Back to School, by Tyler Smith
The first rule of sequels (aside from “Proceed with Caution”) should concern necessity. Is this film necessary? Does it add to the original movie? Does it further develop these characters and their world? Are we really interested in returning to this story, or is it just a money grab?
Pixar’s track record with sequels has been, in my opinion, mixed. Of course, it has hit it out of the park with the Toy Story films. But Cars 2 more than negates any good choices the studio made with those films. Cars 2 not only reeked of financial opportunism, but actually served to detract from the original film. In an attempt to build onto the simplicity of the original Cars universe, the sequel rendered everything ultimately pointless.
So, it was with great trepidation that I approached Monsters University, the prequel to Monsers, Inc. Prequels are even more precarious, because there is the possibility of a loss of stakes. After all, we know what’s going to happen eventually, so how are the filmmakers going to keep us interested? For a good portion of the film, this was my complaint. As we see a young, nerdy Mike Wazowski enrolling in the titular college, intent on becoming a premiere “scarer,” I couldn’t help but sigh. I knew that Mike doesn’t wind up as a scarer, so how could I possibly be invested in his story?
Thankfully, the film uses our knowledge of Mike’s eventual fate to imbue the character with a tragic element. There is nothing that he wants more in the world than to do this one thing; really the only thing that is valued in the monster world. And yet we know not only that he won’t go on to do it, but we know that he can’t do it. He simply isn’t scary. And as the character becomes more and more dejected, we become sadder and sadder, because we know that there will be no miraculous turnaround. He will not achieve his goal.
But, wait! We then remember that the first film ends with the monsters realizing that they can power their city more through eliciting laughter from children then through screams. And suddenly Mike Wazowski is seen as valuable. Of course, he always was valuable, as a hard worker and a loyal friend; it just took the rest of the world a while to catch up. But it is in this film, as he comes face to face with who he really is, that he recognizes his true worth.
And so we find that Monsters University is very necessary indeed. It adds to the world of the first film by expanding its universe and stable of fun characters, but also thematically. When we put the two movies together, we see the fascinating and inspiring arc of Mike Wazowski, the quirky little monster that nobody believed in.
Of course, the film is also about the budding friendship between Mike and Sully, his much scarier frat brother. These two begin as enemies, but soon develop a grudging respect for one another. And, while this is first and foremost Mike’s film, Sully’s story is also quite effective. Coming from a long line of dependable scarers, he plans to simply trade on the family name and his natural gifts to coast through college. When he discovers that this won’t be so easy, he is suddenly, for the first time in his life, put in the position of having to really put in an effort. And suddenly Mike, who has tried to make up for his physical shortcomings through constant, obsessive study, becomes valuable and the two strike up a tentative friendship. And we know from the first film that this friendship of necessity will blossom into quite possibly the most important relationship either monster has ever had.
There are also a number of new characters added to the film. Some are more developed than others, but they are all used very well and help add an atmosphere of fun and novelty to the film. This is college, after all, and it is meant to be a time of discovery and wonder. And we see how each new character, either through their help or their hindrance, shape Mike and Sully into the monsters they will eventually become.
Monsters University is a prequel that, at almost every turn, asserts its own necessity. It builds on the world of the previous film, both artistically and thematically, while also maintaining a distinct air of originality. All as a function of a film that really didn’t demand a sequel. But that more than anything is what fascinates me most about this movie; it takes a sequel that nobody was asking for, and makes it positively vital.