“The University brings out all abilities, including incapability.”
– Anton Chekov, in a letter written between 1860-1904, as found in The Personal Papers of Anton Chekhov
When you think about it, film sequels are like the awkward next phase of a romantic relationship. The initial story began with the flirtation that was its trailer – perhaps akin to something you’ve seen before, but intriguing enough to where you’ll give it a chance. You sit down in the cinema to face them as you would one at a dinner table. There’s the introduction and exchange of names, via the opening credits – which seems to take forever with all those production logos at the start; doesn’t anyone use nicknames anymore? Then there’s that odd feeling as you try to wrap your head around this weird occupation they have for a living – “plot”, they call it.
Then something wonderful happens, something you hope will happen at every date, but know it only happens on the really good ones: you connect. You become fully engaged in the anecdote (or synopsis) being spun by the person across from you and you must take in every detail. You somehow feel that this story is crafted just for you; that Fate has created this elaborate scheme for all the details of this story to be put in place simply so that you would hear them right here, right now, from this person.
There’s a hint of sadness when you realise the end credits are on their way, but a bit of satisfaction as well. A good story is never too long, you were once told, but a bad story can’t end quick enough. You smile, shake hands, and exchange numbers (“I’m on Netflix if you want to see me again?”). This was a good date.
To commit oneself to a sequel is to admit that this has the potential to become a serious relationship. You’ve accepted this film’s flaws (“Yeah,” you’ve told your skeptical friends, “I’ll admit the meet-cute was a bit contrived, but they had to meet to keep the plot moving!”), but will argue its merits to no end. The sequel is an admission that the honeymoon phase is over and you want to try to be exclusive. Maybe this will lead to a Godfather Part II-esque life-long commitment, maybe it’ll be a Highlander II-style debacle that makes you take back all of the merits of the first wonderful encounter. You’ll never know until you try. Such is the nature of sequels: you will never look at the original the same way again.
But hey, atleast they aren’t prequels, right? C’mon, if you think sequels have it rough in trying to move forward in a relationship, trying being a prequel. You like this person, you really do, but deep down there’s a feeling that when you ask about their past it won’t be nearly as interesting as the one you’ve created for them in your mind. You should just accept that this black-clad bad boy is cool because he’s the sort of fella your mother told you to never go for. Do you really want to know that he was a whiny Canadian teen with a rattail and a buzzcut? Hell, I don’t even like showing my old highschool photos.
Prequels have the unenviable task of attempting to craft a story that must somehow stand on its own, yet seamlessly dovetail into the events of its predecessor. How does one tell an interesting story when you already know how it ends? To attempt it is ridiculous; to pull it off is nothing short of a storytelling miracle.
Ever since young Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) took a field trip to Monsters, Inc. with his class, he knew he wanted to be a scarer. Now a young adult, he’s closer than ever to dream. He’s studied everything one could study about scaring and has found his way into the illustrious Monsters University.
But reaching his goal won’t be easy. Between a disapproving dean (Helen Mirren), an unappealing social status, and a rivalry with naturally-gifted legacy student (John Goodman), the scariest thing for Mike is the thought of never becoming a scarer at all.
Let’s be honest: there are those who actually want Pixar to fail. When a company has gone so long with such a mostly-amazing track record (I didn’t like A Bug’s Life when it first came out, and I’m still not all that fond of it now), naturally you will win admirers. But you will also attract a small village of trolls who wait in the wings for you to fail, simply so they can criticise your efforts. And even this company’s winning formula for storytelling hasn’t always produced masterpieces. Between unnecessary 3-D re-releases of their hit films and a less-than-perfect new release in Cars 2, it was starting to look as if Pixar’s winning streak was finally over. The controversy and mixed reception of Brave (which I have not seen) didn’t help matters.
So the odds were unusually against them in the lead-up to a prequel for Monsters, Inc. which no one asked for. But then, no one asked a sequel to Toy Story either (that is, no one but the suits at Disney). Like that film, this one pulls off the unenviable task of not only being worthy follow-up – or rather, prelude – to the original, but ranks as one of Pixar’s best films. Yes, Monsters University is right up there with Toy Story 2 in terms of great Pixar sequels.
