I understand how these things work. As a film fan, I don’t always like it, but I understand it. The film industry is much more interested in being profitable in the short term than it is in creating works of art that last over the long term. Sure, good movies tend to make more money than bad movies, but that’s beside the point. Movies are very expensive to make. Risks must be marginalized. I get it.
It’s an even greater risk for Disney, not just in terms of the movies they greenlight making a profit but also in how those films work in the business plan of the company overall. I read recently that Cars is the most lucrative intellectual property Disney has had in a very long time. I wasn’t a big fan of the film, but the movie made money and, maybe more importantly, they sell a boatload of Lightning McQueen gear. It made perfect sense for them to build Cars Land at the Disney California Adventure theme park. And, I’m sure another Cars sequel will be in the works if it’s not already actively being pursued. The Cars franchise isn’t just about how much money the films make, it’s about how all facets of the Cars franchise work together to create more revenue streams. The films feed the theme parks, the films feed the merch, and the theme parks and merch create more interest in another movie. It’s the great Circle of Money, Simba.
So, when Disney/Pixar announced plans for follow-up films to Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc., I just sort of shrugged. Of course they were. Why not? From a business point of view, it’s a no-brainer. Here in Southern California, both of the Disney theme parks have rides based on those films. These are beloved movies with a built-in audience.
I should learn to never doubt the brain trust at Pixar ever again.
If nothing else, they’ve shown they know how to do sequels. I am a firm believer that Toy Story stands as the greatest movie trilogy of all time. Better than the original Star Wars. Better than Nolan’s Batman. Better than Kieslovski’s Three Colors Trilogy. I should trust when I’m in good hands. Monsters University doesn’t just exist to make some coin on its popular name. It isn’t just some placeholder, a crass exercise in corporate synergy. It has all the virtues we’ve come to expect from Pixar over the years. It has the exhaustive creativity and attention to detail. It has unexpected thematic richness, and it has a ton of heart. It’s a complete and utter delight.
I’ve never been a huge fan of prequels largely because they seem creatively determined to highlight every moment that somehow connects to the later story. One of the great choices director Dan Scanlon and his team have done is avoid showing how this new film plugs directly into the old one. Yes, there are some references (most of them involving Randall Boggs, the villain from the first film) to Monsters, Inc. But, they are very few and far between. A viewer who has never seen the original film would have no trouble with this new one. We know Mike and Sully (Billy Crystal and John Goodman, slipping back into these roles with ease) are best friends and co-workers. Here, we learn how their partnership came to be.
The film opens with a great sequence in which an elementary school-aged Mike Wazowski has a life-changing field trip to the Scare Floor at Monsters, Inc. It gives Mike the single-minded notion that he wants to be a scarer, and he dedicates himself to the goal. Cut forward in time and Mike’s determination has paid off and he’s been accepted to the prestigious Scaring Department at MU. Sully has taken the opposite path. A legacy from a famous scaring family, Sully has great natural talent but no intellectual curiosity or work ethic. They immediately rub each other the wrong way; the know-it-all and the lazy guy for whom it all comes naturally.
After their rivalry causes them to both be kicked out of the Scaring Department by Dean Hardscrabble (a perfectly imperious Helen Mirren), Mike and Sully must join forces to get back in the program’s good graces. Before you can say Revenge of the Nerds, they’ve joined the worst fraternity on campus (Oozma Kappa) in their bid to win the Scare Games, a school-wide competition. Like Toy Story 3’s take on the prison break movie, it seems that writers Daniel Gerson and Robert Baird prepped by watching every college movie ever made. In many ways, this is Pixar’s Animal House, and the way the film modulates the tropes of the genre to the monster world is brilliant and hilarious. If Toy Story 3 was about kids leaving the nest and going away to college, Monsters University feels like the logical companion piece.
But, what blew me away most is where Monsters University dares to go thematically. I love the complex subtext Pixar is willing to dive into. Most family films offer up positive but empty platitudes about determination and pluck. “Always be true to yourself!” they say. Or, “Never give up on your hopes!” But, what happens when your natural limitations exceed your big dreams? College is a time of great growth and self-discovery. We all knew pre-med majors who dropped the program, because the academic load was too heavy for them. Mike wants to be a scarer but eventually realizes that he isn’t actually scary and all the hard work in the world won’t compensate for that. Mike is able to live his dream by coaching others to be great scarers. This is a film that’s about dealing with setbacks and how you can get where you want to go without using the usual channels.
Did I mention it’s really funny? There are just as many big laughs here as there are in This Is the End. The voice cast is loaded with great comics like Aubrey Plaza, Bill Hader, Charlie Day, Joel Murray, and Bonnie Hunt. Browncoats will love hearing Nathan Fillion as the alpha male jerk in a rival fraternity.
This is Pixar, they’re the top of the animation world for a reason, so it’s no surprise that the film is beautifully designed and animated. The MU campus is simply gorgeous. Composer Randy Newman does his usual great work, this time being well augmented by fight songs and drumlines. I saw the film in 3D, and while I didn’t find the depth of field all that necessary, it was rendered with great precision and care.
Pixar may be firmly in the sequel business, but they clearly haven’t lowered their standards.