Starring: Billy Crystal, Jon Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Peter Sohn, Charlie Day, Helen Mirren, Alfred Molina, Nathan Fillion, Aubrey Plaza, Tyler Labine, John Krasinski, Bill Hader, Bob Peterson, and of course, John Ratzenberger
When Pixar released Toy Story in 1995, the world was amazed by how well this unknown studio had hit the nail on the head, seemingly able to create a film that appealed to both young and old audiences, with it’s heartfelt emotion and nostalgic revelry. For the following 9 years, Pixar continued to produce hit after hit, following a similar formula, and became one of the most dependable studios in the business.
With the release of Cars in 2006, a slight chink was made in the armour. Whilst it’s merchandise helped it to be the best financial film of the Pixar run to date, it’s positive reviews were tinged with a “It’s not quite as good as anything we have seen so far”. For example, it received a Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes of 74%, which is undeniably decent, however considering the previous Pixar-low was 92%, it was arguably a sizeable drop in standards from the now-Disney-owned studio.
Since then, the Pixar record has been mixed. Wall-E, Toy Story 3 and UP have been successful, Brave and Ratatouille have slipped under the radar and Cars 2 has been universally panned, dropping a full 35 points below it’s predecessor on Rotten Tomatoes.
As a fan of the Pixar films, with Monster’s Inc. amongst my favourites, I met the monstrous prequel with a combination of excitement and caution. Would Monster’s University be worthy of a pre-2004 release, or was it just another one of the mixed bag we had seen in the last 7 years.
As with most things, the answer lies somewhere in-between.
MU sees Billy Crystal (Mike Wazowski) and Jon Goodman (James P “Sully” Sullivan) return (or is it preturn?) as the beloved monsters before they were the successful Scarer Team we came to love in 2001. This time around, the younger Mike and Sully are students at the prestigious Monster’s University, both majoring in Scaring.
Ever since his school trip to the Monster’s Inc. offices, Mike has grown up wanting to be just one thing; a Scarer. Sadly, his small physique and awkward nature mean he has always been told he isn’t frightening enough to do it. This negativity drives him to work as hard as he can and be a model student in an effort to prove everyone wrong.
Sully, on the other hand, comes from a long line of famous Scarer’s, and with a giant stature and impressive roar, is a natural. As a result, he has swanned through life and is arrogant enough to think he doesn’t need to study. Sadly he is wrong.
You can see where this is headed, can’t you? The two contrasting characters do not mix well at all, and the relationship starts rocky, with the two falling out almost instantly, giving us the viewer an Odd Couple a la Creature.
Jon Goodman is a tremendous actor, and to be honest from his Roseanne days, which was certainly when I first came to know him, I could never expect that he would come to be the respected actor he is today. Goodman is a perfect choice for Sully, as his voice can both carry the likeable cuddly bear tones that go with the look of the character, but also easily switch to a darker mood, which we see in this film in particular. Sully is not likeable at all here, and part of that is due to Goodman’s gravitas.
Where the first film centred on both characters equally (and Boo), MU shifts the focus almost squarely on Mike. Billy Crystal has a voice that lends itself well to a whiny, geeky, workaholic student, and he seems to have fun in the role. Now I am not particularly a fan of Crystal, but his work in the Monster’s films, in particular University, is more than commendable. Mike has an emotional rollercoaster of a film, and Crystal does well to voice the whole thing.
As for the rest of the cast, Dame Helen Mirren is truly frightening in her role of the disapproving Dean, and the return of Steve Buscemi to show us the origins of Randall’s bitterness is a nice touch.
But the stars of the show are the members of the Oozma Kappa (OK) fraternity, which take in Mike and Sully when no one else will. This band of misfits (voiced by Murray, Hayes, Foley, Sohn and Day) are both adorable and hilarious in equal measure, with Art just standing out ahead of the rest. Whilst the rest of the film is decent, it isn’t until these guys enter the story that the laughs truly come naturally.
Visually this is a step up from Inc. in every way. It still has the same feel of the Monster’s universe, but it is a much more vibrant and colourful world than we saw in the first film. This could be to reflect the more positive attitudes we have when we are younger, compared to those we have when we are working, or it may just be to flex the technological muscles that will have improved over the last 12 years.
Not only have the colours improved, but also the design team have attempted to add extra depth to the world by including monster faces in the buildings wherever possible, and Sully’s hair is much thicker this time around (presumably to show off his youth!). There are also brand new, never before seen species of monsters to look out for here. This is a beautiful film to watch, no question.
The only negative I will voice is that whilst the story is decent enough, as are the performances and the artwork, there is just something missing. Where the first film was chock full of charm, every ‘ooh’ and ‘ahhh’ coming with ease, this installment felt just a touch forced. Almost like they wanted to make a new film, but didn’t have any new idea’s so went for a sequel instead.
Having recently re-watched Wall-E, and falling in love with it all over again, it reminded me that Pixar are at their best when they are being daring, and trying to tell a totally new story. Toy Story 2 and 3 were fine films, but did they live up to the original? Not even close. I have spoken about the relative negativity towards Cars 2, and to some extent Monster’s University has that same problem. It is a decent enough film, but it just lives in the shadow of it’s predecessor too much.
In summary, Monster’s University is a nice addition to the Pixar alum, but it’s outstanding freshman year isn’t quite matched in the sophomore year.
Did you know? Monster’s University is FULL of Easter Eggs, from the obvious class room A113 (named after the room that most of the Pixar bods learned about animation at CalTech) and the Planet Pizza truck, to the more subtle dinosaur toys which reference the next Pixar film, The Good Dinosaur, the film is absolutely filled with them. Go and have a look!