SPOILER WARNING: I will be discussing crucial events from the film’s plot and story, particularly in the last half hour. If you have not seen the film, it is highly recommended that you do NOT read this review.
Pixar’s last two films, Cars 2 and Brave, were somewhat…lacking. While I personally found much to enjoy regarding the craftsmanship and acting, their stories were muddled and confused about what they wanted to say and how to say it. As a result, the news of a college-set prequel to the excellent Monsters, Inc. was only slightly less appealing than the needless sequel Michael Eisner had planned to do without Pixar back in the day.
But something rather curious happened. Director Dan Scanlon and his writers have crafted an intriguing, funny, and heartfelt tale that takes some unusual roads on the way to happiness. Scanlon and company make foreknowledge of what is to come an asset rather than a hindrance. Obviously, Mike Wazowski will not achieve his dream of becoming a Scarer since the original film showed him as Sulley’s assistant/coach. How he gets there…ah, now that is the fun of the movie. As usual, the Pixar team contributes clever, creative visuals that takes a familiar world back in time; I liked how the technology was visibly less advanced than the original film, for instance. And even more than before, the character designs bear some notable Henson influences.
Admittedly, the movie takes a lot of influence from college movies of days past, but adds the typical Pixarian touches to them. The rival school’s mascot is some weird pig hybrid, the athletic competition du jour is of course scaring, the underdog heroes include a two-headed pair of twins and a cute little gelatin monster, and a hazing ritual is interrupted by a very loud washing machine. The film chugs along quite nicely in this way with plenty of fun gags and small, touching moments, such as when the heroes break into Monsters, Inc. and discover the wide variety of scarers on the floor.
The voice cast is stacked with Pixar’s usual well-chosen celebrities, character actors and their own employees. In particular, I liked the different shades returning actors like Billy Crystal, John Goodman and Steve Buscemi brought to their younger characters. Crystal in particular does some of his best acting since, well, the original Monsters. Of the new characters, highlights include Dame Helen Mirren as the aptly named Dean Hardscrabble, a wonderfully arrogant Nathan Fillion as the leader of the rich jocks, the hot-and-cold duo of Aubrey Plaza and Tyler Labine as Greek Council members who announce the Scare Games, and the perpetually weird, scratchy Charlie Day as the mysterious, hippie-esque Art.
The third act, though, takes a drastic turn and helps a very good film become great. At the climax of the Scare Games, our underdog heroes appear to have won the day…but it’s revealed that Sulley cheated to help Mike win. Not anyone else, just Mike; Sulley knows that no matter how hard the little guy tries, he’s not scary. Mike is understandably pissed off, and impulsively heads to the human world to try and prove to both himself and everyone else that he’s scary. The cabin of young campers he finds laugh in his face. Sulley goes after him, and the two bare their souls at a lake in one of the best filmed conversations of the year.
Some consider it a weakness of storytelling when characters outright state how they feel or think. Personally, I think it works when said dialogue is well-written, performed and in-character for them to say these things. Mike’s desperation as he talks about how he thought he could be scary if he tried harder and wanted it more than anybody else is palpable. Sulley’s line about acting scary to cover up feeling terrified most of the time is on-the-nose, but Goodman brings a real, aching vulnerability to it. At any rate, now the question remains: how do they get back home since Hardscrabble has shut off the door from the monsters’ side until the authorities arrive? Well, some human officers/rangers have arrived. Why not scare them? In a beautiful display of teamwork, Mike and Sulley scare the daylights out of them, so much so that the door cracks and EXPLODES behind them just as they come back through the door. Even Hardscrabble is shocked and impressed.
Alas, reality must now ensue. Mike and Sulley have broken some serious rules, so they are both expelled, although happily the rest of their friends are admitted back into the Scaring Program. In another terrific scene, Sulley admits to Mike that he is a better Scarer with Mike than without him, and Hardscrabble gives the pair some warm, well-earned encouragement. They head off to Monsters, Inc….as new mailroom workers. The film ends with a photo montage of them working up through the ranks, and coming to their first day on the Scare Floor.
After the messy narratives of the last two films, MU has a clear eye and knows exactly what it wants to do by the end. It also has messages that many young people can take to heart: there are some things you just CAN’T do no matter how hard you try, and college isn’t right for everyone. It’s honestly rather daring for a kid’s film to have this message, especially when so many American animated films, even very good/great ones, hammer in the “be yourself and you can accomplish anything” theme.
In the end, it’s not Pixar’s best film or even their best follow-up (that would be either Toy Story 2 or 3). But it’s a great ride all the same.