The problem with Monsters University

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Back when Toy Story, came out, I was at art school with ambitions off becoming an animator. I’d seen some of Pixar’s earlier short films, but their first full length feature blew me away.

One of the most impressive things about Toy Story was that, although it was funny and action packed, It also had a nostalgic, emotional depth meaning it resonated with children and adults equally even though on different terms.

In Toy Story’s wake, the kids film market changed overnight to the point that hand drawn cel animation is now dead to the mainstream.

The torrent of digitally animated kids films that followed from the other film studios all tried to capture that same desirable demographic of appealing equally to parents and children, but for the most part, that consisted of fart gags for the kids and risqué innuendo that sailed over the kids head, but made the parents chuckle.

And people loved them, but I always felt they were poor substitutes for the work of the master-craftsmen and women at Pixar. I never especially rated the Shrek or Ice Age films and still can’t grasp why people don’t seem to recognise they are a world away from Pixar’s high watermark.

They always felt like films made by committee, following a formula. Comedy sidekicks we can sell dolls of? Check. Cheesy pop tune every 5 minutes so we can push the soundtrack CD? Check. These films existed to make money.

Pixar may have been obscenely successful, but it didn’t feel like the reason the films existed. They felt hand crafted. Like a collection of artists and story tellers got together to produce a piece of fine art.

Over the last few years though, I’ve had a growing suspicion that the golden age of Pixar has passed. Cars 2 wasn’t only the worst Pixar film. It was a terrible, terrible film. Period. Last year’s Brave was perfectly enjoyable, but somehow lacked that magic spark that ran through their best films. Meanwhile, films like How to Train Your Dragon and Wreck it Ralph prove that the other studios are occasionally capable of approaching Pixar’s mantle.

So it was with trepidation that I went to see Monsters University at Edinburgh Film Festival last week. And though I came away from it feeling entertained, I was a little underwhelmed too.

A few days later, I re-watched Monsters Inc. It was immediately apparent that what was missing from MU was a character like Boo. The almost paternal bond between Sully and Boo was the heart of the first film.

Which set me to thinking about the other Pixar films. The death of Nemo’s mum in the opening scene of Finding Nemo immediately establishes the unbreakable father-son relationship that carries the whole film.

Toy Story may appear to be a buddy film about Buzz and Woody, but it’s their relationship with Andy, again essentially paternal, that is the emotional heart of the series, as witnessed by the conflicting feelings of pride and loss in the tear-jerking final scenes of Toy Story 3, as Andy is all grown up and heading off to college.

The devastating first 11 minutes of Up is unquestionably the best thing Pixar have ever done. In the space of a single opening scene, the story of Carl and Ellie’s entire life is told.

From childhood, we see them grow up, get married and grow old, but never quite getting round to following their dreams, because real life keeps throwing a million little problems in the way.

As viewers, we can relate, and by the time the opening scene ends, and Ellie dies, we are completely rooting for Carl, because we’ve already walked a mile in his shoes.

There’s nothing like that in Monsters University. It’s a straight buddy pic. It doesn’t really have any emotional depth. It’s implied, since we know the characters become lifelong friends but it’s not up on the screen.

When Pixar are on form, they are masters at very quickly making you genuinely care about characters. Their best films may be jam packed full of impeccably timed one liners and sight gags and have thrilling, rollercoaster action scenes, but it’s because they took the time early on to make you care about the characters that you are emotionally invested in the outcome.

With Monsters University, it’s possible that they decided we already loved the characters enough that they didn’t need to do that, but that’s the sort of shortcut that would never have happened in earlier Pixar films.

The next film we’ll see from Pixar is Bob Peterson’s directorial debut, The Good Dinosaur. Peterson’s storyboard walkthroughs are some of my favorite dvd extras on previous Pixar films. They are never less than funny and warm. He has voiced some of the best loved characters, such as Roz in Monsters Inc and Dug in Up. For that reason, I’m cautiously optimistic that he’ll manage to bring back some of the heart that has been missing from Pixar of late. If not, I fear it might be too late for them, since the next film after that is yet another sequel (Finding Dory).

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