By Preston Wilder
The new Pixar Studios animation, Monsters University, may be the first kids’ cartoon set on a university campus, a place that means nothing to the prepubescent target audience. They know Harry Potter, of course, and the rival fraternities of ‘M.U.’ are a lot like the houses of Hogwarts – but it’s still a bit paradoxical watching college life without any college-age shenanigans, Sully and Wazowski (our heroes) working towards their degree without ever thinking about girls, let alone getting drunk or smoking pot. Though a lizard does bake some mysterious ‘cakes’ for a so-called wild party at the popular kids’ frat house.
That’s not the only surprising thing about Monsters University. It’s a sequel (actually prequel) to Monsters Inc., a Pixar classic that kids know and love – yet it’s only being released on a smaller screen at the multiplex, and only in a dubbed-into-Greek version. To be honest, the film is a bit dispiriting. Good fun, certainly – but also confirmation that Pixar, who used to make kids’ films that adults would gawp at in wonder (reaching their apogee in the mid-to-late 00s with WALL-E and Ratatouille), have now dropped the ambitious ideas and focused solidly on the juvenile audience. This makes three pleasant not-quite-classics in a row, after Cars 2 and Brave, and the Disney-fication of the company may be irreversible.
Yet there is an intriguing idea in Monsters University – the subversive notion that working hard, though very laudable, can’t make you a success if you’re not naturally suited to the job you’re working towards. Take Wazowski, for instance, Mike Wazowski to be precise (he’s the one who looks like a walking eyeball; Sully’s the one who looks like a yeti). Mike wants to be a “scarer”, a monster tasked with sneaking into the rooms of human children – who of course are highly toxic – and scaring them silly. That’s his life’s dream, and his reason for coming to Monsters University; Mike studies hard, and he knows all the theory backwards – but he’s just not scary. It’s not simply that he doesn’t look scary, he’s also a man (um, monster) without a dark side, being extrovert and a people person (um, monster person). An earlier Pixar film might’ve taken that paradox and run with it, asking a fascinating question: ‘Can a monster ever go against his nature?’.
This one, however, is conventional, going for conventional Messages like the value of teamwork. Mike can’t do it on his own, but Mike and Sully triumph as a team – at least once they learn to work together. Much the same Message is passed earlier, when Mike leads a ragtag band of misfits to the ‘Scare Games’, the equivalent of winning the pennant in a baseball film (these cohorts provide most of the film’s big laughs, though surprisingly there’s no token girl; maybe Pixar feel they’ve earned some slack from the PC police after the female heroine of Brave). The climax of the Scare Games feels a bit perfunctory – but in fact it leads to a good twist and a more introspective third act, with Sully and Waz opening up to each other: “I want to be scary, but most of the time I’m just scared…”
Will Wazowski recognise his true nature, curbing the follow-your-dreams, you-can-be-what-you-want message that Hollywood cartoons have been peddling for years? And how can that be squared with his role in Monsters Inc.? In the end, of course, the point is moot, because Monsters University isn’t interested in breaking new ground. This is a fun little film with a better film struggling to get out – caught between current, child-friendly Pixar and earlier, more grown-up Pixar, just as it’s caught between college and middle school. The campus looks like a campus, there are long-haired teens playing guitar on the lawn – but Mike still wears braces, and the Scare Games team meet in someone’s house with his mum wandering in and out.
Some of the jokes are inspired, especially the end-of-semester exams where prospective kid-scarers are quizzed on hypothetical situations: “I’m a five-year-old girl who’s scared of spiders and Santa Claus. What method would you use?”. The ending has an even better joke, our heroes deploying horror-movie clichés – a billowing breeze, a creepy doll – to frighten adults instead of children. Moments like these show glimmers of the old sophisticated Pixar – yet we’ve had at least four recent cartoons (ParaNorman, Frankenweenie, Hotel Transylvania and Despicable Me) dealing in monsters and horrors, and all four have been edgier in their humour. I suspect it’s a conscious decision, the mavens at Pixar deciding to go against the grain and become more innocuous when everyone else is being ‘dark’ – and I’m sure it makes business sense but we’re still left with Monsters University, a film where the biggest laugh comes from Mike and Sully pulling faces as they practise scary-monster moves (“Crazy Clown!”). You don’t need a college degree to find that funny. DIRECTED BY Dan Scanlon Dubbed into Greek. US 2013 110 mins