The short film that preceded Monsters University, The Blue Umbrella, is a beautiful work of visual poetry, using music and rhythm to progress the narrative, with absolutely no dialogue whatsoever. It’s a story about a blue umbrella that develops an attraction to a red umbrella, which happens to be the only other color that stands out amongst the sea of traditional black (there’s some symbolism in there somewhere).
When the blue umbrella finds itself blown away during a rain storm, a world of inanimate objects comes alive, working together to save the helpless little guy from all sorts of peril, and to reunite him with his bright red crush. The animation is absolutely fantastic. Perfect rain effects and dark lighting dominate the environment, creating detailed shadows and reflections everywhere. Pixar is a studio that once combined incredible technical polish with a unique approach to storytelling. Their true power is shown during this wonderful little short.
Then The Blue Umbrella ended and Monsters University began. From there on out, things seemed fairly run-of-the-mill, a very sad thing to have to say about any Pixar production. After all, this is the studio that gave the world masterpieces like Ratatouille (2007) and Toy Story (1995).
So, how can a studio that once managed to balance family escapism with a philosophical depth that the art crowd lauded now be reduced to creating something that’s merely average? I think the answer is Disney.
Since Pixar was fully absorbed by the Walt Disney Corporation, we have been given two films from them: Cars 2 (2010) and Brave (2011). Both, in my opinion, are among the weakest entries in the Pixar filmography to date, and they signaled the end of the once great animation studio.
This isn’t to say that Monsters University is as bad as Cars 2—it isn’t. It’s just a generic kid’s movie in every conceivable way; a simple story about an underdog monster, Mike (Billy Crystal), who has big dreams, and the talented slacker, Sully (John Goodman), who is more brawn than brains. As you may have already guessed, the story progresses in the usual way. The two go from being enemies to respecting each other’s differences. Adversity is overcome and we all learn a lesson or two about the unique value of every individual, regardless of their physical limitations.
Basically, you’ve seen this movie a million times before and, while the animation is admittedly very good, there’s really nothing else special about it. The traditional “prequel syndrome” also rears its head, with as many characters from Monsters Inc. (2001) being referenced as possible, which serves only to weaken the original film by providing far more background than is necessary.
To put it another way, Monster’s University should never have been made. However, I will admit that, if you’re a young kid, you may very well love this movie. But if you happen to be a parent who grew up watching the original, you’re likely going to be very disappointed. The emotional depth just isn’t there, replaced instead by feel-good clichés that allow parents to pat themselves on the back because, after all, their kid is learning a moral lesson by watching this babysitter.
Looking at the docket, it seems like Pixar is set to release at least one feature every year. I’d love for them to come back with a real knockout. I want them to be the old Pixar again. But I wouldn’t place bets on that happening. I think this may be the end of Pixar Animation Studios as we know it. Sure, they’ll go on to make some good movies, but I don’t know if we’ll ever see them make a timeless classic ever again. It pains me to say that, because no one in the animation world presently wows like the old Pixar used to.