Monsters University and the recent history of kids films

Posted: July 20, 2013 in Film

Monsters University, the 14th offering from Disney’s Pixar Animation Studios in the last 18 years, is nothing revolutionary. But this was to be expected from a studio that has been enormously successful within the last two decades by sticking to tried-and-tested formulae.

That’s not a criticism per se – this latest addition to Disney animation canon is nowhere near the worst of the films it has produced, or even the films that Pixar have produced. It is entertaining and well-worth checking out if, like me, you have fond memories of the first film in the series, Monsters Inc. Granted, it is a bit safe, not particularly edgy, and has the classic flaw of any prequel – tension is limited by the fact that you know the main characters come out of the end OK (though despite this, it still doesn’t quite end the way you might expect).

Having said that, though, it’s not among the best Pixar films. It was always going to be difficult to match the original, as is usually the case with prequels and sequels. And after the enormous success Pixar had in matching Toy Story with films of the quality of Toy Stories 2 and 3, perhaps it is a little disappointing that they haven’t.

Many years from now, Pixar will indelibly be associated with the Toy Story series first and foremost. But many others have already had plenty to say on it and I don’t intend to go over old ground – we all know they are great films. Instead, I want to talk about Monsters Inc and how that fits in to the history of Disney and children’s films.

I find this hard to believe but Monsters Inc was released 12 years ago, on 2nd November 2001. It was Pixar’s fourth feature length animated film, but was quite different to the previous three – Toy Stories 1 and 2 and A Bug’s Life. While the Toy Story films could be said to be self-aware to a degree and included the odd reference for adults, Monsters Inc took this to a new level – this wasn’t just a kids film, but a family film, something anyone could laugh or cry at. Unlike the previous films, it didn’t seem to take itself especially seriously and was clearly playing with audience expectations.

It just so happens that Monsters Inc came out in the same year as Shrek, which had been released in May. Shrek has been cited as a revolutionary film, not just for upping the game with its CGI but also for its jokes and cultural references aimed at adults and turning the traditional fairytale on its head by focusing on an ogre, traditionally considered a “bad guy”. Monsters Inc following shortly after, even though it had been in the works for some time, started the shift. At the time they were released, both were radical, revolutionary films and equally influential on the industry – in my opinion, Monsters Inc is slightly superior overall.

It’s difficult to conceive this now because there have been so many imitations since, but if you look back through the history of animated films, it becomes easier to see how big a change this was.

In the years leading up to Pixar’s revolution, Disney was still making serious traditional animated films. Everyone remembers the triumph of The Lion King, likely to be heralded as the last truly great hand-drawn film for the rest of eternity. But Walt Disney Animation Studios continued to churn out the hits, even though reviews were a little more mixed. Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules – these were the films that appeared when I was growing up, when I loved Disney films. I missed the boat on Mulan and Tarzan as I’d grown up a bit by then, but the latter in particular is still considered a very strong film, done very seriously and traditionally. Meanwhile, Dinosaur and Atlantis: The Lost Empire will likely join the list of Disney films we forget, or Disney would like to forget, like The Black Cauldron (the Welsh one!), Treasure Planet and the racist one.

Now it would be wrong to establish a narrative that states “animated films not taking themselves seriously/making an alternative take on an old format started with Shrek”. There were hints before that. The first of these was 1988’s Oliver & Company. Based on Dickens’ Oliver Twist and featuring guest turns from Billy Joel and Ruth Pointer, it was Disney’s big budget attempt at revitalising their fortunes, which had been on the wane since the mid-1970s, and make themselves more “streetwise” and relevant again. It was also meant to tackle their new rivals, the alliance between Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and Sullivan Bluth Studios, who had challenged Disney’s superiority with hits An American Tail and The Land Before Time. It didn’t work – the film made money but the critics didn’t like it. But on the plus side, it does have one of the best Disney songs ever in Joel’s “Why Should I Worry?”

