Published Jun 20, 2013Amidst the array of populist animation studios, Pixar's blend of thematic complexity, literary wits, Looney Toons anarchy and cutting edge visuals has made its name synonymous with quality. Regardless of the director or topic, a Pixar film — outside of the Cars lexicon — is a safe bet for adults and children alike, having an ingrained, natural humour that stems from a universally understood story with subtle metaphysical musings.
It was evident in the original Monsters, Inc. movie back in 2001, wherein uniquely definable characters played off the canvas of an entirely new and refreshing universe where monsters lived a similar quotidian grind as humans, only exploiting the fears (and screams) of human children to harvest energy. The dwindling resource admonitory was spun with an abundance of consistently funny trajectory gags and character interplay that bolstered an already dynamic concept that demystified childhood horrors for its youthful audience.
And while Monsters University is definitely an energetic and visually apt addition to the canon, rehashing some of the successful elements of the original — unflappable kids, workout montages and Randall insisting he won't lose to Sulley, yet again — it captures none of the magic inherent in most Pixar titles. It's possible the success of the studio and its litany of complex, entertaining titles make this rather strained entry seem like a disappointment in comparison, but something about this sequel feels exceedingly stale and manufactured. It feels less like the work of a storyteller expressing themselves than a barrage of marketing ploys crammed together, forcing known success tactics on children to get a rise out of them.
Since the original left the scare industry at a bit of an impasse, Monsters University takes the prequel route, stepping back to Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sulley's (John Goodman) college days, positing them as arch rivals. Mike, though diminutive and goofier than scary, is determined to succeed in the scare industry, fighting against all odds while working tirelessly. Contrarily, Sulley, who comes from a long line of professional scarers, doesn't have to work at all. He's the equivalent of a spoiled art student, telling those without a natural gift that they just need to "do it."
Their conflict, like almost everything else in storyboard artist turned director Dan Scanlan's first animated feature directorial outing, is as standard a trope as they come. Their bickering even gets them kicked out of the scare program when they destroy the uptight Dean Hardscrabble's (Helen Mirren) precious tchotchke. From here, it becomes about working together to earn their way back into the program, lest they suffer their lifetimes manufacturing scare cans like uninspired corporate drones.
While this greater portion of the nearly two-hour film may entertain particularly young children, the eventual "scare games" that drone on endlessly — not unlike the competitions you would find in the Harry Potter universe — rehash the same formula endlessly. The loser fraternity, OK (Oozma Kappa), to which Mike and Sulley reluctantly belong, scrapes by each challenge through wits and luck. Not once is the nature of anxiety or fear examined, nor are there any facets of Monsters University that feel necessary or vital.
All of this plays serviceably and isn't outwardly bad, but the pandering jokes and makeshift narrative, which borrows heavily from essentially every fraternity movie ever made, leave an impression that this sequel was assembled by bureaucrats rather than artists.
The fear is that Pixar's success has made them complacent, merely resting on the formula rather than churning out fresh ideas, milking sensationalist, cheap laughs from their youth audience just like the titular monsters, who use broad tactics to earn a child's scream, to increasingly lesser, desensitized effect. (Buena Vista)