It has been a shaky couple of years for Pixar, the once untouchable Oscar factory responsible for the most significant family entertainment of the past 20 years. Their phenomenal run of success came crashing to a halt for many with the misguided Cars 2, and while last year’s Brave was a step in a more positive direction, it never really got the attention it deserved. Competing films from the likes of Dreamworks and Blue Sky have finally managed to catch up, and Pixar’s groundbreaking level of quality has been gradually eroded.
Part of me wishes that the film Pixar needed to put them back out ahead of the pack would be one of their spectacular original creations, not a revisit of past work, but as gripes go it’s a negligible one. Monsters University is an announcement that the Pixar we’ve been missing for a couple of years is back, and in grand, hilarious style.
Monsters University winds back the clock from 2001’s Monsters Inc. to tell the story of how Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and James P. Sullivan (John Goodman) met in the hallowed halls of the titular establishment. After being thrown out of the scare program by the sinister Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) for destroying a valuable university artefact, Mike and Sulley must put their rivalries aside and work together to take their tragic fraternity Oozma Kappa to the Scare Games, and face down the popular jocks of Roar Omega Roar.
Sound familiar? It should. Monsters University is more than anything else a bang on tribute to classic college comedies of the eighties, yet maintains the countless nods to horror and science fiction that peppered the original (the scaring school looks like Cthulhu!!). Surprisingly, what Monsters University is not is a film for kids. That’s not to say it’s inappropriate for youngsters, but the film is more Animal House than Play House, and while Pixar have always expertly balanced the kid content with adult, this definitely swings further toward the latter.
It’s certainly busy and colourful, but the film sacrifices some of its broad accessibility for more depth in its references. A treat for people who grew up with Revenge of the Nerds, not so much for those used to the mostly sterile, diluted children’s fare of recent times, as evidenced by the amount of chattering little monsters in the cinema towards the end of my screening.
It seems like the production line at the Pixar campus is advanced enough now to be able to crank high quality films out with greater regularity than in the past, and recent reports have suggested that the studio will scale back their production of sequels in favour of original properties, which is terrific news. However, Monsters University restates the promise of the Toy Story films, that many of their creations can have legs beyond one film. More exciting is the prospect of the studio exploring more specific genres, like they do here with the college comedy. They appear to have learned from their recent mistakes, and with the full weight of Disney behind them, Pixar have shot back to the head of the class.