Monsters University ★★★½

Monsters Inc. captured the best of what I think Pixar can be. Truly imaginative, it is a well-balanced and surprisingly nuanced story with tensions, trials, and genuine heart, wrapped up in a hilarious and brilliantly clever package. I didn’t expect the prequel to live up to the same quality, but I did expect, however, for this film to be chock-full of new ideas. That seems to be this film’s blessing and its curse: in a world so imaginative and ripe for an injection of wild new ideas and liberties in its narrative, the choice to follow along a rather pedestrian and even tired story archetype is its biggest downfall. The film is saved by what it's able to do within this framework (or should I say in spite of it), but there's an inherent laziness in its overall approach that disappoints.

We’ve seen this underdog story countless times: in films like Old School, Animal House, and Revenge of the Nerds. There’s something about the whole American post-secondary fraternity scenario that has never resonated with me, possibly because that lifestyle doesn’t really exist here in Canada, where I went to school, but also likely because there’s a shallowness and superficiality to the entire setting that is difficult to engage with. This film overcomes some of these problems by existing in a bizarre landscape populated by non-humans, but it’s still the same tired arc filled with luck and contrivances that, for the most part, feels like a film I’ve already seen dozens of times.

It’s in the relationship between Sullivan (John Goodman) and Mike (Billy Crystal) that the film’s heart ostensibly lies, and I had the distinct impression that every single other character was only present for comic relief. And again, though we’re seeing new sides to characters that we already know and love, there’s something about their character development that largely feels cliché. It’s tough to define why that’s such a problem given that the entire film is essentially an homage to every frat/college film that has come before, but I suppose I expected so much more unbridled creativity from the same minds who brought us the original film.

Goodman and Crystal (especially Crystal) are again exceptional in their voice acting, and their ability to breathe life into and foster a tangible connection between their animated selves is well worth the price of admission. There’s a remarkable twist between these characters that ultimately leads to bringing out the depth of their personalities and motivations. Some appearances by memorable Monsters Inc. characters arrive in the form of well-placed cameos and brief one-off moments, but I expected a whole lot more from the inclusion of Randall, who is set up to be a more prominent player in the film and instead feels shoe-horned into the plot.

While Monsters Inc. is one animated film that I can watch again year after year, marvelling at its inventiveness and astounded by the feats Pixar was able to achieve over 12 years ago, I can’t say I’d ever do the same for it’s prequel. It’s a good film, and funnier and more watchable than some Pixar’s other efforts (Cars, Brave), but I think it loses sight of what made the original so powerful: imagination.

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