Following that, the so-called Disney Renaissance came with better “straight” films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, but at the same time, Aladdin featured Robin Williams as a particularly eccentric Genie, while in response to the success of that, Hercules and The Emperor’s New Groove both ramped up the zaniness to 11, perhaps being aimed at slightly older kids.

But there’s no denying that 2001 was the year of the big shift – two decisively brilliant, game-changing films that have totally shifted the direction of animation. Traditionally-animated films died a quick death, with the quirky Lilo & Stitch (another of those not-taking-itself-seriously films) the only major hand-drawn success of the early 2000s, and the technique only been resurrected since as a gimmick, as with The Princess and the Frog. Today there are very few “straight” animated kids films – the dreadful Barbie films are an exception.

There have been so many films done in a similar style, we’re at the point where it’s difficult to remember what the “pre-Shrek era” was once like – the “old story done modern/funny/in reverse” seems to be a go-to format for children’s film studios at the moment. Likewise, focusing on the traditional “bad guy” as an anti-hero has become commonplace with the likes of Megamind and Despicable Me. It makes it feel as if every film has to be a parody of something.

As well as this, every kids blockbuster has to include well-known actors as the voices of the characters, jokes and cultural references to appeal to the whole family. This is all the result of the success of Shrek and Monsters Inc, two films which broke the mould and made their respective studios a lot of money.

For me, this “new” style of animated film has become quite old quite quickly, a classic case of mass culture taking a good idea and bludgeoning it to death. What was initially a good idea because it was original is now anything but because every film from Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks and the rest is at pains to not take itself seriously.

I do wonder if these films are going to look very dated in a decade or two, not just because CGI is progressing so much but also because if Hollywood animation moves away from the “alternative take” film, you’ll be able to point at these films and say “these were made between 2001 and 2015 (or whenever)”.

Also, what happens to the next generation of children who grow up watching the Shrek films while skipping the films that the original was parodying, or at least see them out of context. Are they going to grow up missing the point? Or are we preparing the ground for some new films in about 25-30 years time parodying the parodies?

I suppose the point is, and I’ll be brutally honest here, I don’t know if I as an adult should be enjoying a children’s film, because they are for children. Surely what they should be aiming for is to please the kids first, and then worry about the adults later on.

It does seem a bit cynical. Yes, Pixar make great films and so do the other studios following this pattern, but they are sticking to this formula because it’s a money-maker – adults will be more willing to take their kids to the cinema or buy them the DVD and merchandise if they approve of the film, which they will if they have made an effort to including jokes for adults, and it also keeps the critics sweet.

I’m sure this is the pragmatic reason behind the shift, which is probably rooted in generational change – Western society is more casual and easy-going now than it was when, say, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was released, so viewers watch in the expectation that they will laugh or cry or be surprised. The problem is once you start expecting this, surely you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment. When are we going to hit a point where the public starts getting bored of these films? When are the studios going to hit a point where they cannot keep up the level of creativity, as is usually the case with great artists and artistic groups, and start to suffer from collective burn-out?

But then a film like Monsters University comes along and it gives you faith again. Yes, it’s still sticking to that same formula, but it doesn’t go over the top. It’s funny without appearing desperate to keep the adults happy. Pixar know how to measure it – Toy Story 3 also proved that they know when to scale back on the zaniness, and can introduce some tenderness too. This is what sets the studio’s films apart from those of DreamWorks (responsible for Shrek, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon and others) Fox’s Blue Sky Studios (Ice Age and Rio), Universal’s Illumination (Despicable Me and The Lorax) and even Disney’s own CGI film department (Bolt, Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph).

Monsters University might not be Pixar’s greatest or best creation, but it’s still well ahead of the competition. The university setting gives it an original angle, it makes enough nods to the original without overloading it, and most importantly, it has soul. If Pixar’s own burn-out is indeed inevitable, it hasn’t begun yet.

Images used in the spirit of fair use


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