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
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

    Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
    Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

    The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

    Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
    Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

    Meet Japan's AKB48

    Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
    In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

    Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

    The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor