As far as Pixar films go, it’s the funniest and most engaging since The Incredibles, and the most emotionally affecting since Finding Nemo or possibly even Monsters Inc.*
Then as films directed by Dan Scanlon go, it’s quite comfortably the best. You can also trust that it will be the most seen, by some orders of magnitude.
But as films about Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan go… I’d say University falls a hair short of Monsters Inc.
If you go into this prequel worried that it might in some way clash with or betray the original film, just a few minutes should put your mind at rest. There’s a hand full of cracking gags in the first sequence that not only set you up to laugh, they also do the groundwork in re-establishing character and the rules of the monster universe, reconnecting the audience and building links between this film and the original.
This is a great world to revisit, too, because it’s open and expansive but the logic is so clear that everything feels of a piece. We saw a monsterfied power company last time around and this time we see a monsterfied university but the bigger world is so well-determined you can easily imagine what a monsterfied supermarket would be like, or a monsterfied hotel, or who might work for a monsterfied taxi company. Pixar could make Monster World sitcoms from here to the end of time and never run out of material.
The university setting is far from incidental. Under the fur, this is a pretty close cousin to Animal House, a sibling to Revenge of the Nerds. If we’re pigeonholing as well as ranking, this is definitely a college comedy.
As you’ll recall from the first film, the filmmakers’ intent isn’t to obscure the humanity of the story behind fur and fangs, but to use the tropes and trappings of monsterdom to write it larger. This is Mike Wazowski’s story and, yes, while his problems are couched in monster terms, they feel utterly identifiable.
The first picture picked up with Mike Wazowski and Sully as a scaring team, working together at Monsters Inc. They had a brilliantly drawn friendship from their first scene, something that seemed intricately woven from intimate familiarity. The trick with this prequel was to build that friendship from the ground up, show us the strands of their relationship weave together.
And it’s almost perfectly executed. The first film was Sully’s story, this time we’re with Mike. Maybe Sully’s B-plot in this film isn’t as compelling as Mike’s was in the last one, but Sully is, to a large extent, the straight man, and Billy Crystal really does seem happy to steal some of the scenes from under John Goodman’s nose. There’s an inherent bias towards Mike baked into the dynamic, perhaps. I’m happy with this. I love the little fella.
The pay-off to the first film not only changed the Monster World forever, this change became an important part of what the film meant and stood for. After that story, the monsters learned the error of their ways and abandoned their scaring techniques for the greater power of laughter. The monsters came to understand that children were not just something to terrify and leech power from no matter the expense. These messages, and the greater values they imply, were crucial to Monsters Inc.
And so this provides the biggest problems in prequelising the story. We’re dealing with characters who, despite what the audience have learned, distrust human kids and want to terrify them. They want to do things we’ve already been told they’d be wrong to do. It could certainly make everybody seem rather unsympathetic.
How the filmmakers swerve around these issues, with a late scene set in our world, is a brilliant bit of misdirection. Is it a cheat? Well… sort of it. But it works. Fantastically.
Monsters University ably solves the problems of its own existence, undermining the complaints of the “not another sequel” naysayers. More importantly, it’s a worthwhile story on its own terms. I’ll talk more about it on the podcast over the next few weeks.
Also, I spoke to Dan Scanlon and producer Kori Rae about the film at length and I’ll be bringing those interviews to you closer to the release date.
Monsters University is released in the US on June 21st and here in the UK on July 12th. I loved it and I can’t wait to see it again.
*Or the first fifteen minutes of Up, if we can count that alongside whole films.