This film tells the story of a group of misfits who must band together to win the ultimate college competition. Outcast by the rest of the school, one leader brings a team together, practising day and night to perfect their techniques, but in the end, they must learn to trust each other and embrace change in order to crush the reigning champs in a final showdown in front of the whole school. And no, I’m not talking about “Pitch Perfect”.
“Monsters University”, the prequel to Disney Pixar’s animation hit “Monsters Inc” from 2001, takes place when Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) first meet. And like many lifelong friendships (especially in film), they meet at college.
We open with an ever smaller version of Mike as a child, visiting Monsters Inc on a school field trip. He sneaks his way into witnessing a scarer at work (scaring a child to harness their screams for energy) and thus begins his goal of attending Monsters University and becoming a scarer like his idol. Within a quick time spanning montage Mike works to be the best scarer he can be and is accepted and off to get the education of his dreams. Here he meets a couple of familiar characters; one of course, being Sullivan, who is not the version we have come to know of him, but a ‘legacy’ scarer who is more Big Man on Campus than future friend material. The characters do not immediately see eye to eye, and their clashes eventually see them expelled from the Scare program. It is at this point that the film really takes off, as Mike negotiates a way for them to get back in – all they have to do is find a team and win the annual Scare Games – and the Dean (a suitably scary Helen Mirren) will let them back in.
At Monsters University every college cliché seems to come to pass with its own monsters spin on it, including gorgeous quads, parties (G rated of course), rowing teams, fraternities, sororities and scary librarians. I’m sure the animators and storytellers had a great time working on this world, no doubt harnessing memories of their own college experience, but it is an odd place to set a kids film since they would have no such nostalgia, and I can only suppose this is for the adults’ benefit.
The new characters fleshing out the Oozma Kappa (OK) team in the Scare Games are a real highlight. Strange, nerdy, weirdly bendy, old or boneless but with a can-do attitude, they bring some definite likeability to the team when Mike and Sulley are busy fighting for top monster position and being uncharacteristically self-involved. They have a very funny group outing to Monsters Inc for inspiration, and their first college party starts out well, but otherwise the competition elements of The Scare Games play very serious, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but “Pitch Perfect” seemed to have more fun with it, even down to the commentators.
Once the Scare Games are over they do manage to turn anticipated story angles on their head, and the ending itself is heart-warming with a good message. But where “Monsters Inc” had the adorable Boo, overcoming of long held prejudices, along with the heightened stakes of getting her home safely, the University setting seems far safer. Long held prejudices are still overturned, but we know Mike does not become a Scarer from “Monsters Inc” and that Mike and Sulley do become BFFs, which takes a bit of the tension out of the film.
This is not nearly Pixar’s best outing to date, but it is a pleasant journey that kids and adults will find enjoyment in. It may be the end of the road for the Monsters team, with not a lot of other ground left to tread, but as always with films these days, no doubt the box office (and merchandise) takings will determine that fate, and we may yet see them again.