Before embarking on this return visit to the wacky alt-world of 2001’s Monsters, Inc., the brains at Pixar went looking for “all the great movie prequels” and came up empty-handed.
They have a point. Backstory probing may be all the rage right now, but there has yet to be a preboot that truly stands toe-to-toe with the film or films that spawned it. Blame George Lucas if you like, but it’s a format with many more strikes against it than home runs on its score card.
Not only that but a prequel almost always comes with a whiff of creative desperation, its raison d’être invariably owing more to a corporate balance sheet than a blue-sky brainstorm.
All of which appears to stack the odds against Monsters University, the latest evidence of what has become a troublingly repetitive streak for Emeryville’s princes of the pixel (last year’s Brave excepted, this is the third release in a row to be based on an existing title – and Planes, out August 2013, will be the fourth).
As it is, Pixar’s 14th feature turns out to be an exuberant, vibrant and busy romp: some way from a classic, but perfectly acceptable on its own second-hand, retro- fitted and unapologetically derivative terms.
The last time we saw fanged furball James ‘Sulley’ Sullivan (John Goodman) and green eyeball on legs Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), they were best buds working side by side on the Monsters, Inc. scare floor.
Director Dan Scanlon starts his movie in the same place, but only to introduce Mike as a child and his life-long fascination with the heroic ‘Scarers’ who generate Monstropolis’ power by traumatising dozing human infants.
Determined to become one of their number, the adolescent Mike enrols at the titular MU in the hope of joining its prestigious Scare Program.
In his way, however, stands a certain turquoise ogre: the aforementioned Sulley, a cocksure campus hotshot who – unlike his more cute than creepy roomie – doesn’t need to hit the books to terrify the tots witless.
Turning firm friends into sworn enemies may not be the most original of plot twists, but it’s enough of a rethink to have University challenge our creeping sense of déjà vu.
Nor does it hurt to introduce a competitive element, an accident involving a prized possession of the fearsome Dean Hardscrabble (a dragon-centipede hybrid imperiously vocalised by Dame Helen Mirren) compelling our heroes to sign up for the all or nothing ‘Scare Games’ in order to rejoin the ranks of the collegiate elite.
With rounds involving flesh-swelling stingers, a giant tentacled librarian and a maze straight out of Pac-Man, it’s the Tri-Wizard Cup in all but name.
Its real function, though, is to help warm up the Mike/Sulley bromance, as well as fostering a sense of community within the sad-sack ‘Oozma Kappa’ fraternity to which they have reluctantly been forced to pledge.
The various members of this dotty brotherhood – a five-eyed blob, a two-headed nerd, a long-limbed cousin of The Muppets’ Animal and a sticky old mature student – make for a spectacular posse that leaps off the screen even if you’re not watching the film in the now requisite 3D.
And while cynics might point out that the Disney Store will now be stuffed with as many merchandise-friendly critters as (in)humanly possible, who cares when it gives us such colourful peripheral characters as the purple-haired babes of ‘Python Nu Kappa’ and the squealing Scare Pig mascot of ‘Roar Omega Roar’?
The freakish ingenuity is the movie’s main, ahem, selling point – though it can’t quite compensate for a fundamental shortage of freshness.
Alas, Scanlon and co always seem to be one clawed step and slimy trail behind Pete Docter’s milieu-defining predecessor.
That’s not to say there isn’t fun, excitement and sporadic laughter to be had, not least in a climactic sequence that sees Mike realise his true calling. The message too is a surprisingly bracing one for a family animation: sometimes you have to face up to the fact that just because you want something, that doesn’t make it so.
But then if Monsters University says anything, it’s that even if you’re not at the top of your game, you should still go out there and give them a show – which is exactly what the film does.
Pixar falls back on the tried and tested in an entertaining caper that will be a surefire kid pleaser this summer. Old favourites are always welcome, but it would have been nice to see some more new ideas too.