Thankfully, Monsters University isn’t one. I can’t say that I’ve ever clamoured for a prequel, either, but at least one of those doesn’t have as much potential to wreck my good feelings about the original. I would have been satisfied with a stereotypical, if sanitised, college movie, as long as the main characters weren’t twisted too much.
In many ways, MU is exactly that. Mike Wazowski is the nerd who’s always wanted to become a scarer. Jimmy Sullivan is the legacy jock who scoffs at book-learning because he’s always been able to rely on innate talent and a famous name. The two develop a rivalry which ends up getting them kicked out of the university scare programme. Now they have to work together with a group of lovable misfits who are used to being belittled for dreaming above their station. So far, so predictable. That’s the film the trailers sold.
And then the movie refuses to end.
—Spoilers enrolled below, but mostly not really if you already know the original film—
Mike isn’t cut out to be a scarer. We know that because we’ve seen the first movie, where he’s Sulley’s friend and assistant, but not what he aspires to be here: the greatest scarer of them all. I would have been okay with MU ending where all the other college films end: with the underdogs triumphing. I could have reconciled the differences between the two films somehow, I’m sure, But MU does that for me by keeping going, pulling the rug out from under Mike in a surprisingly harsh way.
The real lesson is not that if you work hard, you can accomplish anything you set your mind to. While that’s a valuable aspirational idea, it’s often untrue: not everyone can be great at everything. We all have some in-born strengths and weaknesses. College isn’t about fulfilling your dreams, it’s about finding out what you’re good at and improving yourself in that area. That may not be as inspiring, but it’s also an important lesson, not often found in children’s entertainment alongside the more usual “be a good team player” and “if circumstances block the typical path to success, you’ll achieve your goal in a more unorthodox way”. It was also refreshing to see that Mike’s and Sulley’s actions have real consequences that aren’t hand-waved away. The multiple real endings after the expected one elevate the film above perfunctory.
It doesn’t hurt that the main characters, even if they start out a little differently here, retain their core: they are still Mike and Sulley, destined to become a great scaring team and greater friends. And the movie is really quite funny, and certainly gorgeously designed and animated. Randy Newman also returns (though without a non-diegetic song) to provide some musical consistency, as do all of the old voice cast (those whose characters are in the film, anyway).
The movie stands on its own, too; it’s always a good sign when a prequel doesn’t feel like a rehash or tacked-on prologue, but tells its own, complete story, that just so happens to feature some characters we already know. I watched the 2001 film a few days after the new one and can honestly report that they match up pretty well. There is a minor continuity error which could have been avoided (Mike and Sulley knowing each other since primary school). But other than that, the prequel doesn’t cheapen its predecessor. It’s not like MU infuses M,inc with deeper meaning that wasn’t there before, but there are some interactions which gain a little more heft (involving Randall’s rivalry with Mike/Sulley, especially). I expected Sulley’s and Mike’s falling-out to feel more devastating, but that didn’t really happen (maybe the added history was counteracted by the fact that they’d been trapped in the human world before).
If there are missteps in the film, they involve the supporting players. I didn’t like how quickly Randall Boggs, who starts out as Mike’s timid nerdy friend, acquires the personality of the villain he is in the first film. I get what Pixar was trying to say here: he falls in with a bad, but cool crowd and doesn’t want to jeopardize that by being nice. But it still seemed rather sudden in the film. A scene or more of transition would have helped.
And I don’t think all of the misfit fraternity members whipped into shape by Mike should have become scarers (as shown in the credits); some of them could have chosen a different path, showing that even if you have the talent for something, sometimes you have a different calling after all. At least there was no real come-uppance for the “bad” fraternity; they all become scarers, too, which is both realistic and, in the end, justified, since they are actually good at what they do and never resort to cheating.
Monsters, Inc. is a comedy masterpiece, if not in thematic depth, then certainly in emotional manipulation (and I mean that as a compliment). Monsters University is not on that level, and it remains unnecessary. But: would that all unneeded sequels and prequels were still this good.