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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
June 2013

Monsters University

School for scarers

On why 'Monsters University,' despite a great third act, embodies the typical superfluousness of prequels

Monsters University
Walt Disney Studios
Director: Dan Scanlon
Screenplay: Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson and Dan Scanlon
Starring: The voices of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Helen Mirren, Nathan Fillion, Steve Buscemi, Joel Murray, Charlie Day and Alfred Molina
Rated G / 1 hour, 50 minutes
June 21, 2013
(out of four)

The simplest way to put it is that, had Monsters University been made before Monsters, Inc. ever existed, no one would be clamoring for a sequel. No one would feel the need to revisit these characters - a plucky, overzealous underdog student and his affable, arrogant rival-turned-friend - or find out what happened after their college days were long behind them.

But perhaps that's the argumentative low-hanging fruit. It's easy to say one's initial experience with a particular world or particular characters is inherently the best one, just like it's easy to say "the book was better than the movie." So I'll table that line of thought for now and focus on what is simultaneously the most conspicuous failure and success of Monsters University, and that is its final half-hour. The last 30 minutes finally give us the maturity that we've come to expect from Pixar, while also arriving, for the first time in the entire film, at an actual point. Here the movie detours from exceedingly ordinary and well-worn territory onto an unexpected and nakedly honest path, delivering a strong and difficult conclusion to the story of young Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and his pal Sully (John Goodman).

One of the most telling things about this section is how it reminds us of the kind of emotional sophistication with which Pixar, at its best, has so often handled its characters' struggles. In this case, writer/director Dan Scanlon and his two co-writers, Robert L. Baird and Daniel Gerson, bait us with the easy ending and then subvert it in a way that forces Mike and Sully (among others) to confront truths about themselves. What seems like a typical underdog story - lazily centered around an annual high-stakes tournament on the campus of Monsters University - impressively transforms into something that all but discards the sports-movie-of-the-week vibe of the previous hour.

I'd like to say the climactic half-hour entirely recontextualizes and enriches the rest of the film. But as great as the third act is, the preceding hour is so comfortably on autopilot, content to reintroduce beloved characters in name/shape only rather than give us reason to fall in love with them again, that even a strong ending can't wholly make up for it. When all is said and done, it doesn't feel like the climax is the organic conclusion to any real build-up; rather, it feels like the filmmakers finally stumble upon a concept they can run with, while they had previously only been running in place. But perhaps it comes too late.

Twelve years after Pete Docter's terrific Monsters, Inc., the prequel jumps back to the past to tell the origin story of Mike (and Sully, but especially Mike). The defining moment of his life is a field trip, as a small child, to the Monsters, Inc. headquarters, from which point he dedicates his entire life to the dream of becoming a scarer, just like the heroes whose trading cards he passionately collects. (More than 6,000, in mint condition, he boasts.) He arrives on campus at Monsters University - not to be confused with the opposing Fear Tech - intent on dominating the scaring program and going on to great things. Despite the fact that everyone - most importantly the prickly Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) - insists that he's simply not scary, and won't make it in the scare business.

His dreams take a hit when he gets into a fight with Sully on the day of the first-semester final, after which Dean Hardscrabble boots him from the program. But he finds a loophole in the form of the school's annual Scare Games, a winner-take-all competition whose prize is admission into the scaring program. The only problem is, it's a team competition - pitting fraternities and sororities against one another - and Mike and Sully have been elbowed out of the campus' Greek community. Except, of course, for the one frat made up of losers and castoffs. Surely you can see where this is going.

The by-the-numbers approach to the story* - which as a plot device is about as interesting and original as a battle-of-the-bands competition, or a tournament whose prize money will save the beloved local ski resort/summer camp/bar/restaurant/what-have-you - is a letdown in and of itself, especially because the film so frequently mines the available resources only for the most obvious material. But even more of a disappointment is the thin exploration - again, until that final half-hour - of the characters. And not just Mike and Sully - the side characters as well.

* Despite my uncertainty about the plot itself, I will say it sets the stage for one fantastically staged setpiece in a library. Absolute gold.

To a large extent, the film's superficiality is emblematic of the questionable wisdom of making prequels at all - or at least of the standard approach to making prequels. It seems like a prequel is one of those ideas that always sounds like a great idea for about five minutes, until you have to question what the real motivation is in the first place. In this case, we have a completely self-contained original like Monsters, Inc. centered around two exceptionally drawn characters. And so the idea was thrown out: "What if we made a movie about how Mike and Sully met at college?"

But is how these two met really all that interesting? Is their relationship as it evolves over a collegiate competition all that interesting? No, not really. And the point of all this is to show the characters getting to the point in their lives that we already know they got to because of the existence of the original film. I admit I still felt affection for the two of them, but I'm quite sure that's largely a residual effect from Monsters, Inc., rather than a result of what this particular movie does with them.

Consider the treatment of Randall (Steve Buscemi), the villain from the 2001 original. Here he's introduced as Randy, a kind and enthusiastic young freshman. The film includes him only to show - briefly - how he came to be a villain, and otherwise ignores him. His villainy isn't even important to the other events in the film, so his appearances are little more than a shallow callback. If the film had actually wanted to explore Randall's character arc, great - but it doesn't, reducing his role to what basically amounts to cheap fan service. We already know he became a villain; what's the point of wasting time on a few brief scenes that superficially explain why?

A movie gets from point A to point B; a typical prequel like this one asks, unnecessarily, "Yeah, well how did they get to point A?" And the answer, usually, is who cares how they got to point A. Monsters University largely doesn't stand on its own; it's just a perfunctory add-on - a glorified DVD extra, albeit one with a few really funny scenes and a terrific ending.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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