In the prequel to Pete Docter’s monster hit (yes, pun very much intended) Monsters, Inc. this new story takes us back to the beginning, to a time before Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan were the very best of friends. It’s an interesting decision to take to expand on the mythology of this world but also one of the smartest moves the studio could have made. Going the prequel route (the first for Pixar) allows them to expand on and explore more of the film’s most lovable characters. Now for a studio devoted to and known for innovation and originality to take a step back might seem odd or like they’ve run out of ideas. But Pixar is no ordinary studio. Instead of some thin unnecessary sequel, a prequel is pretty much the only way to go. Monsters, Inc. ended on such an incredibly high and touching note that no one in their right mind would dare tamper with that ending.
A prequel, if it is done right gets deeper into the mindset of the characters and this story is focused very much on Mike. He’s the true center of Monsters University and after being star struck by a “scarer” following an elementary school field trip to Monster’s Inc. he becomes dead set on becoming a scarer himself. Mike does things by the book and ultimately takes a rag tag fraternity from zeros to heroes and it’s impossible not to be won over by the charming tenacity of this underdog optic-noid. But the story play both leads off one another as it juxtaposes Mike’s book smarts against Sulley’s more street smarts. The story doesn’t favor one or the other but rather a mixed approach that teaches the benefits of cooperation without preaching it. But you all could have probably guessed that.
Dan Scanlon, another Pixar short-film director who got his shot at the big leagues, knocks Monsters University out of the park with a wonderful mixing of old and new elements that combine to make this a story worth telling. In addition to this being Pixar’s first prequel we also get another first – a female antagonist. The decision to cast Helen Mirren as Dean Hardscrabble, a towering presence to say the least, is an inspired bit of casting that provides a great compliment to the already fine voice talents of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, and the little seen Steve Buscemi. Monsters University leaves a very obvious but very tasty breadcrumb trail that leads right to the steps of 2001’s Monsters, Inc. but there are enough liberties taken to make it fun, and not even half as predictable as some might expect. We get to see the start of Randall’s rivalry with Sulley and yes how they eventually gain employment at the famous energy company but Scanlon’s story offers many little side stories (with a slew of new but equally lovable and endearing characters) that succeed in making this more about the world they live in rather than focus on just two characters.
On that note, one of the more enjoyable elements to the film (that is better appreciated in multiple viewings), we get to see more of the Monster world as the animators at Pixar get to “monsterize” pretty much everything. Small but important flourishes are added to every element that finds scales, horns, claws, teeth and an extra something added to everything in their world. It’s that impressive world building that the studio knows how to do so well it seems almost effortless. Now most of the work that goes into story can be lost on the audience who doesn’t realize the countless hours spent on rewrites/revisions and sometimes complete scrapping of ideas just to make a movie. Like Pete Docter said, about Up, “if something is a success it perpetuates this myth that it fell, fully formed, right out of someone’s head“. You said it Pete, not the case at all.
Pixar acknowledges the fact that most of their films need lots and lots of work over years and years. Even with the best creative minds working tirelessly on any one project it’s still just a guessing game. But they put their best foot forward and nothing says that better than the collection of MU special features which break down that above mentioned myth. The film itself deserves to be explored but the wonderful special features are just as satisfying. In Pixar’s films so much effort goes into the tiniest of details, from the hair on a character, to the overall design, to the staging and setting of characters it’s really does take a lot to do a little even if much design detail goes unnoticed. So many amazing insights are offered in these supplements which touch on light philosophy/character lighting, hair and creature design/physics, etc. and these features let us get to know the people who make these digital creations come to life.
One of the more interesting special features, aside from an insightful commentary which begs to be listened to, is one that shows on many accounts success is nothing but a series of failures. In what seems to echo the moral of the story we hear from so many Pixar employees about their first jobs, their rejections (sometimes numerous) and how it ultimately shaped who they are today. After all without without failure and setbacks there can be no success or triumph right? Pixar employees nearly define the term champion as they work hard so for it and these weighty supplements finally give them some real recognition. Sometimes it’s good to hit the books (like Wazowski) and sometimes it’s good to go with your gut (like Sullivan) yet other times success comes from a hybrid of those two philosophies. There’s no school like the old school (as in hard work) and going back to school, for this entry in the Monsters franchise, proves to be the winning formula.