A shy clownfish who travels hundreds of miles in search of his son and an amnesiac regal Blue Tang who guides him along. A rat who can cook teams up with the illegitimate son of a prestigious chef who can’t. A trash compactor robot on Earth who falls in love with an advanced robot visiting from space to inspect for signs of life. A grumpy old retired widower who flies his whole house to Paradise Falls and a perky little pudgy Boy Scout who is accidentally brought along. These are some of the unique pairings that have wonderfully propelled Pixar Animated Studios to Oscar glory. Now consider this: a little green monster who knows every way to scare but really can’t scare anyone, and his powerful college mate who can scare the shit out of him but is a one-trick pony. Does this Pixar pairing sound unique enough to hold its own against its predecessors? No, really…
That’s the number one problem that Pixar’s latest venture, Monsters University, must overcome. Problem number two: the movie is a prequel. Pixar is little known for making prequels or sequels; its only very successful franchise is the Toy Story series, which began in 1995 and continued with two acclaimed sequels, the third part was nominated for the prestigious Best Picture award at the Oscars. The other known franchise is Cars, whose sequel Cars 2 barely gets any critical points (I loved both movies).
This appears to be the decade of Pixar sequels; on the one hand, Monsters University comes ten years after the brilliant Monsters Inc, while on the other, the Pixar classic Finding Nemo continues its legacy with Finding Dory, due out in two years. Sequel or prequel equals familiarity and we always expect Pixar to give us something new and original. No one cares when rival studio Dreamworks hangs on to its green ogre Shrek to make money, but we expect much bigger things from Pixar, so the thought of watching its memorable characters do another act baffles us because we’ve seen the best before .
Problem number three: This movie is set in a college. You would wonder what’s wrong? American Pie was set in college and it worked. But keep in mind why American Pie worked: It was an R-rated comedy about the three-letter word with many four-letter words used in their three-letter word context. Monsters University is G-rated, and its comedy involves watching the lunch lady serve junk to students while freshmen are given an all-positive picture during a Monsters University orientation hosted by a hyper-cheery girl. There are sports monsters, geeky monsters, blonde monsters, preparatory monsters and other monsters of different shapes, sizes and colors in this university led by a loyal female dragon Dean. Oh so familiar that you’d think if these were actors instead of monsters, this movie would be instantly forgotten.
Some of the names are also noteworthy: the film’s protagonist Mike attended ‘Frighton’ Primary School as a child. It’s an interpretation of the word “scary”, understand? Um… not that bright. Also, throughout this movie you’d be surprised to find sequences that remind you of other movies. There is an “initiation ceremony” that will take you directly to the Ring of Fire sequence from Finding Nemo. The first part itself with the presentations of the monsters looks similar to another animated film Hotel Transylvania, which though spent too much time showing one monster after another. Already five problems or rather challenges, and will Pixar be able to overcome them all? Yes, to a large extent it does.
I’d probably use the word “redeem” rather than surpass here; Monsters University redeems itself by making up for its range of Pixar magical posts. Until then, your eyes won’t open with the usual sense of wonder while watching Pixar movies. You want googly eyes like the protagonist Mike when he enters Monsters University for the first time, but unfortunately you’re squinting. When you see his early rivalry with Sullivan, it feels like you’ve seen it all before. Even when actress Helen Mirren unleashes her Miranda Priestley with sister Aloysius as Dean Hardscrabble, you still wait for Pixar signs again, feeling like you’re watching a Dreamworks film that’s been mistakenly marketed as Pixar.
In between, I had coined the term ‘Pixar’s blot’ for this film, as I found nothing positively surprising to me in this work. That term wouldn’t be used for this movie at all, however, as the second half surprised me, in a big way.
The movie wakes up and becomes altogether special once Pixar’s magic slowly fills in like the fear meter used by students at Monsters University to record children’s fear levels. Once Mike makes a bet with Dean Hardscrabble to keep him in the “Scare Program” (he gets suspended from it for causing chaos during their exam) if he turns out to be the winner of a college event called “Scare Games”, he teams up with other four not at all scary frat boys and his rival Sullivan, who is also suspended and who joins their Oozma Kappa team only to re-enter the program; when the team begs to understand each other’s strengths and capabilities, you begin to see the flashing Pixar light you’ve been waiting for so long. There’s an unexpected surprise that I won’t reveal here, and ultimately the film’s larger themes seem to have the depth of Pixar’s previous efforts. The only problem in the end is the first half itself, which while it feels necessary after watching the entire film, lacks any Pixar spark moments. That little nerve lamp you see every time its logo appears (it’s Luxor Jr., from a previous short) was probably low voltage until intermission. Thank goodness it all turned out soon after and it burned brilliantly. But I was constantly worried about the little light bulb going out, and I don’t want to experience that feeling again, not from Pixar.