Back in 2010, I was hugely skeptical of the idea of Pixar making Toy Story 3. The second movie had taken the toys to such a perfect ending that I was afraid it was going to diminish the magic of the films that pretty much had made Pixar the powerhouse studio it became. I was, however, proven wrong, since Toy Story 3 is not only great, but a perfect continuation of the ideas and character journeys suggested in Toy Story and Toy Story 2. What I wasn't dreading, but should have been, was the possibility that the success of the third installment in the Toy Story series would send Pixar deep into the game of making unnecessary sequels to their films. Remember that back then, they had only ever made one bad movie (Cars) and never made a lackluster sequel. The following year saw the release of Cars 2, and after another iffy effort with last year's Brave people were quick to write all kinds of "think pieces" about how the magic studio that could do no wrong had started its downfall...
...Which brings us to Monsters University. Where does this movie stand in the Pixar catalogue? And what does it mean? Does it do to Monsters Inc. what the sequels did to Toy Story? Or is this the definitive sign of Pixar's downfall into creative oblivion?
The answer, as you'd expect, is more complex than a single yes or no. But before we go into the detail, let me tell you quickly what Monsters University is about (this is a review, after all). The movie is a prequel to 2001's Monsters, Inc. (a movie that I have come to appreciate much more now than I did when I first saw it at the age of nine). It takes us back to the college years of Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), a monster who dreams of being a Scarer and work for Monsters Inc. and tells the story of how he first was rivals but ended up becoming friends with James "Sully" Sullivan (John Goodman).
Monsters, Inc. was very much about Sully's encounter with Boo and his feelings towards paternity and caring for someone who he was supposed to look as just a part of his job. And in consequence, Monsters University centers much more on Mike's journey. As he tries to follow his dream of becoming the greatest Scarer that ever was despite the fact that he is not a particularly scary monster. There is also an ark to Sully, who is pretty much the laid-back college student that must learn to work hard for what he wants. Most of the movie revolves around a Revenge of the Nerds-type plot in which Mike, Sully and a team of outcast monsters must compete in the "Scare Games" in order to proof they are Scarer material. This plot is entertaining and very funny, but also basic and overly familiar. But then, the movie takes a turn in the third act and goes to some unexpected and quite poignant places that feel like something that could really influence and shape the personality and friendship between Mike and Sully.
What I like most about Pixar movies is their ability to surprise, to take you to unprecedented places and end up addressing themes and messages you wouldn't expect were part of the movie going in. When I think of Pixar I think of the surprise of getting to the Space Station in Wall-E, or realizing what exactly was the role Anton Ego and Incrediboy played in Ratatouille and The Incredibles respectively. In this sense, Monsters University felt to me like a Pixar movie. However, despite how surprisingly well-crafted its third act was, it by no means feels necessary to the narrative of Monsters, Inc. in the way the Toy Story sequels made themselves essential as a trilogy. Many critics are calling this Pixar's comeback, but I wouldn't go that far. This is a solid, entertaining movie, but that's it. It loses the magic of the original Monsters Inc. because it isn't our introduction to this carefully created world and doesn't go beyond in its themes.