I have always had a fascination with stories. As I child I would read constantly, and as I grew older I became an avid viewer of movies, both of which rely on a good story despite being two different mediums. I think this fascination may be at the heart of why I aim to get as much out of a film as I can, be it about the characters or the production process. When it comes to the subject of character, sequels can be an excellent method of development, and the same can be said of prequels. By 2013, PIXAR Studios had provided us with 3 sequels, with 2 for Toy Story and 1 for Cars, on top of their 10 original projects, but there wasn’t a prequel to be seen. Their first, and to date only, prequel would be a spin-off of the highly popular 2001 film Monsters Inc entitled Monsters University, or Monsters Uni for short. There had been, and continue to be, many calls for a direct sequel to Monsters Inc so a prequel was certainly an unexpected move, but it may have been, at least in my opinion, the better choice.
We follow the previous film’s protagonists Mike Wasowski and James “Sully” Sullivan through university as they compete in the Scare Games and find a lifelong friendship along the way. Perhaps the greatest hurdle of any prequel is that it must inevitably end in a way that directs us into the original film. Because this precedes Monsters Inc, we know that Mike and Sully will become lifelong roommates working for the titular company, so we know that their rivalry in Monsters Uni will be short-lived. It just so happens that I am a firm believer that the journey is equally important, if not more so, than the final destination, and this is quite the journey. Mike is a bit of a loner and Sully is a local celebrity, being the son of a scarer, so putting them both in the Scare Programme provides enough friction to carry the entire film. But an incident leads to them both being expelled from the programme, and from here they join a lackluster group of monsters in the Oozma Kampa fraternity so that they can win the Scare Games and be re-instated, so the stakes are high. All PIXAR films have an overarching lesson to them and there is no attempt to hide that Monsters Uni is all about teamwork, in relation to each other as well as the fraternity. Each of the monsters in Oozma Kampa brings something different to the table, but, like Mike, they have been outcast for not being scary enough. Unlike Mike, they aren’t in in for personal gain and are just happy to finally be included, which makes rooting for them easy. They are hard not to care about.
There are only a handful of main characters, but since this is set on a college campus, the amount of background characters is innumerable. As I have made my way through the PIXAR library, I have noticed certain improvements due to the progress of time and of technology. We are now a long way from the clone children of Toy Story, with each background character being 100% unique. It had been this way for quite some time, in fact the main selling point of Cars 2 seemed to be how many unique, merchandise-able characters were in it, but Monsters Uni is where that progress really stands out to me. There are monsters with slime, scales, fur, shells, multiple heads and backpacks all in one frame which is a level of skill and computer processing power that I find it hard to comprehend, but here it is nonetheless. There is an in-universe trading card game which features different scarers from across the ages and I am gutted that they didn’t make it into a genuine set, because it would have been an astounding demonstration of the artwork present in this film. It also would have likely raked in more cash for Disney, so I feel like they may have dropped the ball on that one. A special shout-out goes to the people who designed and rendered the buildings because I can only imagine that real-life buildings are difficult enough. Building this reality in which the characters exist is truly commendable.
As always, the score is magnificent. While some sequels and prequels might rely on previously established musical motifs, Monsters Uni has a almost wholly original score. I say almost because a couple of those old motifs do still manage to sneak in there, most noticeably in the track Field Trip, but it is a rarity. Once again we are being treated to the compositions of Randy Newman in what is his 7th collaboration with PIXAR after the Toy Story trilogy, A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc, and Cars. His work is very distinct and if you dwell on that for too long, it can become rather distracting, but I still rather enjoy his music. The score here can be light and airy but also intense and urgent, perhaps more so than in any of his previous films, but I wouldn’t have been upset if they had brought in somebody else. That’s the thing about change- it can be for the better. Nobody expecting a prequel for Monsters Inc because they were, and some still are, more interested in a direct sequel, but this is what we got. It doesn’t rely on the original film in any aspect and introduces us to new, likeable characters and interesting settings. For those who have watched Monsters Inc there are one or two subtle nods and expectation subversions but nothing that are important to the story.
The way I see it, Monsters University is further background for a story that I already love. It has the added benefit of being a well-written and, at times, emotional piece. If you are of the opinion that all sequels, prequels and spin-offs are empty cash-grabs then I implore you to watch this film and reconsider.
Until Next Time…