What I’ve Been Watching: Monsters University

There are few rules in cinema. However, one of them concerns prequels. Prequels are a) rarely good and b) never eclipse the original. So when I heard Monsters University, the prequel to Monsters, Inc. was going to be released I felt pretty uninspired. Alongside that, Cars 2 (which I have still yet to see), and Brave (which was good but not great) mean I’ve been a little underwhelmed by Pixar’s outings of late. So did MU manage to win me over?

Monsters University takes us back to the time Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) are starting their courses at the School of Scaring. Mike is a bookish monster who has all the head knowledge he needs to be a scarer. Sully meanwhile has all the natural talent Mike lacks, but has no intention of doing any of the hard work required to be a good scarer. It’s not long before their personalities clash, and they are forced to work together to ensure they are not dropped from the scaring course permanently.

The experience of watching Monsters University is a curious one. It is full of plenty of lovely touches. Some of the tasks they have to complete as part of their course are as imaginative as the best of Pixar’s work. Likewise the new characters and setting are incredibly rich and rewarding for the viewer. However, it also feels a little bit like a waste.

I actually would have loved to see what Pixar could have done with a film about a whole different set of characters going to university. A lot of the story and personalities involved could have been the same, but imagine a world where robots, werewolves, fairy godmothers, or time travellers learned how to hone and develop their particular skill…

It all leads me to the question:

Why aren’t Pixar producing more original films?

I know sequels make money and everything but the Pixar name is the most respected and well-known in the industry now, and no film of theirs has even come close to failing at the box office. In fact if you look at the numbers there seems to be little incentive to produce a sequel over an original, it’s not like they do significantly better.

Thankfully, it does look like we’re going to see more original films in the future. Three out of the next four projects will be entirely new. However, it does annoy me that a studio with such a rich history for producing amazing, imaginative films about topics no one else would have dreamed of (cf. Up or Wall-E) is producing so many unsurprising films.

I recently went to Thorpe Park, a theme park just outside London. One of the people I was with remarked that she wasn’t scared by any of the rides like she was the last time. Why? She had been there and done it all before. She knew deep down there was nothing to be frightened of, and so it wasn’t just as exciting this time. Everything was good, but without the element of surprise it lacked the magic it had before.

Anyway, that’s the feeling I have with Monsters University. It’s as good as a prequel can be. The story is good, I had a fun time while I was there, it’s just not what I wanted. Films for me are at their best when they’re being imaginative. And when you a film is a sequel (or even worse a prequel) you generally put a limit on its “imaginative potential”. You can only introduce yourself to the world of Monsters, Inc. once, with its doors, scares and villains. When we revisit it, there’s a limit to to its magic, to how much it can surprise, scare and excite us.

Monsters University then is a fine film. But just that, fine. It’s a shame so many talented people put so much effort and imagination into something that limited them so. Here’s hoping Finding Dory will be the last of Pixar’s sequels and that they can be their considerable talent into producing the next Incredibles, Ratatouille, or whatever it may be.

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