The second biggest animated hit of 2013 (until Frozen overtakes it) was, like the crown prince Despicable Me 2, a sequel. Okay, Monsters University is a prequel, but it’s symptomatic of a malaise one expected from rival DreamWorks but which has now infected Pixar; the relentless plundering of one’s back catalogue instead of striking out in new directions. Monsters University is exactly what you’d expect of the animation house that brought you Cars 2 and Toy Story 3 (admittedly, the latter is a good sequel) over the past couple of years; precision-engineered and immaculately realised, but completely uninspired.
I can’t say I was that enamoured by Monsters, Inc., which arrived way back in 2001. Something about the premise was all together twee, the kind of thing a parent comes up with in order to fit cutesy moppets into a tale when they should realise that gurgling burbling infantilism is the last thing kids need to watch. With all the imaginative possibilities at their disposal, Disney (and increasingly Pixar, albeit one and the same entity now) has fostered an unwholesome ethic of working on the latent sentimentality of those bringing their little ones to the cinema. Rather than, you know, treating everyone with a bit of respect.
So I wasn’t impressed to hear they were making a prequel, about the early days of Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman). How they first met, the tribulations they overcame and the aspirations they nursed in order to become the child-frighteners they are today (or were yesterday). Pixar clearly knew better, since Monsters University has become one of their biggest hits (worldwide, at any rate). It seems the idea that a prequel is never a good idea has been well and truly kiboshed.
To be fair to director Dan Scanlon and his two co-writers (Daniel Gerson and Robert L Baird, both of whom contributed to the original), this is a far superior seq/prequel to Cars 2 (although to be fair to Cars 2, that’s a marginally more involving picture than the rancid original). But, as with the cutesy kids thing, you can hear these geeky animators impressing their lacklustre university experiences on the story. It becomes a hackneyed tale of jocks (Sully) versus nerds (Mike) and how mutual understanding and respect can make us all better people. Noble sentiments, to be sure, but offering nothing new to the campus mix (rarely challenged since Animal House).
There’s a question too of the cluelessness of making a family movie set at university. Perhaps Monsters University is entirely innocuous due to the virginal experiences of the Pixar alumni in their day. There’s no whiff of illegal substances, promiscuous encounters or even a kegger. Yet room is made for the entirely wholesome fraternity initiations, with all the sado-masochistic “harmlessness” they entail. There’s also an incest gag, an indication that Pixar has its priorities right.
The familiarity of Monsters University is what really disappoints. Of course there’s a stern tutor who turns out to mean well. No one here is really bad, not even Buscemi’s Randy (well maybe just a little). Even Mike’s journey of self-acceptance (he may not be scary, but he has other estimable qualities) lacks any bite. Seeing failure of achievement as a learning curve is most commendable, but it is toothless as depicted here. Because that’s what Pixar has become; toothless, unwilling to take risks, always playing it safe. One is left wondering just how Mike and Sully manage to scare all those they do at the climax, because what we see on screen wouldn’t fluster a ferret. This is another problem with making a movie about the fears of little ones for little ones; the makers inevitably have to pull their punches.
And its all accompanied by a relentlessly upbeat Randy Newman score. Newman is a purveyor of dawdling jollity, one whose spectre needs chasing from the land before he further afflicts large populated areas. It’s fortunate that he hasn’t been the composer of every Pixar movie, because one dose of Randy goes a long way and requires regular trips to the doctor.
Still, one thing you can usually rely on Pixar for is scrupulously honed story beats. There has to be a challenge, and Mike is threatened with expulsion by almost as soon as he arrives at Monsters University (by Helen Mirren’s Dean Hardscrabble). The only way to assure his place is to enter the Scare Games (like the Hunger ones, but… no, not really) and prove his worth against the Scare Simulator. So he takes up with the most feckless frat house (Oozma Kappa) on campus and reluctantly allows super-assured Sully, also under duress, along for the ride. And this section works. Of course it does, it’s about the triumph of the little guys.
There are a couple of good characters too; straggly-legged Art (Charlie Day) and Scott Squibbles (Peter Sohn). But the monster design is mostly as undemanding as the basic plot. Only occasionally does something stick out from the crowd; Scott’s mom (Julia Sweeney) listening to Death Metal while she waits in her car, the Scare Pig (which at least is supposed to be unscary). None of the monsters are anything but loveable, so it beggars belief that 99% of kids wouldn’t be as unaffected by them as the ones Mike attempts to scare.
I’m not asking for a Pixar not to be life affirming. It’s part of the correctly so core values of kids’ animation. But it seems like the days where a Wall-E or The Incredibles could come along and surprise with ideas and content seem to be long gone. Now their films consist entirely of stock types and situations but without any real heart; they’re a slightly better quality junk food, in more appetising packaging. It’s understandable; all the animation houses are looking over their shoulders in an increasingly crowded market. These movies aren’t cheap (mostly) so they’re driven by fear of failure rather than a desire to impress or innovate. Maybe the shunting of The Good Dinosaur to 2014 is a good sign. Maybe it just means it isn’t formulaic enough (that’s why they changed Brave, isn’t it?) So this year there will be (shock!) no Pixar, while in 2015 there will be Dinosaur and Inside Out (which initially sounds distinctive, until you realise all the things it reminds you of; anything different there will be ironed out along the way). After that it’s back to the sequels, and Finding Dory. No doubt there’ll be a third Monsters around 2018. And a Cars 3. Branding and merchandising bonanzas, they’re what count most now. Right, Pixar?