Franchise culture has made us cynical. Every year, we’re inundated by Superhero 3 and Comedy Part II and 2 Much 2 Action, and when those movies disappoint us with unimaginative retreads and unfortunate character decisions, we cry foul and lament the domination of original stories. We don’t always put our money where our mouth is, though, and that’s how we end up with sequels, prequels, threequels, and all manner of other -quels.
For the early part of the last decade, Pixar provided mainstream counterprogramming to the onslaught of franchise extensions, delving into unexplored cinematic universes with heart, humor and wisdom. Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, WALL-E, Ratatouille, Up: those movies show us vibrant, fully realized worlds we could never have imagined, telling stories with universal appeal and personal resonance. But, with the release of Pixar’s first uninspired film, Cars 2, certain sections of the Pixar fanbase turned against the animation studio, crying accusations of “sellout!” Never mind that two of Pixar’s most affecting movies, Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, are sequels. “Down with sequels!” the masses cried.
I see where they’re coming from. Pixar values originality more than any other Hollywood studio, and to see them make a movie that felt more like an excuse for merchandise tie-ins than an opportunity to tell an interesting story was cause for concern. But it’s important to remember that sequels and prequels are not inherently lazy or cynical. In fact, good sequels and prequels require a level of ambition that’s on par with creating an original story. It’s easy to think of sequels as purely commercial enterprises, but there can be a real value in returning to familiar characters in a new situation – again, look at Toy Story 2 and 3. No one accused Pixar of selling out when those movies came out because those movies arguably surpass the original for sheer emotional impact. They take characters we like and place them in situations that reflect our own emotional attachments to the fictional universe, and they come out with tearjerking movies about talking dolls. That’s quite a feat.
Pixar’s follow-up to Cars 2 was Brave, the studio’s first movie with a female protagonist and an unconventional tale of feminine heroism. I didn’t love that movie, but it bears some striking differences to other Pixar works, and it aspires to be something slightly more than a lowbrow children’s entertainment. Now, with Monsters University, they’ve pulled off an impressive trick, justifying what seemed like a certified soulless cash grab from the minute it was announced with a bright, imaginative, clever, smart prequel that doesn’t condescend to kids, resort to crude humor or sacrifice important messages for flashy surface-level hijinks. The script is smartly constructed, giving each character a very specific arc that makes sense even if you’re not remotely familiar with the omnipresent original. The bouncy animation doesn’t aspire to real-world realism, but it creates a charming and convincing alternate universe. Most impressively, the movie’s values and worldview will sneak in valuable lessons to young children, who will already enjoy the characters’ faux-scary antics and the plot’s brisk pace.
The story starts with the lovable one-eyed green guy himself, Mike Wazowksi, visiting his future employer Monsters, Inc. with his elementary school class. The touching prologue establishes that Mike is the class oddball, if you’ll pardon the pun – overenthusiastic and diminutive in equal measure, he struggles to fit in among his more conventional peers. But when he gets a firsthand glimpse of the famous scare floor, where monsters infiltrate children’s homes to collect screams for energy, his eye lights up with ambition. A friendly scarer hands Mike a Monsters University hat, and the gears in Mike’s head start turning, just in time for the opening credits.
The title location is a place I’d like to visit, maybe even attend. It’s equal parts Hogwarts and Harvard, with an underwater School of Aquatics and a student body more diverse than any real college could ever claim. Some things never change, though: the school also has an eager-to-please residence staff, a well-established hierarchy of fraternities and sororities, and a student newspaper that nobody reads. Mike loves it immediately – even if his roommate is the sleazy chameleon Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi), whose future villainy reveals itself gradually.
So how does the legendary duo of the original film come together? You might be surprised to know that Mike and Sully weren’t always best friends. In fact, they were academic and social rivals! But they’re forced to team up when the intimidating Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) expels the pair from the School of Scarers for damaging her most prized possession during an exam.
The fact that Mike and Sully eventually become friends isn’t surprising. But the way that their friendship develops, and the path they take to arrive at their cushy status in the original film, is unexpected and far more true to life than most children’s movies are willing to admit. Among this movie’s themes: sometimes it’s better to embrace your strengths than struggle to improve your weaknesses. Nobody’s good at everything, but everybody’s good at something. There’s no right or wrong thing to be good at. There are consequences for breaking the rules, even in a world of happy Hollywood endings and tidy resolutions. There’s more than one way to realize your dreams. There’s nothing wrong with admitting you’ve done something wrong, even if you did it for the right reasons. Most kids would absolutely benefit from seeing some of these lessons come alive in this appealing universe, and I’m willing to bet some parents would as well.
The danger with any prequel is that there will be too much focus on maneuvering each character into position for the start of the original movie, but Monsters University handles that issue with aplomb, constructing a fully functional story around the familiar characters without sacrificing what we already know about them or alienating viewers who don’t know anything about them yet. Mike and Sully are younger versions of the characters we know from Monsters Inc. in size, shape and spirit, but they’re fully fleshed-out individuals within the enclosed Monsters University world as well. The animation cleverly de-ages Ol’ Blue and Green, a remarkable feat considering that they’re working with a talking eyeball and a furry blue behemoth. And for sharp-eyed fans of the original, references and in-jokes abound without overwhelming the central story.
Some Pixar movies aspire to be tales with as much resonance for adults as for kids. Monsters University takes a different approach: it’s trying to be a movie that kids can enjoy and learn from in equal measure. It’s a cliché to say that the movie appeals to the child in all of us, but all clichés are rooted in truth, and this one is no exception. Monsters University confirms my suspicion that Pixar isn’t quite the soulless corporate entity some people believe it has become.
Just to clarify: don’t read my defense of Pixar’s sequel strategy as an endorsement of Finding Dory, which will be released in 2015. I think that movie might be a bad idea. The title suggests that Dory, everyone’s favorite character from Finding Nemo, will be front-and-center in the sequel, an idea that calls back unfortunate memories of Mater’s regrettably pumped-up role in Cars 2. Furthermore, Finding Nemo doesn’t strike me as the kind of story that lends itself to an organic sequel: is someone just going to get lost again? As much as I love Finding Nemo, I worry that returning to that world will diminish that movie’s excellence. But I’ll take my own advice and keep an open mind. It worked for Monsters University; perhaps it will work again.