It’s time to accept that Pixar’s hat trick of three timeless masterpieces in a row, Ratatouille, Wall-E and Up is unlikely to happen again. Yet this doesn’t mean that they stopped churning out top quality animated films every year. Toy Story 3 was perhaps the best of the trilogy, Brave was a flawed yet highly entertaining tale of female empowerment. I even thought the obviously merchandise baiting Cars 2 was a lot of fun.
A college-themed prequel to my mother’s favorite film of all time, Monsters Inc, is not a fully-fledged tour de force of Wall-E proportions, but it’s irresistibly adorable. What we have here is basically a G-Rated version of Revenge of the Nerds, sans the hair pies and the Darth Vader rape. It’s Animal House with cartoon monster characters that are more relatable and engaging than the majority of live action caricatures Hollywood spits out of the assembly line every year.
Pixar takes some chances by turning Monsters University into a college movie first and a kids’ animated fare second. At an hour and fifty minutes, it’s a bit on the long side for a family film. But just like The Incredibles, which was also almost two hours long and was an excellent spy thriller disguised as a cartoon, Monsters University makes sure the adults get a kick out of seeing an expertly executed, alternative take on one of their favorite genres. In order to capture that feeling as perfectly as possible, it’s understandable that these films need to be as long as their live-action counterparts.
If you’ve seen any fraternity-based college movie made in the last thirty-five years, you’ll be familiar with the story: A fraternity full of nerds compete in the Greek games against a team of bullying, self-entitled douche bag jocks in order to show the rest of the campus that they do indeed matter and to teach the audience a lesson in the importance of teamwork.
In this case, our nerds are monsters Mike (Billy Crystal), Sully (John Goodman) and their fraternity of underdogs, who make a deal with the hardhearted Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) that they will get back into the much coveted Scaring Program (After they get kicked out for fighting in class) if they win the Scare Games, a series of competitions that tests the ultimate scaring potential of every monster.
One of the most endearing qualities of Monsters University comes from director and co-writer Don Scanlon genuinely embracing the clichés of the genre and elevating them with a fresh approach, instead of simply referencing them with snobbish ironic detachment.
Mike and Sully’s nerd friends are all fraternity movie archetypes: The adult student looking for a second chance, the dirty new-age hippie, the exuberant party monster and the pale freshman suffering from crippling self-doubt. All we're missing is a gay African-American monster. Mike and Sully themselves are the brains and the brawns of the operation, respectively, who are meant to realize they work better together throughout the course of the running time. This is not much of a spoiler, since we know how their relationship ended up in Monsters Inc.
Yet these clichés bring about an immensely entertaining film simply thanks to the development of the characters flourishing around this paint-by-numbers plot and the monster twist on each competition surrounding The Scare Games. A gorgeous sequence where monsters have to run through a passageway full of shiny and poisonous sea urchin-like devices is more entertaining than any CGI blockbuster action set piece I’ve seen all year.
Since this is Pixar, the animation and art direction are all flawless as usual. Randy Newman’s music, complete with rousing college drum lines and fight songs, gives life to the fictional university. Monsters University is perhaps not a timeless classic, but it’s a great time at the movies.