It pulls off the great prequel hurdle by believably showing us characters we know at different points in their lives; different, but over the course of the story they organically become the ones we know. Seeing the driven-but-socially-inept Mike Wazowki driven to succeed by being the most learned guy around makes perfect sense for the reluctant rule-breaker of the earlier film. And Sully – so full of natural talent and the hubris that comes with it – is just begging to be brought down a peg or two in order to become the lovable teddy bear to whom Boo clings herself.
And it’s all about the social status of these two that forms the first half of the film. As universities around the country become more reknowned for their hazing controversies and networking possibilities, the use of social status in this film becomes incredibly timely. Even the slithery Randy (Steve Buscemi), Mike and Sully’s later rival, starts out as Mike’s best friend and fellow social misfit; the two are room-mates and bond over their mutual studious nature. But when Randy – almost accidentally – finds a way to be part of the cool crowd, something changes in him. He’s not evil, he just wants to belong. Is that so bad?
Figuring out the difference between natural talent and practiced skill is another recurring theme. Mike is shown studying for hours on end – no doubt acquiring a knowledge of Monster U’s text that even its faculty have long forgotten – but what good will that do him in the field; who in their right mind would find the little green guy scary? On the other hand, Sully has one talent that has served him well: his natural ability to scare. But that’s all it is: one skill. He’s coasted by on that one talent – and his family name – for so long that he hasn’t learned how to make do without them. These are harsh lessons to learn for those who would pursue their dreams; especially through higher education. No one wants to feels that the time, money, and heart they invested were all for nothing.
I’m usually not a big fan of celebrity voices being used in animated films. For one thing, they demand more money than regular voice actors. Secondly, very few of the big name celebs are famous for their voice alone (Did anyone really buy a ticket for Kung Fu Panda 1 and 2 to hear Jackie Chan’s voice?). And most important of all: even if the celeb does have a nice voice, that’s all they have – just one voice. I grew up with classic cartoons. I would try to read the fast-moving credits at the end of each show. It would amaze me to see nearly a dozen-or-so characters attributed to one voice actor, like Mel Blanc. But Hollywood, never wasting an opportunity to burn money, would seemingly rather a lot of money on one voice than to pay one salary to a man- or woman-of-a-thousand-voices.
Having said that, Pixar’s casting often does better than most animated flicks today. Returning cast members Billy Crystal, John Goodman, and Steve Buscemi have a great script to put them in the minds of their characters in their youth. It’s like getting the chance to see an old friend before they were even an old friend. The new additions aren’t bad either. Standing out amongst the rest is Helen Mirren as Dean Hardscrabble. The one and only downside to her performance is that I recognised her voice after the first word; another problem I have with casting celebrity voices. But hers works. Praising Helen Mirren these days is so cliché that it’s practically a sport, but that doesn’t change the fact that she’s great at what she does. It is a credit to both her and the writers that Hardscrabble doesn’t fall into the overused school-movie trope of being the student-hating administrator. No, there is a heart that beats beneath that scaly red skin of hers; and watching it reveal itself is one of the film’s better tricks.
Now that Pixar have made a sequel that stands with its best, what’s next? Will the Monsters series become like the Toy Story series and conclude with an entertaining-but-heartbreaking final entry? Or will Pixar do what it often does and try to tell another original story that no one saw coming. The reaction to their last three films – this one, Brave, and Cars 2 – have many ready to declare that (beware minor spoilers for this film) Pixar’s “golden age” is over. Well the thing about a golden age is that it’s often only realised as such in hindsight. As I said above, there are plenty of entries in the Pixar canon of which I am not the biggest fan. But I temper that with the perspective that there is no author, studio, or story collection that is “perfect”. Be they Shakespeare or Spielberg, everyone has flaws in their collection. But what can be said of the whole? Pixar’s story is still being told; if this film is any indication, they still have many great years ahead of them.
PS: Did anyone else notice that the Monsters Inc. building in this film seems to be located at Port of Oakland? Those container cranes might not have been used for the AT-ATs in The Empire Strikes Back, but I recognised them immediately here.
PPS: Watch the bulletin board at the end of the film: Mike has a business card for Ron Swanson.