The problem with movie prequels is that most of the time they feel unnecessary and forced – with events contorted to set up the relationships and major plot points of the original film. At the same time, your typical prequel will attempt to follow the same unsaid rules as your average movie sequel, sticking to the established formula that audiences responded to while upping the stakes in all departments.
The interesting thing with Monsters University – the first ever prequel from animation giants Pixar – is that while it’s not a backstory screaming to be told, it is nonetheless an excellent example of how to do an origin story right. Monsters University doesn’t attempt to mimic Monsters, Inc. It tells its own original story far removed from the corporate deceptions so central to the 2001 film. Monsters University is in essence a standalone story, simply featuring the same loveable lead characters – and voice actors – involved in the earlier release.
Plotwise, Monsters University can best be described as a colourful, character-driven rehash of Revenge of the Nerds. In animated form, of course. It depicts how diminutive Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and hulking blue fluffball Sulley (John Goodman) become “brain and brawn” best friends when they meet at college. Of course, the road to bromance is filled with resentment and rivalry, especially when both monsters are kicked out of the university’s scare programme. Their only way back into the prestigious course is to lead the misfits of laughing stock fraternity Oozma Kappa to victory in the campus’s annual Scare Games.
So Monsters University plays out like a family-friendly amalgamation of Revenge of the Nerds (as already said) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The challenges that make up the Scare Games are always minutely choreographed fun – although the standout library scene may prove a little too frightening for very young and/or very sensitive children.
Speaking of frightening, Helen Mirren excels as the ultra-strict dean of the scare programme. Part dragon, part creepy-crawly, she steals every scene she’s in… and she has no shortage of competition given that the Monsters University voice cast is stuffed with famous names. Of course, for all the colourful supporting and background characters, it’s ultimately a two-man show. Once again Crystal and Goodman are perfectly integrated with their characters, bringing both humour and heart to proceedings.
Monsters University is definitely different from Monsters, Inc. Although a couple of fan-favourite characters have cameo appearances, viewers expecting a repeat of the “Aw, shucks” adorability of toddler Boo will go without. This said, Monsters University is energetic and benefits from never insulting its older viewers by becoming overly manic or resorting to juvenile body function jokes. In fact, it may be possible to argue that older kids and adults will find more to appreciate in Monsters University than very young kiddies. It’s especially pleasing to see that character actions have irreversible consequences for once.
Still, Monsters University is definitely worth the while of animation lovers of all ages. It’s incredibly well thought out, and really schools other moviemakers on how to make a prequel that entertains existing fans while establishing its own original identity.
P.S. Make sure you’re in the cinema in time for the animated short that precedes Monsters University. If you aren’t freaked out by its extensive anthropomorphising of a cityscape, The Blue Umbrella is a touching story elevated by some of the most breath-taking visuals (particularly textures) ever seen in CGI-animation. It seems likely that this one will be taking home an Academy Award next year.
Last Updated: July 29, 2013