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.

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.

So Scanlon can surely tell us if any sort of panic is setting in at Pixar. Did the hierarchy notice that Cars 2 was absolutely panned by the critics and took less money than The Smurfs at that year's box office.

"Cars 2 still did really well," Scanlon notes. "We try and not think that way. We are happy with how the film did. I think, again, the trick is to focus on your film and not get too caught up in comparing this one and that one. You just focus on your stuff and try to not get too carried away with the rest."

Scanlon is, of course, correct when he says that Cars 2 "did really well". The film took over half a billion dollars and managed (just) to make it into the top 10 for 2011. But, again, we run up against the high standards Pixar set for itself two decades ago. A year before Cars 2 was released, Toy Story 3 topped the year's box-office and became the 11th biggest picture of all time. More importantly, cinemagoers loved the characters and embraced the story.

It is, perhaps, best to write off the Cars debacle as a Lasseter whim. As the director of Toy Story and the company's founding father, he can be permitted his baffling obsession with talking vehicles. (To put your mind at rest, the upcoming Planes, an uninviting spin-off from Cars, is not an official Pixar release).

But the creative slowdown elsewhere does cause one to wonder if steam is leaking from the Pixar boiler room. The test will come next year when The Good Dinosaur is released. It's not a sequel. Bob Peterson, who co-directed the magnificent Up, is at the helm. Enrico Casarosa, who gave us the lovely short La Luna, is among the writers. It is, indeed, about dinosaurs. After that, we get Finding Dory, a sequel to Finding Nemo. We don't ask much, Pixar. All we demand is that the films both be masterpieces. If that sounds unreasonable then you only have yourselves to blame. You should have started out in shabbier fashion.

yyy Monsters University is reviewed on page 13


1. UP (2009)
Seems better with every passing year.
A perfect blend of pathos and humour. The summary of Carl Fredricksen's life is
a small masterpiece
in itself.

2. WALL-E (2008)
Okay, the second half wasn't as good as the opening section. So what. The scenes on the lovable drone's derelict planet were as strong as anything in world cinema. Really.

3. FINDING NEMO (2003)
So many characters. So many life lessons. So many hilarious situations. A perfect illustration of the Pixar aesthetic in action.

4. TOY STORY 2 (1999)
The Pixar team defied all expectation and managed to prove that a sequel can improve on even the most illustrious predecessor.

5. TOY STORY (1995)
It is no exaggeration to say that the first feature from Pixar is among the most important pictures in the history of cinema. In 1995, it still seemed faintly crazy to compose an entire film on computers. So long ago.