The short subject before Monsters University (2013, directed by Dan Scanlon), Pixar/Disney's new prequel to Monsters, Inc. wasn't more than five seconds old before I whispered to one of my companions, "They're showing off again." That film's name was "The Blue Umbrella" and it's fairly slight as far as stories go, telling as it does of the romance between a blue umbrella and a red umbrella on a rainy night in a big city. The city is a wonderment. This is computer animation as photorealism. It's a palpably real environment that is completely untouched by the Thomas Kinkeadean light that suffuses so many animated films these days. This is gritty and gray and darkened and wet. When we begin to see faces in the city, made OF the city, it's almost creepy. It's an announcement that whatever you may think of Pixar's current slate of sequels, they're still the top dog in the computer animation business. And it's not even close.
Still, one has to wonder...
If you believe the whisperings, Pixar is on the decline. The gap has narrowed. Their recent reliance on sequels is a holding action in the absence of anything new to say. Pixar's decline has been ongoing for while. Since, let's see...at least A Bugs Life. When it came out, Monsters, Inc. was thought to have been a disappointment, too. It failed to win the newly created Oscar for Best Animated Feature--the first Pixar film to lose in competition--and got middling reviews in comparison to the rapturous reviews to which the company was accustomed. It made a ton of money, sure, but was it good? Hindsight has told that tale, I think. Monsters, Inc. is first in my own affections among Pixar's portfolio. When I rewatched it last year, it hit me like a punch to the gut. It's really the first of their films that really pulls out the stops when it comes to strong emotional responses. It's the true forebearer for the opening of Up and the end of WALL-E. The years have been kind to some of Pixar's "off" products. Some of those films set the standard so high that one wonders what people were looking at.
But that doesn't mean I wanted to see a sequel to Monsters, Inc. Monsters, Inc. is perfect the way that it is. It's self-contained. More would be too much. And yet, here we are. Monsters University tells the story of Mike and Sully's college days, when both were misfits in a program that didn't want them: Mike because though he may be a tireless student and possessed of boundless ambition, he just isn't scary; Sully because he squanders the gifts he has inherited and coasts on both his natural ability and his family name without any desire to improve upon them. Neither of them endears himself to the formidable Dean Hardscrabble, a terrifying monster in her own right who will brook nothing but the best in her beloved program. Mike, for his part, thinks he's been given a bum deal, and he makes a bet with the dean: if he and his fraternity wins the annual fright contest. The only trouble with this plan is that the only fraternity that will have them is the hapless Oozma Kappa, which is a spiritual brother to the nerd fraternity in Revenge of the Nerds. The rest? It's basically a sports movie in which the plucky underdog takes it to the conceited jocks and learn to value themselves and teamwork, etc., etc. This is not a story that reinvents the wheel, even if what happens after an ordinary sports film's natural climax completely subverts its cliches.
This is an essentially sweet movie. It doesn't reach for the lunatic invention of Monsters, Inc.'s door chase or the emotional gut punch of Sully's loss of Boo at the end, but it has its pleasure. Prime among them are Mike and Sully themselves, two characters who are so indelibly well-drawn both by the animators and by Billy Crystal and John Goodman's voice performances that it's easy to fall into the movie as a kind of comfort zone, like hanging out with good friends who you haven't seen since college. The comedy flows naturally and unforced from the characters. Neither Mike nor Sully is the same character one finds in Monsters, Inc.: Mike is more full of youthful bravado, and hasn't conformed himself to the system yet. He has the anti-authority zeal of youth, where in Monsters, Inc., he is the very model of a salaryman. Sully, for his part is lazy and unfocused. This movie provides him with his come to Jesus moment, where his natural ability is no longer enough to allow him to slide through life. His first day of class finds him arriving without paper or a pencil. He's more interested in the experience of college than he is in improving himself. What IS the same as the characters in Monsters, Inc. is their fundamental decency. This is a significant strength.
The new characters are all finely drawn, too. The standout here is the terrifying Dean Hardscrabble, who is conceived as a cross between a centipede and a dragon and who is voiced by Helen Mirren at her most imperious. Hardscrabble could easily be painted as a villain, a la Dean Wormer in Animal House. Instead, she's the kind of archetypal hardcase teacher that gets the best out of students she seems to disdain. The members of Oozma Kappa are less well-drawn, but function well enough as a loveable losers. These aren't the sarcastic, anti-authority members of Annimal House. These are the downtrodden wretched refuse of the collegiate social structure, and their designs are suitably non-threatening. They're conceived in a way that gives Mike and Sully a stark contrast--they're the cool kids in this fraternity--but it also gives them a moral conflict, given that the scare contest is a team sport, and they have to rely on their frat brothers to carry them through. This forces them to step out of their petty ego trips and makes their self-discovery into a discovery of their place in a broader society.
Less impressive is the plot structure of the film. While it has the basic plot of any underdogs-vs-dominants sports movie, it also has the plot of a video game. This has individual set-pieces and most of them are pretty good. One is an obstacle course through a darkened building mined with glowing spiked limpets. Another is a romp through a library while avoiding the Lovecraftian monstrosity that acts as the librarian. These are fun. The film's big final sequence finds Mike and Sully trapped on the other side of a door that leads to a children's summer camp. What follows turns into a wry commentary on every summer camp horror movie you've ever seen, with Mike and Sully trying to elicit screams from adults rather than children. It's a neat piece of metacinema in which the cliches of the horror movie are played (mostly) for laughs. For some reason, it amuses me to think of Mike as a horror film geek, who has used them as training manuals for his career as a scarer. He has the personality of some horror fans I've known.
Monsters University is kind of a panacea for me. The big blockbusters of 2013 have been moral quagmires, with heroes shading darker into disillusioned anti-heroes. This movie is kind of square, but that's okay, because I like the squareness of it. I like the values it expresses more than I like the values in the latest grimdark superhero movies. I like how it expresses these values without lapsing into treacly moralizing. Don't get me wrong: Monsters University is a good movie and a visual wonder--the final sequence in which Mike and Sully must escape the human world without a door back is as clever a piece of filmmaking as I've seen all year--but like anyone, I bring my own mood to the theater, and this is a film that plugs into an absence I've felt in the movies I've seen this year. It's the right film for me right now. But then, this might be the secret of Pixar's success: its movies fill a void for a lot of people.