Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Monsters University Review

Depending on when you ask me - the day of the week, the alignment of the planets, and just how romantic I'm feeling - Monsters Inc. is either my favourite or my second-favourite Pixar film. But, even on the days when Wall-E is my favourite, the world of Monsters Inc. is still the most creative, unusual, vibrant and fun of all the worlds they've created. It's wildly imaginative in a way that really hasn't been topped.
It also has the most story potential by far. The Toy Stories all had to be about things that really happen to toys, Cars 2 had to be about things that really happen to cars, Finding Dory will have to be about things that really happen to fish, an Incredibles sequel would have to be about superheroics, another Ratatouille would have to be about cooking - but a Monsters film can be about anything at all, just with tail-holes in the chairs. If we're going to return to one of those worlds, I'm glad it's this one.

The only trouble is Boo.
The original Monsters Inc. hinges entirely on Sully's relationship with that tiny human stowaway. Their bond is so heartfelt and affecting that the film once made me cry my eyes out in a bar full of strangers because I caught the last few seconds with no sound on a tiny TV on the other side of the room. The film was playing on a loop so this happened three times.
If there's any reason not to make another Monsters film, it's this. There is no way - no possible way - they could continue the story of Sully and Boo without tarnishing Monsters Inc.'s perfect ending. Yet a sequel without that relationship would be just as bad. There's no way to win.
Being a prequel, then, allows Monsters University to spend more time in this fertile world, without affecting the emotional legacy of the original.

Without Boo, the problem then becomes finding heart and emotion somewhere else. Pixar's solution is, as ever, ingenious. The emotion in University comes from love and nostalgia for Monsters Inc. itself - not our own love and nostalgia, but Mike's.
As a small green child we see Mike visit the Monsters Inc. scare factory where, in wide-single-eyed wonder, he falls in love with the place - as we did, twelve years ago - and decides then and there to become the world's greatest scarer. Mike's adoration of Monsters Inc. is real and heartfelt, and so is this film's. We go back there a few times and, every time, it's an emotional highpoint for us and for the characters. It's those emotions that tie the film together, and that eventually lead Sully and Mike to the great friendship we know.

Driven by his childhood experience, we follow nerdy Mike to the prestigious Monsters University, to learn from the scariest monsters in the world. He quickly develops a rivalry with arrogant jock Sully, and that rivalry quickly gets them both thrown out of school. Their only hope is to learn to work together and help their misfit fraternity (what the hell is a fraternity, anyway?) to win MU's annual Scare Games, so that the Dean will have to reinstate them.
Yes, this is a pretty standard college-movie plot, and it hits every single beat and plot-point you'd expect - but the monster angle keeps things interesting enough, big enough, and unrelentingly funny enough, that it never suffers because of it. It all wraps up with exactly the college-movie ending you expect and... then it keeps going.
I won't say where it goes, exactly, but it's thoroughly unexpected and brilliant, as it slowly reveals that the film is not about what, or even who, you thought it was. It's pretty amazing.

It's admittedly not as resonant as Monsters Inc., but what University lacks in tears of sadness and joy, it makes up for in tears of laughter. This might be Pixar's funniest film. Every frame is packed with sight-gags and in-jokes and references, the script is very funny, and the physical humour is second-to none. Returning character "Randy" Boggs (who only has an evil squint because he doesn't wear his glasses) has a motivational poster on his wall that just destroyed me.
This stuff comes thick and fast - in fact the whole film is surprisingly fast-paced. Monsters Inc. took a while to let us settle into the crazy world before barraging us with jokes and action, but MU hits us with these from the very first scene. It doesn't let up, and it's great.

The one thing that isn't played for laughs, interestingly, is humans. In Inc. the monsters' fear of children was basically a joke - watching huge scary beasts freak out about a little girl (or a sock) - but where children are concerned, this film gets scary. The human world sections are like a horror film, dark and creepy, and any sight of a human is treated as terrifying and dangerous. It's a great, atmospheric approach and it leads to some of the film's best sequences.

All in all it's just a really solid movie. It has great set-pieces, tons of heart, and near constant hilarity. But the real strength comes from wonderful characters that we learn to love all over again, and a deceptively deep story that goes to truly surprising places. The last act pushes Monsters University from a fun extension of the first film into an actual worthy successor.
It won't be making me cry in any strange bars, thankfully, but it's fantastic all the same.