Pixar has taken some flack lately for supposedly giving up their artistic credibility for commercial considerations by doing sequels. The reality is that the third film they ever made was a sequel — and it went on to win the the Golden Globe for Best Picture! Their second sequel became just the third animated film ever nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture! So where is this all coming from? I assume from Cars 2. While definitely not a dud at the box office, critics panned it. Would it have gotten the same response if any other studio had made it? I don’t think so. It’d probably be hailed as one of their best films. But people expect more from Pixar, whether that’s fair or not. The truth is Pixar is increasing their film output (though not as much as other animation houses). And with that increase we can’t expect everything to be an original. That doesn’t mean that they’ll be bad films. Pixar has proven in, at worst, two out of three cases they can do a sequel the right way. Does Monsters University continue that trend? I like the odds.

mu1Mike Wazowski longs to do the job that defines being a monster — scaring. At college no one wants it more or works harder than him to make it happen. James Sullivan has never had to work hard or study. From a long line of scarers, it just comes naturally to him. Because of their differing backgrounds and approaches to school, they do not hit it off. During one argument, they put themselves in a predicament that will require them to work together — along with some scaring school wannabes — to get themselves back on track for the life they both want.

As I mentioned in a previous review, Monsters Inc. may be my favorite Pixar film. It has pieces of what made all their others great and is easily the funniest and most re-watchable. And with Monsters University they have absolutely done it again. Toy Story 3 and Up had adults in tears. But don’t worry, if you’re crying during this movie it will be from laughter. With the exception of a brief segment near the end where the two main characters get serious for a moment, the film is almost wall-to-wall funny. I can’t remember the last time I was at a family movie where the entire theatre of adults and children were having so much fun together.

Most sequels tend to be just another outing in the world created in the original. It’s rare that a follow-up actually makes the original that much deeper, giving us glimpses into the motivations and feelings of the characters from the first film. The writers have fit these films together so well that re-watching the original for the first time after seeing this one is going to be a new experience. It is so like Pixar to have an appreciation for what came before — and for the fans of it. But while the film fits the tone of the first, the story does not retread old ground. This is a fresh story that still fits into the world created in the original.

The animation, as expected, is up to Pixar’s usual standard. Being a prequel presented the challenge of showing us these beloved characters we already know well at an earlier point in their life. And while they succeeded in a lot of ways, I felt they maybe got too clichéd at times. Mike gets a retainer and wears a ball cap. Randall wears nerdy glasses. I understand there’s not too many ways to show the change in a way that makes it obvious to even kids. But it still seemed like taking the easy way out.

mu2There are lots of new characters in this film. And it looks like the design team had a ball coming up with them all! My favorite is Art, an arch shaped monster unlike any you’ve ever seen. His unique shape gave the animators so many fun ways to have him move. Dean Hardscrabble may be the creepiest monster the studio created in either movie — part centipede and part dragon maybe?

Billy Crystal and John Goodman easily slip into their roles again. The only possible complaint being it didn’t really feel like an attempt was made to make them sound younger. Helen Mirren as the Dean was quietly menacing, perfectly matching her character’s creepy design. Charlie Day was extremely funny as Art. I’m a huge Nathan Fillion fan and was happy to see how well he got into the fratboy role of Johnny Worthington. While none of the other roles stood out, thankfully none of them were bad fits either.

While Randy Newman’s score was one of the highlights of the original film, I have to admit barely noticing it here. Was it forgettable this outing or were the laughs just too distracting? I can’t say for certain without a second viewing. I’m hoping it’s the latter because the Monster’s Inc. score is one I can listen to by itself anytime and I’d like to know it got a worthy successor as good as the rest of the film.

Ever since the days of the Greeks comedy has had equal standing with tragedy. Why should a film that makes you cry be any more deserving of artistic accolades than a film that makes you laugh? And if the movie is good, why should it matter whether the story is wholly original or a sequel? Monsters University may not plumb the emotional depths the way some other Pixar films do. But it is scary funny, and as we all learned in the first film, laughter can be very powerful.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

Monsters University
June 21, 2013
110 minutes
Rated G
directed by Dan Scanlon