me but I can well imagine certain scenes during that pontificating period would really stick with a child, which is surely a good thing.

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In conclusion then, despite the overwhelmingly negative content of this review, I’d be loathe to tell you Monsters University is a bad film. It does, however, have to be classed as a disappointment as an incredibly consistent studio appears to have allowed itself to dumb down. Ultimately, this feels like a story that didn’t need to be told and smacks of the commercial arm of Disney Pixar spotting a cash cow and milking it for all it’s worth.

By ticking all of the usual buttons; cute, generally likeable characters, great aesthetics and some lessons well learned by the end, it avoids being classed as a poor effort. It’s just a thoroughly average one, lacking in originality. The relationship between the two main characters riffs far too much off the archetypal Disney Pixar creations Woody The Cowboy and Buzz Lightyear, from the vastly superior Toy Story. Your kids might like it, but there isn’t much here for the older crowd.

5/10

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3 Responses to “Monsters University”

  1. At The Back July 14, 2013 at 09:56 #

    You’re right, we did pick up on similar points. I’ve scanned a few four and even five star reviews and I just can’t see how they came to that. On the LambForums for instance, I’ve posted pretty much the most negative review on there. Maybe it’s just us? The film just feels rushed and far too simple.

  2. Gary Woodcock July 26, 2013 at 10:05 #

    Great review, completely agree with a lot of your points. It’s disappointingly average. Hopefully Pixar start focusing more on new ideas, instead of rehashing their old ones.

    • Richard Burns August 1, 2013 at 20:51 #

      So sorry for the late reply – thanks for the comment. I agree, they’re such a creative studio and they can do much better than this.

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