It’s hard to say no to Pixar when the animation studio invites you to its major national and international press day. Pixar Animation Studios, situated a mere three miles from UC Berkeley’s campus, opened up its own collegiate affair, “Monsters University.” Inspired by 2001’s “Monsters, Inc.,” Pixar is premiering the prequel, thus bringing back everyone’s favorite monsters: Mike Wazowski, the one-eyed green ball of comedy, and James P. “Sulley” Sullivan, the furry gentle giant. The narrative follows Mike’s backstory through adolescence and through his dreams of becoming a scarer at Monsters University. Allied THA, an advertising and marketing headquarters, coordinated and led a group of 20 writers from around the world to participate in every child’s dream of roaming the animation dynasty.
Upon walking onto Pixar’s grounds, I noticed that employees travel via scooters and skateboards. The all-brick buildings made for an aesthetic uniformity not entirely unfamiliar to many academic acropolises. Once ushered into the theatre where the film’s creators watch “dailies,” the unedited raw footage of the movie in progress, we were introduced to the directors and producer of “Monsters University.” The space was exquisite, filled with light wooden chairs with red cushions. As the lights dimmed, the ceiling opened up into a starry night, a detail so easily taken for granted. However, the best part of all were the light-manipulated shooting stars. They were seamlessly exhibited onscreen by the famous Disney castle. A single shooting star hit the last twinkle. This blurred the line between screen space and viewing space.
“The Blue Umbrella,” the newest Pixar short, preceded “Monsters University.” “The Blue Umbrella” is the first short of its kind. For those unfamiliar with Pixar shorts, they play out much like a short story in that they can be viewed quickly. They also follow a linear narrative. Though Pixar shorts have characteristically quaint aesthetics, they are also innovative in image, design and technology. Realism was the star of “The Blue Umbrella.” Director Saschka Unseld did a great job of surprising audiences when bringing the animation to life (the film is uncannily realistic). Unseld intentionally made the short in a nondescript city so as to make the short accessible to all audiences. There are pieces of New York, San Francisco and Paris in the city streets. Without giving too much away, the film comes to life as a most serendipitous opening to a monster world unveiling.
“Monsters University” immediately brings us into the monster world within the first 10 seconds via a carrier pigeon. What we see as banal is taken out of familiarity when the pigeon turns to its side and becomes an evil-looking two-headed bird. The camera then catches onto and tracks a shot of a yellow school bus, with “Frighton Elementary” written across the sides, until it comes to a halt. None other than Wasowski, our favorite green ball of hilarity, emerges. He descends the steps of the school bus as a much smaller, more juvenile version of the older Wazowski with whom we are familiar (he even rocks a retainer). Just in these two initial scenes, it is apparent how far Pixar has come since the last installment. The colors are brighter, the animation crisper, and there is a clear sophistication in technology and in the concept of cultivating a past for characters we thought we already knew thoroughly.
Naturally, MU’s campus is heavily inspired by universities all around the U.S. but most noticeably by UC Berkeley. Three distinct landmarks showcase our world lodged into theirs. There is a Doe Library, Campanile and Sather Gate — our prides and joys monstrafied but still recognizable. Along with every campus comes a population of students. Pixar’s big technical challenge for MU was creating a population of 300 students, each individually designed, articulated and shaded. In “Monsters University,” the lives of monsters parallel the lives of humans. The film draws the same social divides as any collegiate culture. There is a mishmash of jocks, brains and fresh meat, and all are intimidated by professors, thus perpetuating the comedy that arises thanks to the existence of diverse social cliques. The 12-year gap for the prequel could not come at a more opportune time. As a child of 10 at the “Monsters, Inc.” debut, it is now at the end of my own academic experience that I will have seen “Monster’s University.” The generation that saw the “Monsters, Inc.” theatrical release is now in university (or, if they were particularly young at the time of the release, they are now working their way toward college).
Though I had only a taste of the first 40 minutes of MU, I know the last 50 will be just as gratifying. The filmmakers were fully aware of the challenge of making a movie in which everyone knows the ending. Yet it is the journey to the end that makes “Monsters University” so promising. The audience’s sincere affinity and devotion to Mike and Sulley are permanent, and as these characters remain, we get to see where they came from, even if we know where they are going.
Contact Shanna Holako at [email protected].