Will Pixar still make the grade at Monsters University?
Pixar’s monster hits, such as Monsters Inc, Toy Story and Up, have set the bar high for the company. So with disappointing films of late, is the once-great Pixar slipping?
If Pixar is encountering a crisis then it is the sort of crisis most studios would savour. Monsters University, the company’s latest animation, is already a huge smash in the United States. It has, in just three weeks, accumulated $120 million and, profiting from the longevity that characterises family films, will almost certainly hang around to register a top-five finish in the final 2013 charts. This week that prequel to Monsters Inc advances aggressively on Irish cinemas. It will lay waste before it. Every one of Pixar’s 14 features has debuted at the number one spot in the US. As James Callaghan didn’t really say: crisis, what crisis?
Well, Pixar began by setting itself the highest standards. So, it is only fair that we judge its output by those imposing values.
Scrupulous about honing scripts to perfection, cautious of dumbing down to children or their parents, the company – under the benign dictatorship of John Lasseter – launched itself into features with the divine Toy Story in 1995.
Watch the trailer - Monsters University
Over the succeeding 15 years, Pixar stumbled just once. Toy Story 2 was as good as sequels get. The Incredibles lived up to its title. Finding Nemo is among the best of all family films. Only Cars, released to the studio’s first indifferent reviews in 2006, came across as anything less than a classic. Never fear. Up, WALL-E and Toy Story 3 followed to restore the studio’s reputation. It looked as if quality control would never slip.
And then it did. Cars 2, released in 2011, is the company’s first (and, to date, only) unmitigated turkey. Disinterring the charmless anthropomorphic vehicles from the first part and sending them to various underperforming markets – Japan, London, Paris – the picture played like a cynical advertisement for its own merchandise.
Last year’s Brave was much better but, troubled by “creative disagreements” during production, the Scottish epic didn’t achieve the standard set by those earlier ground-breaking entertainments.
Monsters University is all right. Taking the heroes back to their college days, Dan Scanlon’s picture scares up some very good jokes, features a neat character arc and makes good use of its voice talent. But, unlike the second and third Toy Story features, it doesn’t exactly redefine what we expect from a sequel. It’s funny and imaginative but, if truth be told, it’s not as funny and imaginative as the recent Despicable Me 2 from young pretenders Illumination Entertainment.
So, here’s the accusation: Pixar has delivered three films, none of which is absolutely in the top flight. Charles Dickens had worse streaks. So did the Beatles. And their reputations have weathered the ages quite effectively. But, for a studio that seemed untouchable for a decade and a half, this does begin to look like a worrying slump. Scanlon, just 37, seems reasonably comfortable with the pressure that’s been put on his shoulders. He is easily young enough to have regarded the Pixar founders as idols when progressing through art college. Now he finds himself attempting to follow up one of the great streaks in movie history.
“I try not to think about that,” he says. “Certainly, when I was making the movie, I tried just to focus on the story and not to get into other stuff. I certainly still try and do that.”
Pixar has always functioned a little like a collective. Andrew Stanton, director of Finding Nemo, was also a writer on Toy Story and did voice work on The Incredibles. Pete Docter, director of Up and Monsters Inc, has a story credits on another four Pixar movies. And so on.