Film review: Monsters University (U)

3.00

Imperfect Pixar saved by an eye for detail

If it were any other studio you'd groan at the prospect: another sequel, another opportunity to exploit the brand name. But Pixar isn't any other studio, or any other brand name. Pixar has tripped across heights of invention and comic daring and narrative brilliance that most film-makers don't manage once, let alone time after time.

Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up, the Toy Story trilogy – name your favourite – these aren't just great digimations, they're great movies, period. No wonder Disney jumped on board as partner. True, there have been so-so outings amid this roll of honour. I didn't quite love Ratatouille, and Cars showed signs of metal fatigue. Even genius doesn't get it right every time.

Cars also had a sequel, which remains for me unique in the Pixar canon: it's the one I can't remember a thing about. Was it that bad? Monsters University isn't so much a sequel as a prequel to Monsters, Inc., from 2001. The good news is that it's worthy of its predecessor, and comes garlanded with that unfakeable mixture of charm and wit.

The less good news is that it doesn't really try to be different from your average campus comedy. Aside from the fact that the students are all, er, monsters, it depends on familiar tropes of college life and manners, and for a moral it hymns the virtues of teamwork over self-promotion. It's just faintly disappointing to watch a Pixar film where you not only keep up with the drift, you also anticipate it.

The film sends us back to Monstropolis, where the two friends of Monsters, Inc., Mike and Sulley, first met as college freshmen. Diligent, earnest Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) is a one-eyed, pear-shaped green blob who'll swot his way through uni, while James Sullivan (John Goodman) is a talented but indolent ball of fuzzy fur who'll coast on his august family name. Their ultimate goal is to secure a job on the "scare floor" of Monsters, Inc, the elite factory where they harvest the screams of terrified children to power the entire metropolis.

Following a run-in with the formidable college dean – a sort of dragon-cum-centipede voiced with icy authority by Helen Mirren – Mike and Sulley are compelled to enter the Scare Games, a contest among the college fraternities to decide who's the best scarer of them all. Unfortunately, they get landed with the lamest, squarest fraternity on campus, Oozma Kappa.

The idea is that Mike and Sulley start out as temperamental rivals – Sulley is initially co-opted by the arrogant Roar Omega Roar fraternity – before they learn how to use each other's strength in a common cause. The film has some difficulty establishing a rhythm, investing its energy in frenetic action sequences that whizz about like an escaped balloon. One part of the Scare Games involves trying to liberate a pennant in a library without disturbing the overseer, a short-sighted colossus that ejects offending noisemakers into the lake outside. It's inventive, it's just not that funny.

But eventually director Dan Scanlon and his co-screenwriters Daniel Gerson and Robert L Baird find the right tempo, and the setpieces begin to take hold. As ever with Pixar, the genius is in the detail. I loved the scene in which one of Mike's mates, a hopeless moon-faced creature called Squishy, is trying to conduct a solemn midnight ritual while, in the background, his loudly cheerful mom puts on the washing machine at ear-splitting volume. The same matron later plays chauffeur to Mike and co, and says she'll play some of her tunes for company while she waits to collect them; an abrupt blast of her in-car stereo indicates that her favourite listening is death metal.

Kids who come to the film without knowing Monsters, Inc. should take to it very happily; the action pours off the screen with irresistible momentum, and Pixar knows better than anyone how to match character and voice. Billy Crystal sounds about 30 years younger here – just right for Mike – and the uncertain toothy smile that sometimes cracks his Cyclopean face is heartbreaking. If the friendship between him and Sulley doesn't touch quite the depth of Woody and Buzz, or the pathos of WALL-E and EVE, it still finds warmth in the vocal duelling between Crystal and John Goodman.

I liked the waking-up scene in which Mike, half-asleep on the lower bunk, has been resting his head dreamily in Sulley's hanging paw, both of them unknowing and then suddenly horrified as they emerge into consciousness. Yes, it's straight from Steve Martin and John Candy waking up in a motel bed together in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, but you could call it a salute to greatness rather than a steal.

The film even has a little lesson about ambition. Mike wants more than anything to be scary, and dedicates himself obsessively to the task. Yet it's sometimes the case that the thing we want to be good at isn't the thing we're meant to be. It's not quite as harsh in its philosophy as The Incredibles, which basically argued that not everyone is special (so live with it). But for a comedy about college, the time in a young person's life when anything seems possible, Monsters University sounds a rather cautious, even wintry note. Maybe it's Pixar's acknowledgement of its own limits: great artists realising they can't be the greatest forever.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments