Ah, the curse of the Pixar sequel. Except that of the four sequels they’ve done, two of them were better than the original. Only Cars 2 was a drop from the original film. In my opinion a rather large drop as I am a big fan of the first one and found the second to only be enjoyable. I don’t think I ever put it up on this website, but I ended up giving it two and a half stars (now changed colloquially to “damns given” because I’m incorrigible) and noted that it really was only a disappointment by Pixar standards. I believe I said something akin to “being the worst Pixar movie is like being the least attractive Playmate of the Year.” Regardless, it caused a critical backlash and a seeming sequel fatigue that is setting in, even with myself, despite Lassater and crew being much more picky about producing them than the Dreamworks factory that announced they were going to make six “How to Train Your Dragon” films.
“But wait”, you say, “that’s only three sequels!” Of course it is, my observant friend, because I’m leading up to their latest, Monsters University. Or, as I like to call it, When Harry Met Sully. Zing! It is their first prequel-style sequel, detailing the beginnings of friendship for our favorite scarers of Monsters Inc., a personal favorite of Pixar’s films. Unfortunately it is not as good as the original, though the improvement in computer animation in the intervening dozen years is certainly easy to see.
The other good news is that it is a bounce back for the house that lamp built over Cars 2 and, while not as brilliant as Toy Story 2 or bittersweet as Toy Story 3, it manages to never feel extraneous. Unnecessary, maybe. But it doesn’t ever settle into being a lazy cash grab and as a broad college comedy it manages to be a movie unlike any other that Pixar has produced, despite its sequel status. It certainly features callbacks and a few gags that require viewing of the original film to truly appreciate, but it largely works on its own as a story, never falling back on the ancient framing device of having the characters reminiscing, “Hey, remember when we met?” Pixar seems conscious of their chance to do some further world building in this reality where Monsters as wide and varied as ocean life all live together. Not only that, but it leads somewhere. There are messages to the film before it ends. Messages that I never expected to see in a so-called children’s’ film.
Personally, I’ve always hated that label for the Pixar films, because with one glaring exception they seem to be the very definition of the oft-vaunted and usually awful “family film.” That rare movie that manages to entertain everyone from the three year old clutching his Mike Wazowski plush doll to grandpa. In that regard they are often more successful than even their vaunted parent company has been when you average things out. One of my fondest memories was picking up my grandma from the nursing home and taking her to see Up before she largely stopped going out and eventually passed away.
But I’m rambling. There are some unusual things being taught in this film. Sure there are messages of holding onto your dreams and never giving up, but there are a metric ton of movies that throw that “Secret” style naiveté at us. The ultimate message seems to be ‘what can you do when your dreams are shattered, yet life goes on.’ And I never thought I’d see a college movie that actually indicates college isn’t for everyone, given the way higher education has become a sacred cow, necessary for everyone from doctors to hamburger chefs.
In the middle of this is one of the best pure comedies that Pixar has done with quite a few laughs, many of them laugh out loud. They are very successful in wringing out the remaining chemistry between Billy Crystal and John Goodman (who manages to actually seem to make himself sound younger despite adding a decade) while adding some new faces to the cast and a few familiar ones. Thankfully few of the latter since it is the lazy origin story that simply plugs all the original players into major roles. Among the new standouts are the frightening Dean Hardscrabble, portrayed with the ridged gusto one would expect for what amounts to a remake of Revenge of the Nerds. Or any other “snobs vs. slobs” campus comedy ever to hit the screen. At least it’s the best one to ever be rated G. Given the movies it’s riffing on, of course there is also the worst frat on campus, in this case Oozma Kappa. Voice talent like Charlie Day and Bugs Life-alum Dave Foley do a good job of making them the usual likable losers. And of course there has to be the rival frat of jerks, led by all-around scamp Nathan Fillion with an extra ladle of smarm.
Most of the film plays out just as all films of this type do (is it really even a spoiler to say the frat ends up involved in a set of fraternity games?), but with a fresh perspective brought by the gags involving the monster society and students. Just as a factory floor became a place of unbridled imagination, so does a campus, crammed full of sight gags, parody and background yucks. The simple skin-graft makes all the difference, turning what would otherwise be a rather cliche affair into something that, were it not for the first film, would feel pretty darn original. But because we do have that first film and we do have all the hijinx of every Animal House imitator, it never really manages to completely rise above and become something more, even with a very satisfying final act. I suppose what I’m saying is, it may not be one of Pixar’s all-time best, but it’s a solid triple.
(Three and a half damns out of five)