I tried to view Monsters University as its own film instead of comparing it to Monsters, Inc. but since the film insists on reminding viewers of the previous film time and time again, anyone who has seen the original film must deal with this film being a prequel. As a prequel, it’s the worst kind of prequel, a lazy piece of “what if” fiction that retcons details from the previous film and lacks the soul and spirit of what made the original exemplary.
What if Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sullivan (John Goodman) met me monster scaring college and ended up not liking each other? The film’s premise is a jocks vs nerds college story where the bookish Mike and the well-loved Sullivan begin competing only to find that they must eventually work together in order to win The Scare Games so that they can get back into the college’s scare program.
What’s most impressive about the film is that it finds a series of jokes that are even lazier than the stereotypical college film jokes. A good percentage of the film’s jokes are rehashes of or throwbacks to jokes from Monsters, Inc. Some of these jokes are word for word and while a couple work in the moment, most lacks the timing and the setup that made these jokes work in the first film. They’re references that are supposed to make you laugh for your affection for another film.
The film also changes tons of little details that don’t make sense with Monsters, Inc. In that film, Mike and Sully are friends from childhood; Mike has a line about how they knew each other in the 4th grade. Also, Mike ends up being roommates with Randall (Steve Buschemi), which would suggest a much more personal conflict between them than the one we get in Monsters, Inc.
Speaking of Randall, he’s given a disappointing role in the film. He starts off as this shy, nebbish monsters and Mike gives him a bit of self-confidence, but his evolution as a character into the Randall we know is left by the wayside and then swiftly reintroduced near the end of the film. His character arc jumps so many beats that his evolution is implausible even if you’ve seen Monsters, Inc.
The film builds the action climax around a dramatic horror-movie style scare sequence and it’s here that the film completely destroys so much of what made Monsters, Inc. charming. While that film contrasted the world of fear with the world of laughter and asked us to grow the latter, this film is far too much about fear (perhaps because so much of it is unfunny). It’s forced to do so because of Monsters, Inc., but it’s also a great demonstration of why this prequel is a terrible idea.
The ideas it presents instead are still more mature than the average children’s story: a recognition that even the bravest of us is insecure and scared and the smallest of us has the greatest potential for courage. The film is a complex look at the idea of aspiration and excellence that matures to a surprising idea for a children’s film. The problem is that these themes are trapped in a mediocre film.
Monsters University is exactly what I feared it to be: a derivative prequel to a superior film. The film spends lots of time trying to exploit my love of Monsters, Inc. and not nearly enough time creating something exemplary of its own. Films like this make me fear that Pixar is now become just as afraid of losing money as the rest of Hollywood instead of the brave pioneers of animation that reminded us that family films can be so much more than a way to babysit kids.
© 2013 James Blake Ewing