Prequelitis is a disease that affects many films that are made after but set before a well known and loved film. Monsters University shows signs of this condition, and below is the diagnosis of how badly it is suffering. NB: This condition can be deadly to a film’s artistic success when suffering too much from all of the following symptoms at once:
1. Lack Of Invention – When a film relies on a world that has already been established instead of creating something new. C.f. The recycled score and plot structure in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Monsters University is an inventive film in many ways. Like the best Pixar films, it has a vast array of visual jokes that you’ll only be spotting on the second or third time you watch it. The Monsters universe is one of the studio’s best for doing this, too, as the totally alien world allows for hilarious inversions of more familiar sights on earth. So in University there is, as with all college films, a societies fair where new students can sign up to the debate team, art society etc. Only in Pixar’s monstrous version of this staple event, the debate team is a two headed creature that argues with itself and the art soc use their own heads instead of paintbrushes. Ignoring the pertinent question of why a film aimed at children is sending up a genre that will go over all of their heads, this film succeeds at inverting classic college tropes and making them fresh and funny once more.
Yet for all of this – plus some clever character design – University is hampered by its lack of originality; many of the positives of the film are simply riding on the coat tails of its predecessor. Monsters University is only funny because Monsters Inc. was. There’s a lot to laugh at throughout the film, but it’s all tinged with the memory that a world this creative and exciting to explore used to be an original idea for Pixar, not a prequel
2. Predetermined Conclusion – when the outcome of the prequel is already determined by our knowledge of the original, like a more boring version of dramatic irony. C.f. Anakin becoming Darth Vader
The most curious and unique aspect of Monsters University is the overall message of the film, and in order to try and pick apart what that is, I’ll have to discuss the film’s plot in some depth, so feel free to ignore this section if you haven’t seen it yet. Right at the start of the film the audience is introduced to school aged Mike on a trip to the big factory where scares create energy and dreams are made. His eye widens as he witnesses scarers at work and meets one of the best. In many ways this is the most touching scene in the film, as the young monster struggles to make friends with his peers and is told he’ll never be a scarer. Yet anyone who has seen Inc. knows that Mike doesn’t become one at all – he becomes the assistant.
Once at University and on the scaring courses, Mike becomes more determined than ever, but the naysaying voices get louder, too. Dean Hardscrabble tells the class that a monster who isn’t scary isn’t a monster at all. Sully tells Mike he just doesn’t have it. The frat house jox tell him he doesn’t belong. Mike reads all the books and wants it more than anyone else on the course. He puts in the time and he really cares about it. The fact is, he isn’t scary, and we know from Monsters Inc. that he won’t become everything he wants to be – in short, all those voices telling him he won’t amount to anything are proven right by this film. So the entire drive of the plot – Mike entering the scare games to prove he has what it takes – is undermined by our knowledge of what lies in store for him. The result of the predetermined conclusion to Mike’s story is a dramatic arc that feels curiously muted. As Mike is propelled inexorably towards his life of admin and as we witness him giving up on his dreams, Monsters University becomes Pixar’s most morose film yet.
The message is this: get more realistic dreams. Aspiring film makers, you’ll never finish your screenplay so accept your Starbucks-bound future; writers, you are not James Joyce and you aren’t even Dan Brown, so give up the dream of getting published or paid and settle down as an accountant; kids who want to be astronauts, your chances are astronomically slim. Whilst this may be the most realistic moral message in a kids film ever, it’s a bitter pill to swallow.
3. Outcome Necessity – When a prequel feels the need to reach the specific outcome of the earlier film’s set up, often rushing the finale in the process. C.f. The ‘now they hate each other’ conclusion of X-Men first class, the virus credits in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Loads of people know and love Monsters Inc. and they all know that in that film, Mike and Sully both work on the scare floor. The film makers of Monsters University felt it necessary to make sure that University linked up entirely with Inc. by having a rushed series of photos right at the end that show us how they got there. It skips out a massive chunk of their story in under a minute. This is entirely unnecessary as the audience can deduce as much if they have half a brain. Stories don’t always need loose ends tied up, especially prequels, and I, for one, would have much preferred a film set in the mail room of Monsters Inc. than the one we did get. The desire to reach the familiar set up of Inc. comes at the cost of an interesting story.
4. Inevitable If Unfair Comparison – When, however good a film is, it will always be compared unfavourably to its predecessors. C.f. Every prequel ever.
It’s just not as good as Monsters, Inc., is it?
Diagnosis: Survivable. This is only a medium strength case of Prequelitis, thankfully the disease hasn’t spread too far. It survives on the strength of its precursor, but the film’s primary carers Pixar need to be more careful in future.
Monster’s University is better than any other big studio animation that has so far been released in 2013. That it is merely decent and not amazing goes some way to showing how disappointing this year has been so far, especially given some of the strong films released in 2012. It’s an amiable, unremarkable comedy from a studio that, in the past, have left audiences with jaws dropped and tears in their eyes. Nothing here is likely to do that and although it is unfair to judge a film on something it isn’t, Monsters University frequently feels like it could have been so much more.