Monsters University (2013, Dan Scanlon)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

It’s hard to say whether Pixar deserves the recent wash of cynicism about their output in the current decade so far. For one thing, an argument that the sequel-heavy march of time wrecked a perfect track record not only ignores Cars but the very existence of those select few of us who found ourselves mostly unmoved by WALL-E. I am also at a disadvantage because I have not seen Cars 2 and don’t really plan to do so anytime soon, but it’s reasonable to say that Monsters University is a noticeably less ambitious and emotionally heavy film than Brave or WALL-E. It’s also better than either, which may or may not be a coincidence. More than anything, it calls back to the period of the film to which it serves as a prequel, the marvelously inventive and witty Monsters Inc., when Pixar’s modus operandi was simply good jokes and three-dimensional characters. Dan Scanlon’s directorial debut aims to do not one thing that’s any kind of painstaking stretch or pioneering feat for the studio, and the absence of innovation pressure slash anxiety produces a sly and funny story and nothing more, which is honestly all we can really ask.

It helps if you have a lot of affection for the major characters in Monsters Inc. and if the notion of seeing Sully and Mike (and Randall) as younger monsters actually sounds fun to you; don’t trust the dumb teaser, which you should’ve learned by now anyway, and expect a better-than-solid comedy with a few notes of unforced poignancy and you will enjoy yourself. I honestly didn’t expect this reaction and file this as a highly pleasant surprise. It sounds like such a tired conceit, not only a revisit to characters whose arcs seemed complete in the prior film but roughly the thousandth American farce about campus life, a target so tired that it was stale even when The Simpsons made fun of its staleness. This is one sense in which the film’s G rating helps it out. Stripped of the opportunity for gags about sex orgies and binge drinking, which is apparently what college is all about, the film focuses on the mundane: the long lines to buy textbooks, the stupid teams, the dull and duller teachers, the cramming, the getting your ID photo taken, the bored-looking students whose job it is to help other students understand what the hell is going on.

I didn’t go to college myself but I’ve spent an unusually large amount of time on a university campus in the last year, and an awful lot of the first-day jitters and the blossoming-away-from-adolescence attitudes of entitlement and bluster rang true for me. Yes, the conceit of an extracurricular Scare Games is a little screenwriterly and lazy, but the ensuing narrative of awkward fraternities and slight victories (it’s a running joke, easy to miss at first glance, that almost none of the heroes’ celebrations of scores and triumphs are actually justified by more than a hair) is winning and amusing enough for that not to matter much. That’s an indication of the tight scripting, so completely missing from Brave, that once made Pixar’s films so invariably fun, even if this one in particular doesn’t really go anywhere you don’t expect… until the last half hour.

The early Pixar films were marked by a willingness to wander off into unpredictable directions that one did not typically expect from a kiddie flick — like an Orson Welles movie or something, a film like a bug’s life took no shortcuts, instead determinedly placing full conviction behind every sequence and turnaround — wasn’t enough to remake Seven Samurai with a comedic bent, they had to do so with a chutzpah that seemed nearly mythological. Monsters University returns to this storytelling philosophy somewhat, without the tearjerking heft of Up or Toy Story 3 and more with the rugged invention of Ratatouille. Like that film, it places what a lesser movie would have called “the ending” somewhere around the end of the second act, and then zooms off into uncharted territory. There is this wonderful moment when you believe wholeheartedly that the filmmakers have copped out on you, that they’ve given one of their beloved leads an easy way out and provided for a vacantly moralistic, empty feel-good finale, which wouldn’t be unheard of for Pixar (Cars, Brave and WALL-E boast wholly unearned happy endings) and then almost immediately they turn on us. The entire finale is even more inspired and unexpected than that of Monsters Inc., and it’s actually surprising that the resulting skeptical message about the importance of higher education made it through the Disney machine.

Beyond the general affability and non-stupidity of the characters and humor (though it’s a pity that Pixar’s female problem continues, here with only a gawky student council president, an amusing post-soccer mom and the marvelously menacing dean of students to represent women individually), my favorite part was the clever conclusion Sully and Mike take when they realize they must scare adults. My favorite lines were the classic Pixar gag “Nice fence!” and the can design professor’s instantly classic speech, which will infiltrate the culture soon enough that I don’t really need to quote it for you. But there’s little point to trying to explain or summarize jokes, which are indeed a lot of the pleasure Monsters University gives.

Instead, let’s hear it for the way it does exactly what you want a sequel or prequel to do, actually expanding and commenting upon the first film without trying to duplicate its emotional beats. Sully and Mike are not simply miniature versions of themselves, but persuasive renderings of just who these people would be when they were younger — Mike a tirelessly optimistic and tone-deaf team player, Sully a rich-boy prig, Randall a nervous mixer desperate to please — all brought forward with wonderfully sophisticated, bit-by-bit character development, especially of Mike. His cycle begins when we meet him as a young child, and the seeds are planted for an ambition that will hilariously haunt him and remain permanently out of his reach until it nearly wrecks his life, but a true believer he will always necessarily remain.

After the noble messiness of Brave, this ostensibly small film did much to restore my faith in a studio that once was entirely responsible for reigniting my passion for classic American animation. I can’t claim to know much of anything about director Scanlon; I’ve been out of the cartoon blog loop for too long. But I’m impressed; the film is economical, breezy and quite splendidly directed. I wouldn’t mind if Pixar played its cards this way more often, perhaps alternating its game-changers with “minor” films that nevertheless were this well-crafted and smart. It’s no Toy Story 3, fine, but it’s a sigh of relief as modern animation goes that doesn’t condescend to its audience or violate its characters. It is more than worthy of the brand name, and one of the more fun times I’ve had at a movie recently.

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