- Composed by Randy Newman
- Walt Disney Records / 2013 / 56m
A prequel to the delightful Monsters, Inc., Monsters University tells the story of the younger days of Mike and Sulley, voiced again by Billy Crystal and John Goodman. This time the story is of how they learned their scaring, fostered their friendship and encounter various mishaps along the way. It still feels a bit odd seeing Pixar do sequels (or in this case a prequel) but at least it’s a return to familiar territory after the disappointing Brave and the early reviews have been decent.
Returning for his seventh score for Pixar is Randy Newman. I think it’s fair to say that you know what you’re going to get from a Pixar score by Randy Newman – there’s a continuity of style there that is absolute. You also know that you’re going to get wit, style, charm and a whole lot of class – and I’m pleased to report that Monsters University is full of all those things from start to finish. There can have been few, if any, such sustained expressions of joy in the history of film music as that provided by Newman in these scores.
The score opens with the delightful collegiate marching band style main theme, featuring the drum corps The Blue Devils alongside the brass. “Young Michael” introduces a couple of the score’s main themes, including a particularly sweet friendship theme which is vintage Newman/Pixar. It also reintroduces us to the familiar delights of Newman’s sound – generally fast-paced and frenetic, but with a remarkable clarity to the orchestration and incredible performances from the Hollywood musicians. “First Day at MU” introduces another of the score’s major themes, a violin soloist elegantly playing the deliberately melodramatic piece; though before long we’re on to a fully orchestral, no-holds-barred arrangement of the main theme; then something else; then something else. As ever, Newman packs so much in here, there’s always a danger of it becoming tiresome to the listener – but such is his skill, each idea seems held just long enough for it to never be an issue. If you don’t like Mickey Mousing, you won’t like it, but I’m sure you knew that already; and this is the best kind of Mickey Mousing, done with an extraordinary amount of class.
“Dean Hardcastle” introduces more sinister music for the university’s dean, voiced by Helen Mirren. It’s beautifully macabre. This contrasts with “Sulley” which follows, which possesses a laid-back, languorous sound just perfect for the character. “Scare Pig” is the first big piece of action music in the score and again it’s just wonderful. Newman, droll as ever, described the piece as such: “‘There’s a little bit of Brahms Academic Festival Overture when Mike is riding the pig. I like to think Brahms would be extremely flattered by his inclusion in the score.”
“Washed Potential” somehow seamlessly goes from a lounge style (with Hammond organ) to a genuinely touching piano theme to more collegiate brass. “Oozma Kappa” is a collection of shorter vignettes, kinds of paeans to campus life, whose unstinting sincerity makes them all the wittier. “Stinging Glow Urchin” is another of those tracks where you don’t quite know how he does it, yet somehow Newman moves from more of that macabre scary music to big band action music without skipping a beat. It is utterly, unfailingly delightful.
The vast majority of music in the score is new, but there is a little material carried over from Monsters, Inc. “Field Trip” offers a reprise of the fanfare from that score’s “Enter the Heroes”, then a lovely rendition of this score’s friendship theme, before offering the familiar sound of some of the action music from the previous score’s trips into the human world. The wonderful, rousing “Rise and Shine” opens with a reappearance of the drum corps, then comes a quite brilliant brassy new theme, a march that’s Sousa-via-Williams (in particular one short segment sounds much like 1941) – it’s not just the highlight of this score, it’s easily the most memorable new piece of film music so far in 2013.
The lengthy “The Scare Games” is another highlight, an extended piece featuring all sorts of fun marching band music and heroic sporting underscore, including lots and lots of that fantastic march theme. “Human World” sees a return of the action music heard earlier in “Field Trip”, then the thrills get still stronger in “The Big Scare”, a dynamic and rousing piece of action. “Goodbyes” is, perhaps unsurprisingly, truly touching and really quite beautiful, the friendship theme getting a full airing which is really quite gut-wrenching. “Mike and Sulley” offers one final version of the march before “Monsters University”, a choral version of the alma mater song.
Disappointingly, there’s no new song from Newman here (the college anthem doesn’t count!) – even though he won an Oscar for “If I Didn’t Have You” from the previous film. However, there is a new track by Axwell and Sebastian Ingrosso – of Swedish House Mafia – called “Roar”. It’s OK for what it is – house music – but sticking it right in the middle seems a rather injudicious decision, it clearly should have been left till the end.
Monsters University is an absolute delight. It’s charming, witty, supremely well-orchestrated and performed. From first moment to last, it’s designed with one thing in mind – joy. It achieves that aim and then some, leaving a giant grin on the listener’s face. Randy Newman’s primary career as a singer/songwriter shouldn’t detract from the fact that there are few film composers quite so adept at using an orchestra; and fewer still quite so adept at so consistently and so successfully filling their scores with such unbridled happiness. This is the most wonderful film score of 2013 so far.
Rating: **** 1/2