Over a 15-year spree, Pixar made an indelible mark on the history of cinema. From Toy Story to Toy Story 3, Pixar's winning streak expanded our ideas of storytelling. But Pixar's latest, Monsters University, is more evidence Pixar's glory days might be over. It's not a masterpiece — just one of the best films of the summer.
Minor spoilers ahead...
Monsters University is a delightful film, which manages to do the near-impossible: create a prequel where you still feel some suspense, even though you know how these characters are going to turn out. It takes a lot of clichés and makes them fresh (both the monster tropes from the first movie, and the "college movie" clichés it's taking on.) It has a lovely eye for detail and some great character moments, along with real surprises.
But Monsters University doesn't do for Monsters Inc. what the two Toy Story sequels did for Toy Story. It doesn't take the themes of the original and flip them so we see them a new way. This new film doesn't feel like an essential part of the first movie's world, just a fun addition. It's not quite as heart-breaking or thrilling as the absolute best Pixar movies.
You can make a case that the greatest Pixar films did something transformative with genre — they would pick up genre archetypes and use them to tell a story that felt personal and surprising enough to become brand new. They expanded and redefined the genres they touched on — for example, The Incredibles still stands alone as an exploration of superheroes as family and as public figures. The real legacy of Pixar is the ways in which it kept surprising us with genres we've seen before.
So in case you missed the trailers and stuff, Monsters University is the story of how Mike and Sulley, the main characters of Monsters, Inc., met as college freshmen. Both Mike and Sulley want to become "scarers," the job which Sulley has in Monsters Inc., and meanwhile they get drawn into the rivalry between college fraternities. The "nerd fraternity" Oozma Kappa is up against the "cool kid" fraternity Roar Omega Roar, led by Johnny Worthington III (Nathan Fillion).
So Monsters University has two strikes against it, right off the bat: It's a prequel, and we already know how Mike and Sulley turned out. And it's doing a pastiche of movies that the adults in the audience have seen before, like Revenge of the Nerds, with the monster stuff sort of glued on to the "frat kid" stuff. The movie does a lot of gags you've seen before, only with a slight monstery twist to them. (Sort of the same way Toy Story 3 did a riff on "great escape" movies, except here it's a bit less inventive.)
And more than that, it feels like there's no reason for Monsters University to exist — in the wake of Cars 2 and the upcoming Planes, it feels as though Pixar's parent company Disney is just monetizing its most popular properties as fast as possible. Watching Monsters University go through the motions of telling a rote story, you do start to get the feeling that the studio's days of towering over all other animation companies are waning somewhat.
And yet, this film is still better than anything else I've seen lately. By a long chalk.
For one thing, as I mentioned, the movie does manage to pack some surprises — and in fact, the movie finds ways to twist the knife a few times, in ways that actually catch you off guard.
And you care enough about the characters — especially poor Mike, who wears his heart on his sleeve — enough that you're caught up in the suspense of their coming-of-age tale, even as a lot of the narrative turns feel both familiar and predictable. The characters are grounded enough, and emotionally intense enough, that you do get swept up in their quest to get the most important job in the monster-world.
Watching Mike and Sulley start out as rivals, and turn into friends, provides a lot of the emotional backbone of the movie, along with Mike's desperation to prove that he's really a scary monster. Both of those through-lines provide some lovely scenes, and this movie never loses track of how both of these characters are growing up, from scene to scene and moment to moment. The bits where Sulley becomes less of a self-centered jerk, or Mike starts to confront his limitations, are magical.
And the gorgeous visuals in this movie also help to suck you into the story and avoid the sense of going through the motions — as you'd expect from a college campus full of monsters, there's some great interplay between light and shadow on the MU campus. The sound design in this film also works with Randy Newman's drum-heavy score to create a sense of jangling energy, as well as a world where anything can happen. As usual with Pixar, there's a great sense of texture, with the monsters' slimy skins, carapaces and furs feeling almost tactile.
And even though this movie won't revolutionize the Monsters Inc. world — perhaps because the first movie ends by revolutionizing things so thoroughly — we do get to see a new dimension to the universe of monsters and their scaring industry. Over the course of the movie, Mike and Sulley both study scare theory, and we delve into notions of just what is scary, and how much a scare is dependent on the particular audience. The "scare theory" stuff is the closest this movie really comes to being able to expand the themes and ideas of the first movie.
And without giving anything away, the ending of the film isn't at all what I was expecting — there's actually a clever enough twist that you might well be caught off guard by how things turn out.
All in all, Monsters University is a pretty terrific film — probably more solid than Iron Man 3, and thus my favorite movie of the summer thus far. What it isn't, is a brilliant piece of storytelling that stands up with the first 15 years of Pixar movies. It's very much a perfectly executed film, but it's not as amazing as the movie it's following up. It serves its genre tropes rather than mastering them, and it fails to transcend the Monsters Inc. legacy in the way that the Toy Story sequels did. In other words, it's just a really superb Disney movie rather than a great Pixar movie.
Edited to add: I changed the headline slightly to make it clearer what I'm saying here. I do think, after Monsters University, Brave and Cars 2, that we're probably seeing the end of a "golden age" of Pixar, when the company loomed over all other animation studios. But that really is okay. Because even though Pixar seems to be maturing into a studio that's more like others in the space, we're still getting great films. And maybe maturity will have an upside we haven't seen yet.