Sequelizing Pixar movies beyond Toy Story seems to be very much the taboo subject and leads to many conflicting emotions. For an animation powerhouse of such incredible, imaginative ability, the idea of following up one of their earlier, groundbreaking hits feels oddly crass and dirty somehow; and yet given the chance, I would even want to spend more time with Pixar’s lesser lauded properties. It’s something of an existential crisis that doesn’t seem to have a real answer (something the animation house excels in): if we embrace spending more time with old friends, do we not lesser our chances of ever meeting a new one?
Well, we had an entire decade to ponder that question as from 2010 to 2020, Pixar released no less than seven sequels to their films, or to be more exact, six sequels and one prequel. Monsters University was the first follow up Pixar gave us that didn’t involve Woody, Buzz and the gang or those annoying vehicular bastards from the Cars films – could they manage scare up something magical?
A young and offensively cute Mike Wazowski takes a school trip to Monsters Inc., the energy company that harvests power from the screams of children to run their cities, and immediately decides that he wants to be a scare when he grows up. Growing from a precocious little green ball with a giant eyeball, to a precocious green teen with a giant eyeball, Mike tenaciously attacks his school work despite being no scarier than a bindle full of bunnies, but annoying him with his lackadaisical attitude is natural born scarer, James P. Sullivan who is coasting in his innate talent and family name to coast by.
After their feud costs them both chances to join a prestigious fraternity (Roar Omega Roar) and obtain a passing grade for scaring classes, the two randomly join lame fraternity Oozma Kappa (Their house chant? “We’re O.K.!”) in order to win the annual Scare Games to be reaccepted into class.
This proves to be more difficult as it may seem as not only is the group made up of adorable misfits, but Mike and Sulley’s bickering are mean the Oozma Kappa’s can’t work as a team and they scrape through the first round on a mere technically.
However, as Mike and Sulley’s animosity gradually turns to a begrudging respect, they also manage to bring out the scaring talents of their fraternity brothers – well, maybe not Art, he’s a lost cause – but two things still stand in their way. Despite all his knowledge and hard work, Mike still simply isn’t scary, but worse than that is the lengths Sulley will go to to win; how on earth will will things turn out in order to give us that lovable double act we first saw in Monsters Inc.?
There’s a prevailing opinion that Monsters University is inferior to Monsters Inc., and while that maybe true, the gap between the two may not be a wide as you may think.
Firstly, the movie has to overcome the insurmountable curse of the prequel which effectively tells us that things can’t stray too far from a certain path as we already know where our heroes end up – similarly, there’s that sence that after having such a massive adventure at a focal point in their young lives, it’s a slight peeve that none of it can be referenced in the older sequel. I know its illogical, but after the movie suggests that the first film is actually the second time they’ve been trapped in the human world, it just seems weird that Mike and Sulley wouldn’t mention it.
Anyway, petty gripes aside, Monsters University works best when it acts as a razor sharp parody of Frat house comedies of the 80’s; while none of this would mean anything to younger viewers, all the tropes are present and correct. The rich, snobby frat house are the villains (led by a magnificently smug Nathan Fillion), pranking other fraternities is rife and the movie nails many other cliches from Frat House comedies movies such as Animal House and Revenge Of The Nerds (although thankfully without the rape). In fact, the movie does them so well and the background details and throwaway gags are so on point, it kind of distracts from the main thread a little which is a far more traditional enemies-become-friends plot.
Kudos have to be given to the filmmakers, however, as the movie chooses to not simply regurgitate the first movie in a different setting but go with a completely different energy whatsoever, so gone are the riffs about office politics, endless running around corridors in a farcical nature and little Boo and in are themes of familial pressure, Lovecraftian librarians and Charlie Day’s continuously addled furry tube sock of a creature called Art.
However, as colourful and deep all the visuals and humour is, Monsters University gives us possibly the most morally complex message a kids film has ever given us and it’s one that’s devastating in its maturity as it is potentially soul destroying in any little toy who might take it to heart: just because you want to be something, it doesn’t mean you can. It’s frankly unheard of for a film of this kind give such brutally realistic advice, especially since most movies targeted at the ankle biters cheerfully act the cheerleader in a “you can do whatever you set your mind to!” sort of capacity, but then Pixar has always built its empire on exposing us to the harsh lessons life gives us like the death of a lifelong partner or the fact that kids outgrow things. Still, while it is admirable that Monsters University indulges in such unrestrained honesty, I’m sure glad I don’t have kids to try and explain that to after the film’s finished – “Why certainly honey, of course your dreams could remain unfulfilled.”
While missing the original spark by having their best bud characters be at loggerheads and lacking the simple drive of the first adventure, Monsters University is still a worthy successor despite the rather weighty baggage kids will have to try and unpack, possibly until they’re in higher learning themselves.
Once again, Pixar graduates with honors…